If you watch sports, it always seems as if someone new gets afflicted with a hamstring injury every single day. It’s currently baseball season, and so far this year the Mets have appeared to be particularly susceptible. I think at least 3 Mets have been sidelined due to hamstring issues, and this video of second baseman Neil Walker exemplifies the injury as well as how it happens:
The Mets aren’t the only entity that’s victimized by hamstring injuries. This year, the rate of hamstring injuries in professional baseball this year is already well ahead of the 2016 pace. Last year in the Olympics, Usain Bolt dealt with hamstring issues as well.
Of course, he was able to manage his hamstring issues well and defend his gold medals, but other sprinters weren’t so lucky. How many times have we seen a sprinter pull up limp in the middle of a race and start grabbing at his/her hamstring, just like above?
In another sport, basketball player Jeremy Lin missed a significant amount of time as well last season due to a balky left hamstring:
What do these scenarios all have in common? These injuries all occurred almost instantaneously during movement (particularly sprinting), and not as a result of any blunt force; they were non-contact injuries.
This also means that these issues could be, in some part, managed and alleviated in the gym. Here’s how.
Anatomy of a Hamstring Strain: What’s Going On?
Watch the 3 videos above carefully, and even the GIF that is featured in this blog. In all 4 cases, you can see that the hamstring strain occurs on the left side.
I won’t get into why this coincidence occurs, but I have a feeling their is a reason for it based in our inherent postural asymmetries.
No strategy to make the hamstrings stronger and less susceptible to injury is 100% fool-proof, and there are many reasons why the injury can and will occur.
Generally speaking though, the hamstring strains we see here occur when the afflicted leg is extended out in front during sprints. The legs cycle back and forth, and the hamstring is most vulnerable when it is in an extended position, with the hips flexed and the knee extended.
What does this mean? When the leg is fully out in front during a sprint, that hamstring is most vulnerable to injury. In the picture above, #7 demonstrates this vulnerable position on his left side.
This makes sense, as even in a screen like the Active Straight Leg Raise, putting the leg in hip flexion and knee extension creates a ton of stretch in that same-side hamstring:
WILL YOUR BACK GIVE OUT WHEN YOU DEADLIFT? USE THIS TEST FIRST. — Try out this #SaturdayScreen to find out. With the Active Straight Leg Raise, we are looking for: 1️⃣ the ability to keep both legs straight, while raising one leg and pressing the opposite leg to the ground. 2️⃣ 70-90 degrees of hip flexion on each side 3️⃣ symmetrical ROM on both sides If you have all 3 of these, you can be sure that you have the ability to deadlift/hinge safely without rounding your back. If you don’t, one simple way to improve your ROM here is to exhale deeply while you raise your leg. This engages the core, which allows you to relax into a deeper range of motion. Try this out to improve your mobility and deadlift better! — #fitness #fitspo #fitfam #nyc #gym #gymtime #personaltrainer #privategym #halevylife #health @jeff.halevy @rosstcurtis
What happens when you pull a rubber band apart? In the beginning, the rubber band will stretch and return to its original length, time after time. But after a while, the rubber band won’t be so elastic anymore, and stretching it will result in it snapping.
The hamstrings are the same way. Put it through enough fatigue or force, and a strain is bound to happen.
There are two ways that regular folks like you and I can prevent hamstring strains from occurring to us. One involves building the strength of the hamstrings, and the other involves increasing their stretch tolerance under load.
For some reason, the hamstrings are an oft-neglected part of the body. Perhaps it’s because we don’t see it in the front when we look at the mirror, or maybe a lot of us don’t understand how.
Concentric training of the hamstrings becomes important here. Like bicep curls for the biceps of the arms, you can think of the hamstrings as the biceps of the legs, and yes, you train the hamstrings this way:
BICEPS TRAINING. Believe it or not, Coaches @dan_cerone and @jrlaukinetics are both working on their biceps here. 😎 #sunsoutgunsout Everyone knows about the arms, but do you know that the hamstrings can also be considered the biceps of the legs? The biceps femoris is one of three hamstring muscles in the back of your thigh, which together are responsible for knee flexion and hip extension. If you want to prevent hamstring strains from activities like running or 🍺-league softball, strongly consider building up their strength and stretch tolerance, just as you would with bicep curls for your arms. The glute-ham raise is one of the best ways to do this. Just be prepared to be sore afterwards! 💪 — #strengthtraining #fitness #halevylife #biceps #injuryprevention #rehab #health #performance
The Glute-Ham Raise shown above can actually be a very difficult exercise, as the “weight” that your curling is actually the entirety of your bodyweight above the knees. Here’s another example of a hamstring curl that counts as concentric training.
Regardless of the exercise you use here, the goal is to shorten and contract the hamstrings to strengthen them. That’s what concentric training is.
Eccentric training for the hamstrings is essentially the opposite of what you see above: the goal is to lengthen them while they’re contracting. This can be a difficult concept to grasp, but think of it this way. Your muscles can be active and working, even when they’re being stretched.
Eccentric training revolves around controlling your movement, especially during what can be considered the “descent” of a certain exercise. Even in the two exercises above, you can increase the eccentric component of the movement, by slowly lowering into the starting position of each exercise.
There are more targeted ways to increase the eccentric strength of your hamstrings, such as this below:
By controlling the descent in this RDL here, not only are you lengthening your hamstrings; you are also increasing their tolerance to that lengthening. You’re building their resilience to that stretched position elsewhere, such as in sprints.
Here’s a single-leg version of this exercise that will really allow you to work on your single-leg stability and balance and fire up the hamstring there.
Although both phases of movement are important, emphasizing and strengthening the eccentric is perhaps the more important of the two that you should be focusing on. By building eccentric strength, you are increasing the stretch tolerance of your hamstrings, and also giving them a bigger window to get stronger in the concentric-focused movements. The end result of this are stronger, more resilient hamstrings.
If you want to injury-proof your hamstrings, here’s a sample of what I would recommend to do so. For any of these exercises, sticking in the neighborhood of 6-10 reps is sufficient, especially dependent on weight). I’d perform more sets on an eccentric-focused exercise, and less on a concentric one. For example:
- Romanian Deadlift (eccentric-focused), 4 x 6 reps
- Stability Ball Leg Curl (concentric-focused), 3 x 8 reps
The RDL can be loaded up significantly and is much more neurally taxing, so I would attack that first. Meanwhile, the leg curl is much easier and essentially unloadable, so I would use it at the end of a workout as an assistance exercise.
There’s your simple solution to quit straining you hamstrings! This goes without saying, but strength and stretch tolerance matters, and if you take care of yourself in the gym, better results will follow outside of it.
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and received his Master’s in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.