Stretching the hamstrings is something we do almost as an automatic response to any kind of tightness in the posterior chain. In fact, it almost seems like humans are conditioned to stretch their hamstrings first, every time they attempt cooling down from a physically strenuous activity. Even lower back pain induces a need to stretch hamstrings. But tight hamstrings are not always the problem, these issues are also caused by weak hamstrings. The two are not always the same, even though they can be concurrent issues.
The Lounge guide on how to correctly stretch your hamstrings is worth checking out, but weak hamstrings will not just need flexibility, they will also need strengthening. This process has to go beyond the usual hamstring curls most gym-goers do. This is because hamstring curls are not enough for a muscle that gets weaker with two of the most common things that human beings do: running and sitting. The other mistake we make is focusing on quadricep-heavy lower body exercises while ignoring the hamstring, which runs along the rear of the thigh. Research has suggested that while quadriceps will always be the stronger muscles, it is important to reduce the strength imbalance between them and the hamstrings.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning analyses the “relationship between functional hamstring quadriceps ratios and running economy”. It states that a better strength balance between the two muscles can also increase “oxygen cost of running”. The study also suggests that people perform hamstring exercises that involve horizontal movement, and that “these exercises should primarily focus on eccentric hamstring muscle actions and may include fast downhill running, over-speed running, hill bounding, drills, as well as resistance or plyometric”.
Given that there are only advantages to strong hamstrings which can match up to the load your quadriceps can take, here are three hamstring exercises you should add to your training routine.
Split jumps or lunge jumps: Let’s get the plyometrics out of the way first: toughest of the lot but also the most fun. Plyometrics will build explosive strength and hamstrings, which are responsible for quick changes in direction and height, will benefit from them. Get into a lunge position and perform a jump while switching the legs mid-air so you land with the opposite leg forward to when you started. You can lower your lunge at the last moment to build momentum, and use your arms to increase it. While the calves, quads, and glutes will also kick in, the hamstrings will play a major role in stabilising them for every rep, and decelerating just before you land.
Single-leg RDLs: The single-leg Romanian deadlift is my most favourite posterior chain exercise, not just because it’s effective, but also because of the number of variations it can offer. Standing on one foot, attempt to hinge low with or without weights while the other leg pushes out behind as you lower your torso towards the floor. Add a dumbbell, a kettlebell, or a resistance band. If you are feeling adventurous, try the variation using the landmine (a barbell with weights attached to an angle in a wall or a rack).
The single-leg RDL is excellent for those who have trouble activating their hamstring, and it must be felt in that muscle the most. Whether your goal is endurance, power, stability or general posture, this is the one exercise which will go a long way in injury prevention as well. “The single leg Romanian deadlift is a unilateral lower body exercise that can help increase hamstring and glute health, improve joint function at the hip, and reinforce proper hamstring engagement; all of which can positively impact bilateral strength, powerformance, and health,” says a barbend.com detailing the benefits of the move.
Hamstring bridges and variations: Knowing how to hit all the muscles you want to without weights is important, especially because that means you have no excuses not to workout. The glute bridge or the hamstring bridge is deceptive in how easy it looks, given how difficult it can be made. To perform the bridge, you basically lie down on your back and lift your hip using the glutes (and not your lower back) while your feet are firmly planted on the floor. The moment you take support on just your heels instead of the full base of your foot, the hamstrings come into primary action.
Start off with a basic bridge hold on the heels until you feel the hamstrings burn. Once you have mastered the holds you can lift one leg off the floor and place it down in a controlled fashion for the momentary single-leg bridge hold. This progression can be added to if you add equipment like medicine balls to rest the heels on and work on stability. And finally, try the single leg bridge off a bench, where your heels are planted on the edge of a bench as you slowly lift the hips off the floor. Move to single leg repetitions to master this move and feel the hamstrings get stronger.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.