Maybe Your Hamstrings AREN’T Tight
There are a few secrets to getting the best performance from your hamstring muscles. One secret is that many times when our “hamstrings feel tight”, what may feel like a tight hamstring is actually a different part of the body that is tight (like your hips or calves) that is affecting the hamstrings. This is important to note because we’ve all experienced the uncomfortable consequences of overstretching (which includes stretching a muscle that didn’t need to be stretched) and it’s never pleasant. Another secret is knowing the difference between “tight” and “weak”… Because often when it seems like our hamstrings are tight and need to be stretched, what may really be happening is that they are weak and need to be strengthened.
What Is A Hamstring?
Hamstrings are a group of three posterior muscles at the back of the thigh, named the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris muscles. Each of these muscles is called a “hamstring”. Our hamstrings crossover and therefore serve two different joints in our bodies: the hip and the knee. Hamstrings work together to bend your knees, extend your hips, and tilt your pelvis. Each hamstring originates from the lower pelvis, travels across the back of the thigh, and then attaches around the knee. Because of the important and multi-faceted roles they serve, a hamstring injury, while it may not be classified as “serious”, can have dramatic consequences for an athlete.
What Causes a Hamstring Injury?
Hamstring injuries are fairly common, especially in persons involved in fitness and sports. Why? The main reason for an injured hamstring is not that it needs more stretching, as many might say, but in fact the opposite: it is most likely overstretched, and weak than surrounding muscle groups. The explanation for this in a lot of cases is simply that athletes and fitness aficionados often make the mistake of over strengthening their quads, for example, and neglecting their hamstrings. In other cases, hamstring injuries may arise from a pelvis that is not stabilized or is off-kilter.
Having strong hamstrings is crucial for a stabilized pelvis, and vice versa. You can try this self-test at home to check if your pelvis is off-kilter:
- Take off your shoes, and stand in a neutral position. The neutral standing position is with your feet hip-width apart and your knees “soft”, but not bent or locked.
- Place both of your hands on your hips.
- Now imagine that your hands are placed around the rim of a bucket. If your bucket is “tilted forward”, your hips have an anterior tilt. If your bucket is “tilted backward”, your hips have a posterior tilt.
The ideal position for a pelvis is neutral, or with the “bucket upright”.
Hamstring Strengthening Exercises
The Romanian or Stiff-Legged Deadlift
The deadlift is a wonderfully effective method of isolating the hamstrings for strengthening.
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and hold a barbell in front of your thighs. Your grip should be overhand on the barbell, with your chest lifted and your spine neutral.
- Bend or hinge forward from the hips, and slide the barbell down your legs until it reaches your shins. During this, you should be pushing your glutes backward, and your back should be straight.
- Repeat these steps in reverse to return to your starting position.
If you feel the exercise is placing an uncomfortable strain on your lower back, consider using the one-legged variation.
The Kettlebell Swing
Once popular in times past, the kettlebell swing fell out of popularity in the United States with the invention of exercise machines like the Nautilus. But it’s making a strong comeback now, and we’re all glad! It’s one of the most versatile exercises that you can add to any fitness routine, and it’s a great way to strengthen your hamstrings (bonus: your hammies won’t be the only muscles that benefit from this exercise). Because the kettlebell swing is one of those exercises that is fantastic if you nail it and can be harmful if you don’t, here are some detailed instructions to get you on your way to hamstring heaven.
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and place the kettlebell slightly in front of you on the ground.
- Hinge forward from the hips, and bend downwards slowly towards the kettlebell. During this you should be pushing your glutes backward, your abs should be locked, and your back should be straight.
- Grab the kettlebell handle. Keeping your shoulders down and away from your ears, swing the kettlebell backward (like you’d hike like a football). During this, you should be focusing your eyes on just a few feet in front of you, and your wrists will stay level with your groin (don’t swing too low, your wrists should not drop below your knees).
- When it’s time to transition into the upswing, reverse direction by standing up forcefully (don’t forget to maintain a strong spine and locked abs). Note: don’t lift the kettlebell with your arms, the force for the upward swing should come from your hip snap.
- When the kettlebell reaches about chest height, let the momentum stop (it will feel weightless for a moment) and then let the weight fall down naturally.
When you’re focused on strengthening your hamstrings, some other great exercises to accomplish this are the barbell back squat, Bulgarian split squat, glute-ham raise, leg curl, bridge, and hip thrust. By investing a little bit of time and effort into the hamstring muscle group, you will be doing yourself a great favor in terms of reducing injury and increasing strength and flexibility – across the entire fitness and sports spectrums.