Really good article on hamstring training that learned me real good.
Charles Poliquin Corner!
Go to any local bodybuilding show and you'll immediately see that the most consistently underdeveloped body part (after calves, that is) is the hamstrings. Sure it's due, in part, to not focusing on the hams and not blasting them with the same effort put into quads training. But the biggest problem is most people, even those with the best intentions, have no clue how to properly train the hamstrings. But for every problem, there is a solution. Here are the 10 important training paradigms that guarantee maximum hamstrings development.
What the hell is a paradigm? It's a perfect example…a blueprint for success. Got it?
HAMSTRINGS TRAINING PARADIGM 1:
TRAIN HAMSTRINGS BOTH AS KNEE FLEXORS AND HIP EXTENSORS
By their kinesiological nature, hamstrings have two major functions:
1. Knee flexion: bending the knee. This function is trained by all the forms of leg curls: seated, prone, kneeling and standing. MRI will show in the case of supine (lying) leg curls, the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, sartorius and gracilis are recruited.
2. Hip extension: kicking the leg back like in the sprinting motion. Exercises that train that function are from the following exercise families: semi-stiff leg deadlift (i.e. Romanian deadlifts), good morning (i.e. seated good mornings), back extensions and reverse hypers. MRI studies will show that both the semi-stiff leg deadlift and the good morning involve the adductor magnus, adductor brevis, biceps femoris and semitendinosus.
The information given above implies that your hamstrings workouts should involve exercises for both the hip extension function and the knee flexor function. Recent anatomical research points out what track and field coaches have known for years: hamstrings are connected as a chain to the glutes and back extensors (i.e. erector spinae). This through the sacro-tuberal and dorso-sacral ligaments.
So if you want massive, round, separated and powerful hams, it's crucial to combine knee flexion exercises (leg curls) with hip extension exercises (deadlifts etc…)
HAMSTRINGS TRAINING PARADIGM 2:
IN KNEE FLEXION EXERCISES (LEG CURLS), TRAIN ONE LEG AT A TIME
Testing on the KinCom ergometer (an apparatus for measuring leg strength) has shown many Olympic and professional athletes have strength disparities between right and left legs. It appears that the dominant leg of some of these athletes will often be as much as 20% stronger than the non-dominant leg. This is problematic, and not just from an appearance standpoint. The disruption in muscle balance often leads to a misaligned pelvis and can lead to lower back pain. These athletes definitely need single limb training to prevent injuries.
The dominant leg is not necessarily on the same side as the dominant hand. Just because you are right-handed doesn't mean your right leg is dominant in the lower body. Furthermore the neural drive will be greater to the hamstrings if only one leg at a time is trained.
Training hamstrings one leg at a time will not only allow you to concentrate and focus more during each rep, it has the added benefit of promoting muscle balance and preventing injuries.
HAMSTRINGS TRAINING PARADIGM 3:
STRETCH THE HAMSTRINGS BOTH AT THE HIP AND KNEE JOINTS TO FACILITATE RECRUITMENT
This means the knees must be extended and the hips flexed in the starting position of every leg curl exercise. Therefore in the standing leg curl exercise, you would need to bend forward at the waist and start with the working leg straightened before lifting.
HAMSTRINGS TRAINING PARADIGM 4:
STRETCH THE QUADRICEPS BETWEEN SETS OF HAMSTRINGS WORK.
Increasing the range of motion of your quadriceps prior to a leg curl exercise will increase the amount of motor units used in the hamstrings during the exercise and therefore the effectiveness of the chosen exercise. Since the quadriceps is the antagonist muscle to the hamstrings, and that stretching will allow it to relax, the force of the contraction in the hamstrings will be much greater in the subsequent contraction.
Based on the antagonist muscle premise, it is ideal to stretch the hams between sets for quads. However, do not stretch the hams between sets for hamstrings. This can actually weaken the hams and decrease performance in subsequent sets.
HAMSTRINGS TRAINING PARADIGM 5:
RAISE AND POINT THE FEET DURING LEG CURLS
When your feet are in plantar flexion (the toes extended, as if you were standing on your toes) the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) is somewhat inhibited in its function as a knee flexor. The gastrocnemius is a bi-articular muscle. It crosses two joints: the knee joint and the ankle. The muscles fibers are too short in the gastrocnemius to do both knee flexion and plantar flexion at the same time. Therefore it is more effective as a knee flexor when the foot is dorsi-flexed (the toes raised toward the shins) and more effective as a plantar flexor if the knee is locked in extension. This can be clearly illustrated when driving a car while sitting too close to the steering wheel. When the knees are bent, the gastrocnemius becomes ineffective, and it is more difficult to apply the brakes. It is the same reason why seated calf raises are prescribed to recruit the soleus muscles at the expense of the gastrocnemius muscle.
Conversely, when you bend the knee with the feet in plantar flexion (toes pointed), the overload shifts from the gastrocnemius and goes onto the hamstrings, making it a more effective hamstrings exercise. The cramping you experience comes from the gastrocnemius, which is used to the old motor pattern trying to activate itself. This situation is only temporary. The way to circumvent the problem rapidly is to do the concentric (positive, upward) contraction with the feet dorsiflexed and lower the resistance for the eccentric (negative, downward) contraction with the feet plantar flexed. Since you are stronger eccentrically than concentrically, the hamstrings will start getting a greater overload during that eccentric lowering because the gastrocnemius will be inactive due to the plantar flexed position. It will be a way to ease into switching to the more effective form of leg curls.
It sounds more complicated than it is. To get the best hamstrings results from leg curls you need to point and raise your toes during each rep. As you lift the weight, your toes should be raised toward your shins (dorsiflexed), then as you lower the weight your toes should be extended (as if standing on your toes) and pointed away (plantar flexed). It's a subtle move, but it will make a huge difference in how quickly your hams will improve.
HAMSTRINGS TRAINING PARADIGM 6:
HAMSTRINGS REACT WELL TO MULTIPLE SETS OF LOW REPS
Hamstrings are made up of a high percentage of fast-twitch fibers. Therefore, they have very little strength-endurance, the ability to do repetitive work at a given percentage of maximum. When you use more than 8 reps during hamstring exercises you are training below 70% of your 1RM (one-repetition maximum), which is the lower intensity threshold to promote hypertrophy (muscle growth) and/or strength response.
Numerous studies on the relationship between maximal strength tests and the number of repetitions performed (at a given maximum) have shown repeatedly that the hamstrings are not gifted for reps. If you use 15-20 reps per set on hamstring exercises--a repetition range often promoted by the Nautilus disciples--your training intensity would be approximately 50-55% of your maximum. Such a low intensity level would not provide enough tension for these high fast-twitch muscles to grow.
Keep reps between 6-8, but make each one count. Use as much weight as you can handle without resorting to sloppy form.
HAMSTRINGS TRAINING PARADIGM 7:
HAMSTRINGS REACT WELL TO ECCENTRIC (NEGATIVE) TRAINING.
Once again, because of their high fast-twitch fiber make-up, hamstrings respond well to eccentric work. Eccentric (negative) training refers to the lowering of heavier than normal loads for a given exercise. Triple jumpers and long jumpers are known for their superb hamstring development. Outside the sprinting they do have to absorb high-impact landings, which elicits high levels of eccentric tension from the hamstrings.
HAMSTRINGS TRAINING PARADIGM 8:
STRIVE FOR BALANCE BETWEEN THE MEDIAL AND LATERAL HEADS OF THE HAMSTRINGS.
When there is a muscular imbalance, the body never lies. To test simply if there is a head of hamstrings that needs remedial specialization, select a weight you can do for 6RM (6 rep max) in the leg curl with your feet in the neutral position. As you reach muscular failure, your feet will rotate in one direction if there is a lack of balance between the two heads of the hamstrings. If they turn towards the midline of the body (medial rotation) your semi-tendinosus and your semi membranosus are too strong for your biceps femoris. If they turn away from the midline of the body (lateral rotation), your biceps femoris is too strong for your semitendinosus and semimembranosus. When you turn your feet inward during leg curls, you also facilitate the recruitment of the gracilis.
HAMSTRINGS TRAINING PARADIGM 9:
IF YOU HAVE BALANCED HAMSTRING DEVELOPMENT, VARY YOUR LIFTING POSITION FREQUENTLY
Variety is an essential requirement for maximal hamstring development because each exercise offers a unique pattern of overload. You probably have more hamstrings exercises at your disposal than you think. Let's say that your gym has the four major types of leg curl units: seated, lying, standing and bent-over kneeling. This will give you an arsenal of 12 hamstrings curl exercises: 4 machines x 3 foot positions (neutral, inward, outward) = 12 permutations.
HAMSTRINGS TRAINING PARADIGM 10:
HAMSTRINGS NEED MORE RECOVERY THAN THE QUADRICEPS
Because in most individuals the hamstrings are made of a high percentage of fast-twitch fibers, they tend to need more days in between workouts. Once every 5 days seems to be the right training frequency for the hamstrings.
Incorporate these 10 training paradigms into your routine and you'll immediately begin to see and feel the results. Keep in mind that optimal hamstring development requires more than just a few sets of leg curls at the end of your workout. To take your training to the next level of development, make hamstrings a priority. Only when you work them as hard as your quads will they become one of your best body parts, instead of the weakest link.
Cool, I may give this advice a go on my leg day this week.
Great article. I've always had some hamstring work in my routine, but I haven't always cared about them much.