Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Strength Training, Part 2: Hamstrings

Last week I wrote a post about the importance and relative easiness of strength work for distance runners. Not crazy circuit training or hours in the gym to get totally ripped; just simple exercises to keep our most important muscle groups balanced and free of overuse injuries.

In this & future posts, I want to share some of the strength exercises I do in case it's helpful to folks who want to get started with it or are just interested in learning about someone else's routine. I don't just want to list a bunch of exercises, though. One of the most valuable parts of going through all the physical therapy I did last year was learning more about how different muscle groups are involved in distance running, how they interact, what the risks are to those muscles, and how the exercises I was learning helped mitigate those risks.

Today's exercises are for hamstrings. Now, I am a total body movement nerd & find all the nuts & bolts & finer physiological points fascinating. But I know that not everyone does, and if you aren't interested in all the how & why & just want to read about my exercises, go ahead and scroll to the bottom; I promise I won't be offended. :)

Cast of Characters

quadsQuads. Our quadriceps are a muscle group made up of four muscles (sartorius, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, and vastus lateralis). Your quads let you straighten your leg at the knee, and also play a role in flexing the hip (raising your knee upward).

hamstringsHamstrings. This muscle group is made up of three muscles -- the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. Your hamstrings bend your leg backward at the knee, and also perform a kind of "braking" function when your quads contract that prevents your knee from hyperextending.

Most muscle groups in the body come in complementary pairs that act on the same joint but pull in opposite directions -- ie, your biceps lets you curl your arm, while your triceps pull in the opposite direction & let you straighten it. The quads and hamstrings are complementary muscle groups -- your quads straighten your knee, & your hamstrings bend it backwards. This is a nice set to start with because the relationship between quads & hamstrings is pretty straightforward (as opposed to the muscles that work the hip, which can move sideways and in circular motions in addition to forward & backwards).

In a perfect world, complementary muscle groups like this would be equally strong & flexible. This wasn't a problem for our ancestors, because millions of years ago we spent our days doing a wide range of physical activities (running, walking, climbing, dancing, carrying things, etc.) that kept everything in balance easily. Nowadays, we do a lot more sitting, and for most of us physical activity is more something we plan and schedule for short periods of free-time than it is a way of life. When we are active, many of us choose one, maybe two activities that we really enjoy and do them to the exclusion of everything else. Whatever muscle groups that activity happens to work get strong, and if the complementary groups are left to languish, it's easy to end up with one muscle group weaker or tighter than its opposite. It's these types of imbalances that often lead to the nagging overuse injuries that plague many distance runners.

So what causes this lack of balance in the hamstrings & quads?

When we sprint, we move our legs through a pretty full range of motion -- we're using both the anterior (front-of-body) and posterior (back-of-body) muscle groups fairly evenly and at near-full extension. Long-distance running is different; by the very nature of what we do, we rarely run 100% all out, meaning we spend most our miles moving our legs through a relatively small range of motion. Most of time, that particular range of motion means using our hip flexors and quads quite a bit, and our hamstrings and glutes relatively little.


Click on pictures for sources

It's easy to see the difference between how much a sprinter uses the posterior muscles compared to how much your every-day recreational distance runner uses them, purely based on range of motion. (You can't see it as much in this picture, but distance runners usually come closer to full range of motion when they move their legs forward to begin the next stride. It's in the backward "push-off" part of the stride where there's the most dramatic difference.) It may seem like a relatively small difference, but because running is a repetitive activity where we do the same set of motions over and over and over and over and over, even a slight difference between how much we're engaging each set of muscles becomes magnified over time.

If runners don't work to strengthen those posterior muscles, they can become quad-dominant, a situation where the quads overpower the action of the hamstrings in a running stride. (Overstriding & heel-striking can also contribute to quad dominance.) When this happens, the hamstrings have to work harder to compensate (remember that braking function I mentioned above?), which can lead to strains and tears. Quad dominance is probably *the* most common cause of hamstring injuries in recreational distance runners. This article does a great job of going into more detail about how & why; as the author points out, hamstring strains and tears are notoriously slow to heal and easy to re-aggravate, so it's *absolutely* worth taking the time to make and keep these muscles strong relative to your quads. As an added bonus, strong hamstrings will let you ascend hills with strength and speed and sprint hard at the end of a race without injury, which is always fun. :)

My Favorite Hamstring Exercises

Before you get the wrong idea, please know that this is just a list of the hamstring exercises I like and find convenient and rotate through fairly often -- I certainly don't do them all every session or even every week.

My ongoing goal is to do strength work 3-5 times a week (5 times being an A+ week and 3 times being more like a C-). I usually do 4 different exercises, each for a different set of muscles -- ie, in one session, I might do a couple of sets each of a core exercise, a glute exercise, a hip exercise, and a hamstring exercise. The whole thing usually takes 15-20 minutes start to finish. On Mondays & Wednesdays I do it while warming up for karate; otherwise I usually do it last thing before bed during the Daily Show.

How many sets & reps I do of each depends on which exercises I pick, how those muscles feel, how much I did the last time, etc. If you are just getting started with this kind of work, I can't say enough about starting off slowly and paying close attention to how everything feels; especially if these muscles are on the weaker side, it's easier than you think to overdo it. This is especially true for hamstrings, so I would recommend erring on the side of doing a little less than you think you can than risking doing too much too soon -- remember that weak hamstrings are easily damaged and take a long time to heal. The upside is that it will take fewer sets & reps than you think to make a difference.

1) Single-Leg Bridges. (Also works the glutes.) The biggest mistake people make with this exercise is arching their backs in order to raise their hips higher, which defeats the point of the exercise (in addition to being bad for your back). Don't worry at first about how high you're raising your hips -- focus on keeping your lower back flat and feeling your hamstrings & glutes contract. It's also smart to lay your hands at your side palms up or across your chest, to prevent you from pushing against the ground (some people do it subconsciously). You can lift your other leg straight up as in the video, rest your ankle on the opposite knee, or fold your knee up against your chest -- whichever is most comfortable.

2) Stability Ball Bridges. This is a more challenging version of the same exercise; when first started PT, I could only do 8-9 before I felt like I was about to get a serious cramp, so definitely be cautious until you get a sense of how hard they are for you. I don't have a ball at home, but there's one at my karate dojo, so this is one of the ones I try to do when I'm there. Naomi also posted some strength exercises that she's been doing, including a version of this exercise that uses the seat of a chair instead of a ball, so that's another option if you don't have or want to get a ball. If you do get one, a 65 cm ball (the size I use for this) can usually be had in the $15-25 range, depending on what brand you get & where. (They just take up a lot of space, which is the main reason I haven't gotten one.)

3) Good Mornings. Good Mornings are a good one because it focuses on a type of strength called eccentric strength, which, put very simply, is the type of strength where a muscle gradually disengages in a controlled way (ie, slowly uncurling your arm while holding a heavy weight versus just letting it drop). You can google the details, but eccentric strength is a) extremely important for running muscles, and b) something people rarely work on developing.

In this video, he demonstrates how to do Good Mornings with no extra weight, which is perfect if you're just getting started. As your hamstrings get stronger, you can experiment with holding extra weight behind your shoulders. We have a set of adjustable barbells at home and when I do these, I just hold one over each shoulder with maybe 5-10 pounds on each side. This video shows how you can do them with a weight bar if you're super hard core & have access to it. The hamstring article from above gives good instructions for this one: "Start with your legs locked, back in neutral position and core tight. Slowly bend over at the waist, gently feeling the stretch on the way down. Keep your torso fixed -- don't be tempted to droop your shoulders toward the ground in an attempt to look like you are going lower than you really are. Constantly keep the core tight to support your back. On the way down, keep the barbell as close to your leg as you can to reduce the pressure on the lower back. Keep the back in the neutral position. When you have gone as low as you can with your knees locked, start to go back up slowly. (Avoid the tendency to jerk upwards or arch your back. If you feel inclined to either, use less weight.)"

4) Eccentric Hamstring Curls. This is another good eccentric strength exercise covered in the article above. Their instructions explain how to do it with a partner, but I just stick my heels under the couch & it works just as well. The rest is pretty much the same, though: "Kneel on a folded towel or mat with your toes pulled toward your shins. Keep your hands in front of your chest. Your partner [or couch] sits behind you, facing your back, pressing down on your lower legs with his hands. Keep your core tight, chest up, and hips forward so your body forms a straight line from your ears to your knees. Maintain this posture as you lower your torso toward the floor while resisting gravity with your hamstrings and calves. Control the range of motion as far as you can, catch yourself with your hands, then push off the floor to assist your hamstrings and glutes in pulling you back up to the starting position."

This one can be as easy or hard as you make it, depending on how much you use your arms to catch yourself & push off the ground, and how much you use your calves to control the lowering part of the exercise. Remember that if it's very hard at first, then yay! You've found an exercise you need to do! And there is no shame, ever, in starting off easy.

So there you go -- some of my hamstring exercises, along with a little of the how & why. Stay tuned for Part 3!


  1. Good information. I've sent this along to my daughter -- she's just finished the first two weeks of track conditioning and her hamstrings hate her (poor baby). Hopefully she can do some of these exercises in addition to the conditioning the coach is giving her and she'll work through it.

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  3. I love how your posts are full of so much great information. I am going to forward this one to some of my running friends in Spokane. I also just tagged you in my 11 questions post, but no worries if you don't want to do it. My feelings won't be hurt. :-)

    1. Glad to hear it's useful. Thanks for the tag! :)