Hamstring pulls are one of the most nagging injuries in sports, but the good news is that they are largely preventable. Many athletes seem to think they are destined to suffer this injury, but hamstring pulls can be prevented with an intelligent training regimen.
In this article, we'll cover three ideas to reduce the incidence of hamstring pulls.
- Eccentric hamstring training
- Being an elastic athlete
- Proper glute training
Eccentric Hamstring Training
The Lying Hamstring Curl is one of the most commonly prescribed exercises for hamstring injury prevention. Unfortunately, it isn't very effective. Many coaches don't really understand the way the hamstrings work during sprinting. The hamstrings are a bi-articular muscle group, which means they work to transfer energy between the hips and the shins. They are dense with connective tissue, and the greatest forces placed on them are eccentric, which means they are stressed the most when the swing leg decelerates as it re-positions itself before striking the ground. The greatest hamstring forces are not exerted when the stance leg pushes on the ground.
Eccentric exercises confer the greatest direct contribution to hamstring injury prevention. The best, and simplest exercise to this end is the Nordic Hamstring exercise. The two best versions of this are the assisted and unassisted variations.
To perform the Nordic Hamstring, get in a kneeling position and hook your feet under a bench, or have a partner hold them down. Lower yourself slowly toward the ground, keeping your pelvis in a neutral position, and use your hands to push yourself back up.
The Assisted Nordic Hamstring exercise is performed the same way, but bands are used to allow you to descend a bit further before your hamstrings can't control themselves anymore.
Most athletes who want to rapidly improve their hamstring strength can perform this exercise every day, usually as a finisher for their traditional workouts. When performed every day, 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps usually do the trick.
Be an Elastic Athlete
One of the biggest reasons why so many athletes have hamstring issues is not lack of hamstring strength or muscle mass. Lots of athletes with strong hamstrings manage to tear and tweak them regularly! Athletes often have hamstring issues because they over-rely on their hamstrings when sprinting and general movement.
Being an elastic athlete means you can use your muscles to transfer energy between joints smoothly and effortlessly. This is made possible largely through the role of connective tissue surrounding (and within) the muscle. The main role of the hamstrings is to transfer force between the hips and the shins. The hamstrings are "bi-articular," which means they cross two joints. In this sense, they are a "smart" muscle, as they must operate with perfect timing to do things such as properly slowing down the forward movement of the shin when your leg swings forward during a sprint.
Athletes who are inelastic will:
- Over-muscle their movements
- Not use bi-articular muscles (such as hamstrings) to transfer force well
- Tend to use excessive ranges of motion when jumping (too deep knee bend) and sprinting (hips low to the ground compared to their elastic counterparts)
- Tend to strike the ground too far in front of their hips when sprinting, overloading the hamstring on each step
So how does one improve function of the hamstrings, and corresponding elasticity? The answer is reflexive training methods. This article describes only a few reflexive methods available to athletes, drawing your attention to some examples, and relating how they improve the efficiency of your gait and bi-articular muscle action. The examples are taken from the fantastic work of Frans Bosch, and I strongly recommend reading more of his work for more examples.
Dorsiflexion Jumps. Train the reflexive action of the calves and shin muscles to work in opposition.
Boom-Booms. Made popular by sprint coach Chris Korfist, they train the "inverse extension reflex" in the glutes and psoas.
Sprinting while Jumping Rope. Turns sprinting into a rhythmic action and puts a premium on elastic transfer of energy through the abdominals.
These exercises will not only reduce the incidence of hamstring injury, they will dramatically improve sprint speed in many athletes.
Proper Glute Training
If you think that stretching your hamstrings regularly is important for injury prevention, get that idea out of your head immediately! In the majority of cases, muscles are "tight" only because they are guarding themselves or nearby joints from injury, not because they are somehow structurally short. When a muscle is tight, it's not because it is shortened, but because the brain is signaling it to partially contract.
Why would this happen?
When muscles of the gluteal and hip rotator group lose strength (which can happen for a variety of reasons, such as stress, overtraining and too much sitting), the body has no choice but to tense the hamstrings to maintain stability in the hips. With this in mind, if you want to prevent hamstring issues, don't stretch your hamstrings. Instead, strengthen your glutes! Many exercises strengthen the glutes, but a combination of functional and recruitment-based exercises work best.
Functional glute exercises are those that improve the quality of the connection between the brain and the muscle but do little to improve the muscle's strength or maximal recruitment. These types of exercises include:
- Low-intensity isometrics of the glutes and hip rotators
- Basic Glute Bridges, Fire Hydrants and hip rotator movements
- Psoas and hip flexor exercises
Hip flexor-strengthening exercises are important because this antagonist muscle group controls the femur from the other side of the pelvis. Weak hip flexors cause the brain to not want to wire too much power to the glutes for fear of injury. Strong hip flexors also optimize what is known as the "inverse-extension reflex," which pairs the extension of one leg with the swinging of the other, as in sprinting. Some coaches and therapists have even found a link between weak hip flexors and the incidence of hamstring injury on the opposite leg.
Lying Hip Flexor. This is a great way to teach athletes to set their core and engage their hip flexors for better glute recruitment and athletic function.
Isometric Glute Activation. Here is a basic, but effective, isometric exercise that activates much of the glute musculature in a relevant position.
Maximal recruitment exercises help athletes with good firing patterns in their glute muscles to improve the strength of those signals as they are expressed on the field of play. Athletes with poor glute recruitment patterns to start with won't get as much out of these exercises alone, as they will tend to perform them with compromised muscle recruitment strategies.
Barbell Hip Thrust
45-Degree Barbell Back Extension. When done correctly, this is not a back exercise as much as a mammoth glute developer.
Banded Deadlift. This adds a horizontal vector component to the movement, which requires a more dynamic glute contraction.
Combining these two exercise strategies as part of your daily workload will help you acquire better glute firing patterns.
With these ideas in your training arsenal, you'll be well on your way to preventing nagging hamstring injuries. Remember, don't stretch. Strengthen the muscle groups that control your hips, build eccentric hamstring strength, and train reflexively. You will not only be healthier, but you'll have blazing speed you may have been unaware you possessed.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock