Hamstring Training Explained: How to Effectively Strengthen the Posterior Chain
Part 3 of my series on body part training is going to be all about effectively training the hamstring muscles. The hamstrings are a group of 4 posterior thigh muscles that insert between the hip and the knee. While these muscles are often neglected in a training program, they play an important role not only in aesthetics, but also in injury prevention and athletic performance. Therefore it is advisable for everyone to incorporate hamstring movements into their programming, whether your goals are physique-driven or simply to have your body operating at peak capacity. In this post, I’ll explain in further detail on the importance of training these muscles, and then cover effective training strategies and exercise selection to help you get the best results possible!
The hamstrings consist of 4 major muscles: the semimembranosus, the semitendinosis, and the biceps femoris (short and a long head); be sure to perform exercises that train the muscles through both hip extension and knee flexion.
The best resistance exercises for hamstring training are debatable, but exercises that have shown to effectively recruit the individual muscles include the romanian deadlift, leg curl, nordic curl, and kettlebell swings.
Well-developed hamstrings are important for both injury prevention and an overall balanced musculature, so be sure not to neglect training them in your exercise selection.
The Importance Of Hamstring Training
If you’re neglecting your hamstring training, or simply your leg training in general, you’re missing out on a lot of benefits and may be putting your body at additional risk for injuries and muscle imbalances, especially if you’re active in competitive sports and/or exercising regularly. Think about it this way: how many times have you heard of an athlete suffering from a hamstring injury? Most of the time, these injuries occur due to a lack of stretching and posterior chain exercises performed by the trainee. In team, sports, hamstring strains are incredibly common, accounting for 12-16% of all reported injuries mostly occurring during high-speed running (Liu et al 2012). But this carries over to strength-dependent sports such as powerlifting and bodybuilding, as well. Powerlifters who train the deadlift are often implored to prioritize hamstring accessory movement into their programming, with both the conventional and sumo deadlift showing high rates of hamstring activation in their respective movement (Escamilla et al 2002). In bodybuilding, the hamstrings are often neglected in favor of additional quadriceps training, but this creates muscle imbalances that reflect poorly both aesthetically and ideal function of the entire lower-body muscular system. Moral of the story is, aim to train both the quadriceps and hamstrings with equal volume, and you should reap the benefits of well-trained lower extremities.
The hamstrings consist of 4 major muscles: the semimembranosus, the semitendinosis, and the biceps femoris, which has a short and a long head. The first two muscles insert on the tibia bone, while the biceps femoris inserts on the fibula bone. These muscles work together to perform both hip extension and knee flexion, making it optimal to train the hamstrings through each movement pattern, and possibly both at once. And though the hamstrings are often believed to be a largely fast-twitch muscle group, they actually display a very balanced fiber type (Beardsley 2018). This makes it advisable to train the hamstrings through both high and low repetitions, which I’ll explain more below. The hamstrings can be further separated into a lateral and medial plane, with the medial area containing more total volume, while the lateral hamstrings are much more susceptible to common injuries. The most important thing to remember about the hamstrings anatomy is that they’re specifically designed to act as a hip extensor and knee flexor, and therefore your strength and conditioning program should address both of those areas if you’re looking for a balanced and healthy musculature for years to come.
Hip Extension Exercises
At least one hip extension exercise is recommended for your training program for entire posterior chain development. The most common exercise that trains the hamstrings through hip extension is the deadlift, and its variations such as the romanian deadlift and the stiff-leg deadlift. EMG data has supported high levels of hamstring activation in both the conventional and sumo style deadlift (Bezerra et al 2013). And though the standard deadlift does show involvement of the hamstring muscles, the romanian deadlift has shown to elicit higher levels of hamstring involvement and therefore should be prioritized for those looking to maximize hamstring hypertrophy (McAllister et al 2014). A more advanced hip extension movement that has shown to be highly effective in training both the hamstrings and erector spinae (lower back) is the good morning exercise, which involves a similar movement pattern as a deadlift, but with the bar placed on the rear of your shoulders as you would with a barbell squat. With hip extension exercises, I recommend performing then in lower-rep ranges (1-6 reps), focusing on performing each lift explosively. As I mentioned before, since we know the hamstrings have roughly an equal ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers, we should train with appropriate levels of mixed rep ranges and rep tempos.
Knee Flexion Exercises
Training the hamstrings through knee flexion is required to optimally target the biceps femoris, due to its short head only crossing the knee joint, and therefore not being involved in any exercises that require hip extension. The most common example of exercises that flex the knee are both the standard leg curl machine, in addition to the lying leg curl. Interestingly, EMG data has reported no significant differences in hamstring recruitment in either exercise (Zebis et al 2012), making the choice of exercise more dependent on equipment availability and preference for the trainee. Single-leg and dumbbell variations can also be performed for knee flexion exercises. As far as developing a strong mind-muscle connection on these exercises, I recommend performing a slow and controlled movement, especially on the eccentric (downwards portion) of the respective exercise. There’s no need to go super heavy and test your max leg curl strength, instead stick to higher rep ranges (8-15 reps) and make sure your hamstrings (and not your glutes and/or calves) are actively involved in the movement performed.
It’s also worth noting the glute-ham raise is an excellent exercise for the hamstrings as it trains the muscles through both hip extension and knee flexion, effectively training the hamstring muscles through both movement patterns (McAllister et al 2014). While the standard machine for this exercise isn’t common at many commercial gyms, one can replicate this movement pattern using either a lat pulldown bench or the use of a Bosu Ball, both of which are more commonly found at many gyms. The same can be said for the nordic hamstring curl exercise, which has shown to be useful in reducing the incidence for hamstring strain injuries (Brukner 2015)
Practical Exercise Selection Applications
So whether you’re an elite athlete or simply a beginning lifter, I highly recommend incorporating sufficient hamstring training into your exercise program. My recommendation is to ensure your training program effectively addresses training the hamstrings through both hip extension and knee flexion each week. This could be as simple as performing Romanian deadlifts in the first lower-body session of the week, followed by a glute-ham raise in a second session. And as I mentioned before, aim to perform your chosen exercises with mixed rep ranges and tempos for optimal hamstring development. Heavy lifting has its places for developing big and strong muscles, but slow and controlled movement (especially on the eccentric portion) is certainly an effective strategy for those with hypertrophy and injury prevention goals. Implementing these exercises into your training program will improve not only a balanced leg musculature, but will be crucial for keeping your entire posterior chain strong and preventing any common hamstring injuries that could be a setback in your resistance training.
Thank you guys for reading through this post, and I’m hopeful you learned something new that you can apply to your own training. Be sure to stay tuned for part 4 of the body part series, as I’m going to discuss a muscle group I’m confident you guys will want to learn more about!
What other questions do you have for your own leg training?