Hamstring Problems?

peak-performance-training-tips

To keep the hamstrings singing sweetly. these are the exercises to follow

Hi,

My name's Bob Troop, and I've been the editor of Sports Injury Bulletin since it started nearly three years ago. During that time I've had lots of letters from athletes and coaches and therapists about the many problems the human body can suffer from (I remember specially one guy who was really desperate about his ACL: "Why the hell did God ever invent the knee? It's one of his worst mistakes") and many of them are about those mysterious things called the hamstrings. They're those strips of muscle tissue on the back of your thighs which, without warning, can suddenly tear and leave you hobbling in pain to the sidelines

Why are the hamstrings so vulnerable?

Most athletes have insufficient flexibility and mobility in their hamstring muscles, which can dramatically increase the risk of injury. In addition, many individuals possess imbalances in the strengths of the flexors and extensors of their hips and knees. Add hamstring fatigue to the mix, and the hamstrings can tighten, cramp, strain, or even tear at the drop of a hat.

Sometimes hamstring difficulties build up slowly but steadily over time. An athlete might initially notice a tiny bit of tightness, so slight that it would seem to be just one of the many small aches and pains associated with strenuous training. Often, however, the extent of hamstring tightness (and associated pain) increases over a period of several weeks, sometimes becoming so severe that fast or prolonged training becomes impossible - and even routine workouts are uncomfortable. Unfortunately, hamstring injuries are rather slow to heal, and athletes often spend several weeks resting or carrying out alternative activities before they are able to move without much pain. Like many muscular injuries, hamstring misery tends to return again and again, especially since athletes tend not to address the source of their difficulties. Too many athletes simply rest - or "cross train" - and hope for the best, without figuring out why their hamstrings went astray.

How to test your own 'strings

If you're not sure how strong your own hamstrings are, try this simple test:

  1. While standing only on your left foot, bend your right knee (to 90 degrees of flexion or greater), and repeatedly swing your right leg up until your thigh moves beyond (above) the point at which it is parallel to the ground (at this point, there will be greater than 90 degrees of flexion at the hip). Do this for eight to 10 repetitions, noting the degree of tension/stretch in your right hamstrings (with your knee bent).
  2. Now, keep your right leg straight and repeatedly swing it forward and backward for 8-10 repetitions, trying to attain the same elevation of your thigh that you managed with your knee flexed and noting the degree of tension/stretch in your right hamstrings.

It doesn't require a whole lot of flexion at the hip for a person with tight hamstrings to feel a dramatic pull during the second exercise. Granted, nobody runs with straight legs, but if knee flexion decreases during swing (due to hamstring fatigue), it will unquestionably place a greater load on the hamstrings. This is exactly what happens in the late stages of prolonged workouts, competitions, and races.

These are the exercises to follow

These exercises are designed to address both types of hamstring injuries - the ones which occur during prolonged exertions and those that are the result of explosive efforts. They will lengthen and strengthen those important cords of muscle in the backs of your legs - and help keep them trouble-free. The first exercises - the leg swings - will help you warm up your hamstrings dynamically in a manner that is similar to how they will be used when you are actually running. The second and third exercises - the specific swings and step-ups - will fortify your hamstrings for the rigors of the repeated flexion and extension of both the hip and knee which occur during running. The fourth exercise - the standing isometric hamstring stretch - will help you significantly increase the range of motion and flexibility of your hamstrings so that your legs move freely and easily without undue hamstring tension or overwork.

EXERCISE 1: WARM-UP LEG SWINGS

Include the following series of dynamic-mobility leg swings as part of your warm-up routine:

  1. Forward-backward leg swings - knee flexed: Stand with your weight fully supported on your left leg (you may place your right hand on a wall or other support to maintain balance). Begin by flexing your right hip and raising your right knee up to waist height (so that your right thigh is parallel to the ground), with your right knee flexed to approximately 90 degrees or more. Perform this action reasonably quickly so that your leg "swings up" to this top position - rather than being slowly lifted. Continue the exercise by swinging your right leg downwards and backwards until your right leg is extended behind your body (as if following through on a running stride). Your right knee should be completely extended at the end of this backswing, e. g., your right leg should be nearly straight at the back of the swing - just as it would be after take-off during a sprint stride.

    Repeat this forward and backward action 10 to 20 times while gradually increasing the speed and range of motion of the movement. Then, carry out the same movements with your left leg.
  2. Forward-backward leg swings - knee extended: Stand with your weight fully supported on your left leg (you may place your right hand on a wall or other support to maintain balance). Begin the exercise by flexing your right hip and raising your right knee up to waist height (with right thigh parallel to the ground) and with your right knee near fully extended (straight-legged). Perform this action reasonably quickly so that your leg "swings up" to this top position - rather than being slowly lifted. Continue the exercise by swinging your right leg downwards and backwards until right hip and leg are extended behind your body (as if following through on a running stride). Your right knee should remain nearly fully extended throughout the entire movement, e. g., your leg remains straight at all times.

    Repeat this back-and-forth action 10 to 20 times while gradually increasing the speed and range of motion of the movements. Then, repeat the same movements with your left leg.

EXERCISE 2: SPECIFIC STRENGTH: BICYCLE LEG SWINGS

Perform the following exercises early during your workout when you are reasonably fresh and free from fatigue. These exercises should be performed twice a week by individuals who do not have a hamstring injury and at least three times a week by those who are suffering from hamstring troubles.

  1. Bicycle leg swings without resistance: Stand with your weight fully supported on your left leg (as with the warm-up swings, you may place your right hand on a wall or other support to maintain balance). Begin by flexing your right hip and raising your right knee up to waist height (your right thigh should be parallel with the ground); as you do this, your right knee should be flexed to 90 degrees or more. Once your thigh is parallel to the ground, begin to extend your right knee (swing the lower part of your right leg forward, unflexing the knee) until your knee is nearly fully extended (e. g., your leg is nearly straight), with your right thigh still parallel to the ground. As your right knee nears full extension, allow your right thigh to drop downwards and backwards until the entire thigh and leg are extended behind your body (as if following through on a running stride). Your right knee should be near full extension (your leg should be straight) until it reaches the peak of the backswing. As your right hip nears full extension (e. g., as you approach the end of the backswing), raise your right heel by bending your right knee; your heel should move closely towards your bum as you do this. As this happens, move your right knee forward until it returns to the appropriate position in front of your body, with your right thigh parallel to the ground. Repeat this entire sequence of actions in a smooth manner such that the hip and leg move though a continuous arc without stopping or pausing. Once you are able to coordinate the movement, strive to perform the swings at a cadence of at least 12 swings every 10 seconds (slightly faster than one swing per second).

    Begin with one to two sets of 15 to 30 repetitions with each leg. As you become more comfortable and skilled with this exercise over a period of several weeks, progress to one to two sets of 40 to 60 repetitions. To more closely mimic the specific actions of the running stride, it is important that you increase the speed and ballistic nature of the movement over time as well.
  2. Bicycle leg swings with resistance: Repeat the above exercise with a piece of rubber tubing attached to the ankle of your swing leg and anchored to a fixed point at knee level in front of you (start with beginner bands and work up to advanced models). The tubing should be stretched somewhat when you are standing in the starting position. In addition, the tension should be increased (by standing farther from the fixed point or increasing the strength of the tubing) as you gain more strength and coordination with the exercise. Once you are able to coordinate the movement, strive to perform the swings at a cadence of at least 12 swings every 10 seconds (faster than one swing per second).

    Begin with one to two sets of 10 to 20 repetitions per leg. This can progress to one to two sets of 30 to 50 repetitions over a period of several weeks as your strength improves and you become more skilled with the exercise. It is important that you increase the speed and ballistic nature of the movement over time to more closely mimic the specific actions of the running stride.

EXERCISE 3: GENERAL STRENGTH: HIGH-BENCH STEP-UPS

Perform this exercise twice a week after you have warmed up thoroughly: Begin from a standing position on top of a bench that is approximately knee high, with your body weight on your left foot and your weight shifted toward the left heel. The right foot should be free and held slightly behind your body. Lower your body in a controlled manner until the toes of the right foot touch the ground, but support all of your weight on your left foot. Return to the starting position by driving down with the left heel and straightening your left leg. Maintain an absolutely upright body posture with your trunk throughout the entire movement, with your hands held at your sides.

Perform this exercise for two sets of 10-15 repetitions with each leg. You can make the step-ups progressively more difficult by holding dumbbells in your hands as your perform the exercise (start with three to five pounds and gradually increase to 25 pounds) - and by gradually increasing the height of the step. Increase the height of the step by no more than two inches from workout to workout. Of course, you can eventually add on additional reps and sets as well - and increase your overall speed of movement.

EXERCISE 4: POST-TRAINING EXERCISE: THE STANDING ISOMETRIC HAMSTRING STRETCH

Perform the following stretch at the end of your training session. You should not be overly fatigued when using this stretch, so incorporate it into workout sessions that are not excessively difficult. The standing isometric hamstring stretch should be performed twice a week if you don't have a hamstring problem and three times a week if you are currently rehabilitating a hamstring injury.

Begin by standing with your weight fully supported on your left leg (you may place your right hand on a wall or other support to maintain your balance). Then, place your right heel on a chair, table, or other similar support in front of you. The height of this supporting structure should be somewhere between your knee and hip; the more flexible you are, the higher the support can be. Your right knee should be extended so that your right leg is straight. With your shoulders and chest facing straight forward (towards your extended right leg), attempt to move your belly button as close to your right knee as you can - until you feel a strong (but not painful) stretch in your right hamstrings.

At this point, you are ready to begin the isometric portion of the stretch. Starting gradually, attempt to push your right heel down towards the floor by contracting your right buttock, hip, and hamstring muscles for a count of six to eight seconds. This contraction should start gradually and build to close to maximal effort by the fourth second or so. Allow your muscles to relax completely for a few seconds after the contraction, and then again attempt to move your belly button a little closer to your right knee. Repeat this sequence, Isometric contraction - move closer to knee - isometric contraction - move closer to knee - at least three to five times before performing the entire sequence with the other leg. Rest for a short period, and then repeat with both legs. These isometric hamstring stretches will take you no more than five to six minutes to perform.

And here's a bonus exercise

Yet another way to improve the strength and dynamic mobility of the hamstrings is to perform some exaggerated pull bounding. To do this, warm up with at least 10 minutes of relaxed jogging, and then - on a gym floor or smooth grassy surface - bound quickly for about 30 to 40 metres, emphasizing longer-than-usual - but also very quick - strides. During these exaggerated pull bounds, you should focus on both increasing the forward swing of each leg (hip flexion) and also the backward pull (hip extension) of each leg once the foot has hit the ground. By doing so, you are increasing hip (and thus hamstring) range of motion, fostering the ability of the hamstrings to withstand injury-producing forward-swing forces, and also aggrandizing hamstring strength. Progress your exaggerated pull bounding by increasing the number of reps (start with just three to four 30- to 40-metre reps), by expanding the length of the reps (to 100 metres or so), by upgrading your speed of movement, and by then moving the venue for the pull bounds from a flat, forgiving surface to a hill of moderate steepness.

Finally, a quick check

If your hamstrings haven't given you too many problems, what's the best way to assess your risk of difficulty? There seem to be three important risk factors:

  1. Poor hamstring flexibility and mobility,
  2. Inadequate hamstring strength, and
  3. Being generally out of shape.

The first two factors place too much stress on the 'strings during the swing phase of the gait cycle, as we have mentioned. Being out of shape is also risky, because it increases hamstring fatigue during training.

Okay, that's it for now. I hope these stretches and exercises will help to keep your hamstrings strong and free from injury. Talk to you soon.

Yours,

Bob Troop
Editor, Sports injury Bulletin