(This is the first of a multi-part series of articles designed to highlight critical differences in training for athletic success vs traditional weightlifting strategies)
The muscle that is most commonly strained when sprinting is the hamstrings. Hamstring pulls are a sign of just how important this key muscle group is when it comes to human movement and elite athletic performance.
In this article we’ll touch briefly on hamstring function during sprinting, how it is commonly trained, and offer some better options to train them for elite athletic success.
Hamstring Function During Sprinting
The hamstrings are actually 3 muscles that function as a unit – Biceps Femoris, Semitendinosus and Semimembranosus (see image). Together they start above your hip and continue down past your knee.
These muscles are stretched when:
- Your hip is bent/your upper body leans forward
- Your knee extends
Conversely, these muscles contract when:
- Your hip is fully extended/your upper body is vertical
- Your knee bends
If you think of pulling a rubber band on both ends (muscles in simple terms can be simulated by rubber bands) as show here, a hard pull on both ends can snap the band. When sprinters running at high speeds simultaneously lean forward and extend a knee their hamstring becomes vulnerable to strains.
So how do you prevent the dreaded hamstring strain with exercise?
First, we need to understand what the job of the hamstring complex is in athletic movement, namely sprinting.
The hamstrings act much more as a coordinator of knee and hip extension when sprinting, and much less as a force producer. Maintaining proper length and tension along with well-timed firing of these muscles is ultimately what you want them to do.
Muscle size and pure strength are potentially beneficial, but only if developed through proper hamstring coordination exercises.
Knowing this, an athlete’s priority in training should be on challenging their hamstrings to rapidly coordinate the bending and extending of the knee and hip joints against progressively greater resistance. This is how to achieve the greatest transfer from off-season workouts to greater athletic performance.
The common belief is that you prevent hamstring pulls by properly warming and stretching the body before running, or by strengthening it with heavy resistance. These have limited benefits for injury prevention.
Really, if you want to lower your risk of hamstring strains you should be focused on a blend of strength & coordination training combined with improved sprinting posture.
2 Common Hamstring Training Mistakes
I’m not sure there are two worse exercises for athletic development than the leg curl and leg press machines, particularly in how they impact hamstring development.
First, as you may have already figured out from above, the key to athletic hamstring function is to coordinate the flexing and extending of the knee and hip joints. This ability to synchronize lower limb movements during a sprint stride is primarily what the hamstrings do in sports.
The leg press leaves the hip joint in a constantly flexed state. No coordination of the knee and hip joints are required. The leg curl does the same, albeit from a different angle.
A second error in properly training the hamstrings comes from not using what is called a ‘closed-chain environment’. When sprinting the foot strikes the ground and causes many muscles, including the hamstrings, to stabilize against a great amount of force immediately upon impact.
The timing of this strong isometric contraction at foot strike is an important factor in developing your speed potential. Take it away, and very little transfer over to the sporting environment will occur no matter how strong you get.
In the two exercises here, the legs are producing force but do not have to absorb any impact forces. No stabilization needs are placed on the hamstrings because the feet are never driving against a fixed object like the surface of the Earth (a.k.a. the ground).
A Better Hamstring Strengthener
A Romanian Deadlift movement, as shown here, does a better job of properly addressing hamstring function in athletics. When done correctly, the hamstrings must coordinate the bending and extending of both the knee and hip joints against resistance.
Although no impact forces are absorbed, the RDL is a much better pattern for beginning to learn the coordination of the hamstrings against progressively greater levels of resistance. It is recommended that this exercise is not just used for strengthening, as is common practice. In addition, adding speed when getting down to the start position (shown here) and also at other times adding speed in returning to a standing position will help the hamstrings to coordinate movement against resistance at speeds closer to game conditions.
Even Better Hamstring Exercises For Athletes
Although they are far from the only ones, these two exercises are far more effective at transferring to improved athletic performance than those shown above
SKIPS: On top of being a great total body coordination exercise, skips help athletes to rapidly produce high levels of force when contacting the ground. They also teach athletes to coordinate the lengthening and contracting of the hamstrings both in the support leg and the bent/high knee leg.
A critical feature of a quality skip is to emphasize upright posture at all times. As we stated above, a hamstring is vulnerable to pulls when your knee extends behind you while your upper body leans forward. You always want to extend your knee behind you, but staying in a tall posture keeps your hamstrings from being over stretched in that phase of the skip/sprint cycle.
Properly performing skips can be a bit challenging, but look for a vertical posture, a hard but fast impact with the foot into the ground, and a controlled front shin that keeps the knee bent at about 90 degrees.
STRENGTH DRILLS WITH STEP:
The time your foot is in contact with the ground is when your hamstrings are under the most stress when sprinting. Simulating this key phase in training is exactly how you want to power up your hamstrings.
Exercises that mimic sprint patterns, like a power clean with a forward step to a box (as shown) create the hip and knee extension requirements at high enough forces to be effective at improving the function of the hamstrings when sprinting.
In comparison to the two traditional hamstring strength exercises still used by many athletic development programs today, the athlete who trains more like this will see a lower risk of hamstring strains, and faster performance in time.
One of the biggest, if not the biggest mistake in youth sports today is how often weight training is pushed upon athletes with programs that are well suited for bodybuilding but are poorly designed for transfer into better athletic performance.
Athletes, parents and especially coaches need to realize the critical difference between the two so that they may best develop their players and teams for greater success in the future.
Boone, Jeremy, “Strength & Coordination with Frans Bosch”, www.athletebydesign.com/bosch
Bosch, F, Klomp, R. Running. Edinburgh: Elsevier 2005
Wedro, Benjamin, M.D., “What Causes A Pulled Hamstring?”, www.emedicimehealth.com/pulled_hamstring