Are Your Hamstrings Holding You Back?

Written by Brenna Bulach

When it comes to being a well-rounded gym rat, it’s difficult to make sure that all of our muscle groups develop evenly to prevent imbalances. Usually the more aesthetic muscle groups steal all the attention – the quads, deltoids, abs – and  there’s an extremely important group of muscles that often gets forgotten.

Does your butt rise up first when you deadlift? Do you get low back and hip pain? Have you had a knee injury or have constant knee pain? Then it’s possible your hamstrings aren’t as strong as they need to be. Granted, there are a million other things in our body that could be contributing to those problems. There are also several major muscle groups that work in conjunction with the hammies that could be the real trigger (sleepy glutes, for example). BUT, if you’re sick of feeling like a creaky senior citizen every time you get out of a chair, strengthening your hammies could be a game changer.

What are your hamstrings?

First, I want to give a good visual of where the hamstring muscles are. There are three muscles of this group (I will not describe separately for this article), which primarily originate at the ischial tuberosity, or the sit bones, of the pelvis. They run down the back of the upper leg and insert into the bones of the lower leg (tibia and fibula). So they are a big muscle group that connects your hips to your lower legs by wrapping closely around your knee.

The hamstring muscles serve several purposes in hip and knee movement. Their main functions are to bend your knee and to allow for inward and outward rotation of the leg. They aid in hip extension by moving the upper leg backwards, even though the glutes are the main engine during hip extension. And finally, they work with the quads to stabilize the knee joint.

Why do we care about hamstring strength?

Weakness in the hamstrings not only compromise the actually hamstring muscles, but can also create problems elsewhere in the body. The hamstrings are incredibly important in hip and spine alignment. They play a big role in balance and symmetry of the body. We live in a gym/sport culture where the muscle groups on the anterior side of the body are often more highly developed and used more frequently. In many people, the quadriceps are a very dominant and developed muscle group, such that relative weakness in the hamstrings make us more susceptible to knee injuries, particularly ACL tears. And finally, the hamstrings are incredibly important in movements such as squats and deadlifts, and strengthening these muscles may be the key to unlocking strength in these lifts = it’s PR time, baby.

How do we target them during workouts?

There are three main ways we can focus on our hamstrings while working out:

Compound Lifts
Squats, deadlifts, olympic lifts, etc. All of these lifts require careful stabilization of the knee and extension of the knees and hips. The higher the knee flexion in these lifts (a.k.a. the deeper you squat), the greater range of motion we have. When our ROM is bigger, we have longer hamstrings, which allows for better hamstring strength adaptation, and ultimately STRONGER HAMMIES! Concentrating on performing all lifts to their full range of motion (as your mobility allows) will allow for your hamstrings to better adapt and grow.

Isolation exercises
Probably better known as bodybuilding movements. These are going to be isolation movements that specifically target the hamstrings without much exertion by other muscles. Some of the movements listed below actually do involve multiple joints, but the main focus would be on the hamstrings.

  1. You can build hamstring strength by doing exercises where you forcefully bend the knee (concentric flexion). Exercises would include most variations on the hamstring curl (med ball curls, banded curls, Nordic curls, etc). Holding the contracted position for 1-2 seconds will target the point in the movement where the hamstrings are usually the weakest. The GHD machine is also a great addition.
  2. You can decelerate knee flexion by doing movements like split squats or lunges. For these, slow down when lowering your knee to the floor so that the leg is lowered under complete control. This will help build strength for movements like soccer or rugby, where the foot meets a solid object and the hamstring has to contract to generate force during kicking.
  3. Light standing movements can also be used to isolate the hamstrings. While heavy deadlifts are a compound movement and will absolutely build the hamstrings, doing them at lighter weight during stiff-legged deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts, will help make sure that other muscle groups don’t take over (because the lower back likes to do that). Doing these movements one leg at a time (single-leg RDLs)  is also a great way to fix imbalances between the right and left sides.

Dynamic Sport Movements 
These are exercises with a more functional application to sports and moving activities. Things like: single leg hops, balancing activities, bounding, progressive sprinting, and kettle swings, will all contribute to building hamstring strength during dynamic movement. Making sure to work both sides evenly is important, as is keeping weights light and speed moderate until the hamstrings adapt and are under full control throughout all parts of the movements.

All three methods of hamstring development are important in strengthening all three muscles of the hamstrings, reducing your chance of injury, and busting through plateaus. Don’t forget, it’s always important to stretch and lengthen tight hammies (which occur often in conjunction with tight hip flexors). If they are too tight, they will pull the hip forward, causing low back pain, and pulling on the knee joint.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, king of bodybuilding, would constantly remind lifters that the power of the mind was the most important part of growing a muscle. He would concentrate on every single rep, visualizing that muscle as he used it.
In my mind I saw my biceps as mountains, enormously huge, and I pictured myself lifting tremendous amounts of weight with these superhuman masses of muscle.

I’d take a hamstring mountain any day.

-Brenna Bulach

Brenna Bulach is a coach at Performance360. She finished 5th at the IPL Worlds in 2016, is a USPA State Referee, has IPL Elite Raw Designation, and qualified for USAPL Nationals in 2017. She is also a Level 2 USA Weightlifting Coach.