While the hamstrings are extremely important to success in both the weight room and any movement-based activity, they may also be very difficult to understand. But they’re just another muscle group, right? Sure, but very few other groups rely on the cooperation of other muscles at the level that the hamstrings do.
The hamstrings are involved in a number of movements. Some of these movements may include such resistance-based lifts such as the squat and the deadlift. In addition, the hamstrings as a whole function heavily in running and jumping. To understand what is meant by a strong reliance on other muscles, let’s take a look at this example. A key part of a sprint is a process known as triple extension. Triple extension is the extension of the hips, knees, and ankles. While the hamstrings play a major role in triple extension, they really have very little power without the help of the hip flexors and the glutes. Barring isolation exercises, all movements that recruit the hamstrings also recruit the glutes and hip flexors.
The hamstrings are actually made up of a series of muscles. These muscles include the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and the adductor magnus. All of these muscles working together along with the hip flexors and glutes allows for optimal movement. The hamstrings primarily function to control movement at the hip and the knee. They flex, internally rotate, and externally rotate the knee. At the hip, the hamstrings dominate extension.
That should be enough background on the hamstrings to allow for the proper explanation of a few key exercises to maintain both strength and health in this influential muscle group. Now for a look at a few of these movements!
1) Squat. This exercise recruits a number of different muscles. Some of the more important groups include the hip flexors, quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. While the squat may be performed with multiple forms of resistance such as dumbbells, bands, and a barbell, the following explanation will describe only the barbell squat.
Set a bar to an ideal height in a squat rack. Step under the bar and let it rest just below the upper trapezius. Lift the bar off the rack and step back. Set feet to an ideal position. A wide stance will generally target the hamstrings while a close stance focuses on the quadriceps. When set, bend the knees as if sitting back onto a chair. When the thigh is parallel with the floor, explode upwards until the knees are locked. Repeat.
Do understand that the squat is a very technical movement and should only be performed with very close attention to error. Newbies performing the squat should consider consulting someone with more experience to critique technique.
2) Wide Stance Deadlift. This movement bares some similarity to the squat. However, the deadlift is performed by picking up a barbell that lies dead on the floor rather than squatting down with a barbell resting on the shoulders.
Set a bar on the floor. Step right up to the bar with shins less than an inch away. Set a wide stance to emphasize the hamstrings. Next, bend the knees as if performing a squat. The most important part of this movement starts at this point – focus on remaining upright and keeping the lower back from rounding over. Always maintain a strong arch in the lumbar spine. Finally, grip the bar and rip it up. When knees are locked, slightly pull the shoulders backward to ensure full lockout. Set the bar back down and repeat. As with the squat, this is a very technical movement and should be monitored closely.
3) Pull-though. This movement is performed with the assistance of a cable machine. Set a rope apparatus to the cable machine on the lowest notch possible. Stand one to two feet away from the cable, facing away from it. Reach between the legs and grip the rope. Squat down as if performing a deadlift with a close stance. Straighten up and move into lockout just as in the deadlift. This exercise targets the hamstrings and lumbar spine almost entirely.
Just remember that the hamstrings are a very strong, yet very tender muscle group. Treat them nicely or they just might flare up and tear you down.