Good morning, afternoon, evening, or night my friends. The time is not important, what is important is that you’re here to follow up on what we started a couple of days ago. As you know Tuesdays and Thursdays are devoted to the eternal quest of better understanding how our muscles work so we can then train them to gain the results we desire. Muscle mass, power, and detail are the prizes we all seek, so join me here every week to continue our journey through the various regions of musculature and the conquering of new challenges with our newfound knowledge. Knowledge is power after all.
I said eternal just now, and I meant exactly that. Not only is the burning fire of desire deep within us all forever stoked and roaring to drive us forward with our ambitions, but the knowledge and information is endless as well. Just because we will wrap up hamstrings this week, don’t think that the subject is now completed and therefore closed. Oh no my friends, not even close.
At this corner of the internet the gathering of information is a 24 hour job, and there will always be a never ending well of new and fun learning’s and teaching’s to share. Some of which will no doubt come from you as we continue forward, and you begin to share more of your experiences with me. I am getting a little ahead of myself so let me reel this in a bit, and get on with the meat of this meal: the warm-up, training and post training care of our hamstrings – to be continued from the first part of Hamstrings: Explosive Power Muscles.
Now that we are well versed in the names of the four muscles of the, those being the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, and the biceps formis, both the short and long head. All of these muscles except the short head of the biceps formis cross both the hip and and the knee. As such the muscles of the hamstrings are responsible for knee flexion and hip extension. Those functions will of course dictate where the training of these muscles should begin, but first let’s discuss something of greater importance-warming up the hamstrings to prepare them for training.
This muscle is one of the ones that I always take the time to stretch and prepare the tissue for what is coming next-even if I’m not training them that day. You’ll see me going through my posterior chain, warm-up seven days a week. The first thing I do when I get to the gym is grab my foam roller, find a piece of acreage, and spend about 15 minutes getting acquainted with all the aches and pains from training sessions past. As this is a hamstring article, I’ll stick to that. I obsessively roll them, inside and out, with one leg lifted off to put added pressure on the hamstrings, making sure to begin at the glutes, all the way down to the back of the knee. Put one leg on top of the other and give the back of your knee a good roll. You’ll see how tight things are back there, and you’ll see what rolling it daily will do for your range of motion in all things that require your hamstrings. A lot of mobility issues can begin to be addressed with a religious foam rolling regimen.
After the rolling has commenced and the tissue is softened and stimulated it’s time to stretch. Pre training means various dynamic stretches. Alternating leg kick, knees high running, forward and backward lunges and walking toe touches are some examples of hamstring specific dynamic stretches. This only takes about five minutes, meaning that my pre training roll and dynamic stretch takes about 20 minutes. Add in the the post training leg flush and static stretch and that’s an additional ten minutes. I’ll get to the specifics of what happens post when we get there, but my point is that if you’re serious about your training progress and your training longevity then you’ll take the necessary steps to get the most from yourself that you can, and this is my method.
Now that I’m nice and warm as well as loose and the blood is freely flowing thanks to the warm-up, it’s time to get to the training. As stated, one of the functions of the hamstrings is to flex the knee. This obviously is why there are numerous hamstring curl machine options, from standing to seated to lying, you are curling your hamstrings from a variety of angles. I find this to be a great way of shaping your hamstrings, especially the lower hamstrings closer to behind the knee and above, but not particularly useful for building strength, power or mass. As far as etching detail into them goes, these are the go to movements, as well as lying on a bench with a dumbbell held between your feet and curling as if you’re using a lying hamstring curl machine. This has been the exercise I have had the most luck with regarding developing cuts. The control needed due to the weight being free begets a great contraction, as well as the different foot positions needed to balance the weight really tests the strings differently than any other exercise.
There of course is the issue of power and mass. There is no sense in etching detail if there is no mass, and to build some good mass you’re going to need some power in this particular muscle group. This is where the deadlifts come into play. If it’s pure mass you seek, then the straight up, traditional deadlift is going to be your mainstay. If you’re doing this movement with strict technique, a tight low back, starting low with your chest up at all times, shoulders back and blades squeezed together, then it’s a relatively safe exercise to get heavy with. You’ll have the most success in the three to five rep range with this muscle when it comes to building size.
If it’s explosive power that you seek to be used in things like the Olympic lifts, then it’s the Romanian version of the deadlift that you need to do. With the traditional deadlift the knees are bent so it’s knee flexion as well as hip exrension and a healthy amount of the powerful back muscles getting the job done. With the Romanian deadlift it’s pure hip extension moving the weight, and when it comes to power it’s all in the hips. This is achieved in the Romanian deadlift by driving the hips back when the weight is lowered, stopping at mid shin to keep the stress from transferring to the low back, and then exploding back up by drawing the hips in. This is a great movement that I find most effective in the mid to upper rep ranges. Eight to even as high as 20 reps will be of great benefit to your power, not to mention development. There are a couple of others I like as well.
These next two moves are amazing for hitting the hamstrings as well as the glutes. The first is one of my favorite exercises period-the hip thrust. This is best accomplished with your back on a low box or a few steps. I find the best height for the box is roughly the length of your shin, as you want to drive the weight up so your body is flat like a bridge. Then at that point drive the hip through past parallel using your glutes and your hamstrings. An incredible fringe benefit to this exercise it that nothing works your glutes better. Every year mine get higher, I swear it’s true.
The second of these two less orthodox exercises is performed on the back extension station. Grab a 45 or three as I do at times, pile them up and hold the lot of them with the center at your sternum. Keep your upper back really tight and pull these plates in hard to your chest and abdomen. Now begin like you’re doing a back extension, making sure to get a good stretch at the bottom. Here’s the trick, pause at the bottom for a few seconds and then explode back to the starting position by driving your hips forward as forcefully as you can into the pad that is supporting them. This exercise is best performed in the low rep ranges as well. This modified reverse Romanian deadlifts for lack of a better name, is my favorite pure hamstring builder for both size and power. Give them a try and let me know what you think.
The next few exercises are ones that are not considered targeted hamstring exercises, but I find them to be very effective in developing the muscles nonetheless. Now, of course any quad exercise is going to hit the hamstrings as well, but for some reason these ones seem to do an almost equal job on the hamstrings as they do on the quads. They are all single leg exercises as well, so something about having to do all of the work with only one side of the body seems to activate more hamstring activity.
I’m talking about Bulgarian split squats, step ups and walking lunges-both forward and backward. I’ll include one leg squats in this conversation as well. As I just alluded to, the only conclusion I can come to is that the hamstrings are forced to do more stabilizing of the torso, which they have a role in, as well as work harder during both the eccentric and concentric phase of the lift because there is only one limb driving up the entire body. If any of you reading this have any insight to share, or have noticed this same thing, please let me know through the comments or on twitter. I highly doubt I’m alone in this observation.
Now that we have trained our hamstrings, chances are that even with an extended warm-up, by now they are feeling rather tight. This is where a few different methods can be employed to get the lactic acid out, and the muscles limber again after being forced to heavily contract during training. The first step is to do a form of leg flush. Simply get on a piece of cardio equipment, and walk or cycle at a moderate pace for ten minutes to literally flush the built up lactic acid from the working muscles of the the legs. Chances are you have trained your quads as well, so a good flush will benefit both muscle groups.
The next step is to do a quick foam roll of the legs, just to get the blood circulating and to enhance recovery a little bit. Finally after these two are completed, this is the time to do some static stretching. The basic variety of hamstring stretches will do. Basically from a seated position, any form of toe touching type of stretch will help to limber those sensitive hamstrings up enough to allow you to walk around without a grimace on your face. That’s important if you’re dealing with people as part of your job or social life.
Today we talked about the time tested exercises such as the deadlift, the Romanian deadlift, and the hamstring curls. These are the bread and butter of any foundational hamstring training program. I also gave you some alternatives that I like to use, such as dumbbell hamstring curls, hip thrusts, reverse Romanian deadlifts on the back extension station, and the single leg exercises that if done with enough weight will definitely target your hamstrings effectively. We also went over an appropriate warm-up and post training flush and stretch. So for now at least, I think we have covered all that we need to cover for a little while regarding the muscles, their function, and everything involved in training them safely and effectively.
I don’t want to harp on this too much, but this really is a muscle that seems to get out of balance relatively quickly because it is paired with our powerful quads. The quadriceps will happily take on the brunt of the work if given the opportunity. If trained diligently though, avoiding injury is possible through achieving balance as well as adhering to a thorough warm up, and cool down routine. It has been suggested that in order to tell if your hamstrings are properly balanced your front squat should be 85 percent of your back squat. I urge you to give this a try as I find that to be a good gauge of where I’m at regarding the strength balance in the upper thigh.
Next week we will delve into another muscle group and discuss all there is to know and then some, but first join me tomorrow for Fat Loss Friday, where the ongoing discussion of effective fat loss techniques will continue. Until then my friends,