Explosive athletes, or those who require short-burst sprints, like football players and track runners, are usually the most susceptible to hamstring strains due to the nature of their sports. However, even weekend warriors are not immune from hamstring injuries.
But there is hope. These injuries can be prevented. The main precursor causing one to suffer a hamstring strain is having previously injured that muscle (or part of the muscle group). Adding a few hamstring exercises to your training program can keep you off the disabled list with a strain. Hamstring strains can cost an athlete weeks or even months of training and competing, so it's important to take preventative measures to stave off an injury.
Aside from a history of hamstring injuries, strength, flexibility, and stability all factor into preventing hamstring strains.
The hamstring group is comprised of 3 muscles—semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris—which originate at the hip, specifically the ischial tuberosity, and insert just below the knee, either medially or laterally. The hamstrings perform knee flexion, hip extension and posterior pelvic tilt. That second action—hip extension—is where most hamstring injuries occur.
Hamstring strains have degrees of severity, 1,2 or 3. The amount of damage done to the muscle tissue indicates the grade of the injury.
- Grade 1 is a minor tweak with discomfort and tightness in the hamstrings where the muscle fibers have been overstretched. For the most part, walking is unaffected. However, running/sprinting is altered.
- Grade 2 is characterized by some fiber tearing, significantly more pain and weakness in the muscle.
- Grade 3 is the worst-case scenario, usually accompanied by a quick sharp pain, full muscle belly tear and the inability to walk.
Why are they so prevalent, especially among athletes? And what can you add to your training to prevent such injuries in the future?
Lack of Eccentric Strength
Hamstring injuries occur when there is a rapid change from acceleration to deceleration or when you approach top speed during a sprint. Since the hamstrings act to decelerate your leg during full sprints, lacking eccentric strength cause a strain. To prevent injury, it's important that your hamstrings have the ability to control flexion at the knee while lengthening.
Add to Your Program: Nordic Curls
- Kneel on a pad with your heels/ankles anchored by a bar or partner.
- Lower your body under control, maintaining tension through your core, glutes and hamstrings.
- Depending on your level of strength, try maintaining tension through the movement, use a band for assistance (recommended) or lower into a Push-Up and explode back up.
One study found that adding eccentric hamstring exercises like the Nordic Curl to a strength program significantly decreased the rate of new and recurrent hamstring injuries.
Lack of Glute Strength/Activation
In addition to being a prime mover for knee flexion, the hamstrings also perform hip extension, a role they share with the gluteus maximus muscles. The glutes are a huge, powerful muscle. Just take a look at the backside of any Olympic sprinter. However, when there is little or no activation/strength in the glutes, the hamstrings pick up the slack. They have to act synergistically, not solo. This is a recipe for a hamstring strain.
Add to Your Program: Lateral Band Walks & Hip Thrusts
This combination of exercises activates and strengthens two of the gluteus' main roles—external rotation and hip extension.
- "Wake up" your glutes with several Lateral Band Walks, maintaining tension in the band throughout the movement.
- Quickly follow with a hip extension exercise like the Hip Thrust. The goal is hip extension, not lower back extension or hyperextension. It's important to differentiate between the two.
Lack of Flexibility/Mobility
Most people complain that their hamstrings are "tight" or "tense," without actually having an issue with the muscles themselves. If you lack flexibility, it's important to figure out why and not just crank away on the muscle through various stretching techniques. Lack of flexibility or having too much tension in the muscle can be a recipe for injury when you call upon it to fire quickly and it's too locked up to do anything. You need flexibility so the muscle isn't forced past its extensibility potential.
Add to Your Program: Accentuated Eccentric Romanian Deadlifts
This loaded stretch encourages lengthening of the hamstrings when they are placed under load. RDL's by themselves are a great exercise to develop eccentric hamstring strength, but adding a slow lowering phase (around 5 seconds) can add flexibility to the muscle.
Many of us are naturally quad dominant, and our lives and daily patterns exacerbate the imbalance. But that doesn't mean we should ignore our posterior chain. Too much quad strength over hamstring strength can lead to anterior pelvic tilt. When the posterior chain gets ignored, this condition becomes more aggravated.
Add to Your Program: Couch Stretch & Glide Disc Hamstring Curl
Pairing a quadriceps/hip flexor stretch with an isolated hamstring exercise helps minimize excessive muscle imbalance between the posterior and anterior chain.
What about core stability or core strength? Well, the bonus from all the above exercises is that your core musculature is tested with each one. In order to maintain a neutral spine and good form, you have to activate those muscles. So even though no direct core stability exercises are included, you will cover it using any of the above.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." —Benjamin Franklin
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