In a previous article, I talked about avoiding a hamstring injury while running sprints. Yes, I believe that dynamic flexibility can play a huge role there, but I also believe that proper strengthening is crucial. Before you train the hamstrings you need to understand what actions they do. The hamstrings work with the glutes to extend the hip. They also help provide stability at the knee. Their primary role in movement is hip extension, where they assist the glutes in performing powerful movements, such as sprinting. Their job at the knee is mainly to provide stability. When you see people do leg curls at the gym, this is knee flexion, which the hamstrings do in isolation. But they don’t work in isolated movements in real life. When someone runs, they place one foot out in front of their body, and when it hits the ground, the hamstrings work with the glutes to push your body forward – hip extension. At this time they are also helping stabilize the knee. When that foot leaves the ground again, is when you see the hamstrings go through knee flexion. At this point, however, they have nothing to pull against, and can’t add any force to propel you forward.
So based on this, training them only with knee flexion (isolation) doesn’t make much sense. Instead you should concentrate on training hip extension, training the glutes to work with the hamstrings. Most of this work should occur with the foot flat on the ground, in a standing position. I will show you some exercises that can be done on a stability ball also, where the heels are in contact with the ball. You need strong hamstrings to do explosive movements and reduce your risk of injury to them. Sometimes though, the hamstrings can become overworked, because your glutes aren’t firing correctly. When the front of the hip (flexors) are too tight, the glutes can become inhibited. This means that they don’t contract as efficiently as they should. This is due to a principle called Reciprocal Inhibition. Basically, muscles on opposite sides of a joint perform opposite movements, such as flexion and extension. When one muscle shortens the other has to relax due to this reflex activity. But when one muscle or muscle group, such as the hip flexors are too tight, usually because of too much sitting, the opposite muscle, the glutes can’t contract very efficiently.
Since the hamstrings assist the glutes in extending the hip, they try to pick up the slack and do some of the glutes’ work. Over time, they can become over worked and develop an injury. So one of the things you need to do is to stretch your hip flexors before you do any strengthening for the glutes and hamstrings. I also believe that you should do some type of work to “activate” the glutes (turn on) before doing strength work. One way to strengthen the hamstrings and glutes together, is a bent knee hip extension using the stability ball. You would start with your back on the floor and knees slightly bent. Push into the ball with your heels lifting your hips off the floor as far as possible, pausing briefly and returning back down while under control. You would do about 8-12 reps, rest briefly and repeat a couple times. This will help teach your hamstrings to work with the glutes in hip extension, while stabilizing at the knee. The muscles of your back also get some work as they stabilize your spine. Don’t try and lift with your back, just hold steady. This is another variation where the feet are placed flat against the ball in a lower starting position. The knees are bent much more, which will strengthen the hamstrings differently than the first exercise.
Again, do 8-12 reps, repeating for a total of 3 sets.
To make both of these harder don’t let your back rest on the ground in between reps, keep your glutes off the ground the whole time. You can also do these with straight legs where you lift your body off the floor and hold steady for 5 seconds. There would be a straight line from your ankles to your chest in this position. This will help strengthen your back, along with your hamstrings and glutes. As you progress through these exercises, when you need more resistance, you can try them one leg at a time. I would suggest doing 3-6 reps at a time with these. For those with lighter bodyweights this may be needed for greater resistance. Other exercises that may be included are reverse hyperextensions, sled pulls, and deadlift variations, including single leg deadlifts. You just want to make sure that you don’t do more work for the quads than you do for the glutes and hamstrings. Having quads that are much stronger increases the risk of injury to the hamstrings when running. As always, try to achieve balance in the body.