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How to Build Smarter Hamstring Exercises

functional training

Jessica Bento, Physical Therapist (Creator of , DVRT Rx Gait, Shoulder & Pelvic Control Courses)

sandbag workouts

So we have all been there, or at least I have, laying down on a hamstring curl machine doing 3 sets of 15 reps isolating those “hammies” until they feel like they will burst! Then if you were like me I would hop on over to the leg extension machine and hit the quads. Kind of embarrassed to say I wasn’t done yet, I would then go over the “outer” and “inner” leg machine and that would be it! My leg day! Definitely nailed all those leg muscles especially those hamstring exercises right?!

The sad part is for some time I even did this with my patients way back when I worked in clinics the had such weight machines. I thought what better way to hit those muscles than to really isolate them. Over the years I realized how non functional that really was, I even left a clinic that brought in several machine weights to have leg “stations,” because they felt isolating muscles was the best way to strengthen them since studies showed maximum EMG output using machines (the research itself is a bit suspect, but none the less).  Unfortunately, unlike the journey I had been on they hadn’t evolved how they looked at the body and saw that things like EMG had to be put in the right light, after all, like renown physical therapist, Gary Gray says, “Are the muscles screaming or singing?” 

functional training

I am sure if you have been following DVRT Fitness for some time you realize we look at the body a bit differently than most, hopefully its starting to become a bit more popular by now. We like to look at how interconnected everything is and how everything works together when it comes to movement. That includes important muscles like the hamstrings. Looking at movement and the WHOLE body helps us better understand what is represented by better hamstring exercises.

Understanding how the body moves in life should be even MORE important right now as so many people are trying to make the most of their home gyms that usually don’t have these machines available (thankfully). However, how do you create great hamstring exercises if you don’t have your leg curl machine, or even glute ham raise bench, etc.?

Lets first look at the purpose of hamstrings though. Hamstrings actually do a few things for us. They allow us to bend our knee and also extend our hip, so they work  more than one joint and perform more than one action. This would be what I would say it the “dead person” anatomy of the hamstrings (heard that one from Mike Boyle and stole it) meaning that is what the hamstrings do if you look at basic anatomy. If you look at actual movement or functional anatomy the primary action of the hamstring isn’t really to just bend or flex the knee, they are designed to decelerate the lower leg in movements like walking and running, so they help control movement. That is why there are so many hamstring injuries in sports, the hamstrings were not able to decelerate the movement and injury occurred. 

hamstring exercises

Josh did a good job of covering this in his webinar about the Top 5 Functional Training mistakes. Chains like the Deep Longitudinal System show us how interconnected our body is and trying to use hamstring exercises to isolate them doesn’t train them well to work in the chain that they are important in with locomotion. 

What are two common mistakes we tend to see when it comes to hamstring exercises? Well, the first one we discussed a little bit above. Trying to isolate the hamstrings with exercises. Hamstrings NEVER work alone in every day life and sport, they are always working with other muscles. Hamstrings fire up when we walk, run, and jump so why are we laying on machines trying to active them in such a non functional way if the movements they help achieve are actually quite complex and integrated movements? So how can train our hamstrings in a more integrated way? 

DVRT drills not only use hamstring exercises to teach the muscle to perform as it is designed to function, but to work in conjunction with other important muscles of the chain. 

Second, if people find their hamstrings feel tight, the obvious thing is to stretch them right? Tight hamstrings are not necessarily a cause of sitting or shortening of the actual muscle. When we sit our core tends to shut off as it doesn’t have need to really work that hard when supported by a chair all day or couch these days. If we go off the principles of proximal stability for distal mobility which I am sure you have heard several times now, our tight hamstrings might just be a core problem. If our core is not properly engaged our hips and lower leg might not feel it they can move which translates into tightness. If we get our core to fire up then our hamstrings will be able to “relax” a bit more. 

Spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill explains the issue of just trying to stretch your way out of these issues…

“Physiologically, pulling your knees to your chest, or other similar stretches, trigger the “stretch reflex.” This is a neurological phenomenon that reduces pain sensitivity. This provides about 15-20 minutes of pain relief for some, making it a short-term fix. The problem is that in putting in your spin in this position, you are aggravating your discs and after you’ve experienced temporary relief, the pain will return, often worse than before. Thus begins a vicious cycle with a misinformed back patient who thinks their only solution to pain is to “stretch it out,” not realizing that this is in fact contributing to their pain. The key is to stop the cycle!”

That is why starting with many of our hip bridge progressions are a much better way to start building the right patterns and hamstring exercises that help both produce strength and better movement.

So knowing these two things we can start to really look at movements that not only address strengthening the hamstrings but also addressing making that core connections as well. If you couldn’t tell, there is no real such thing as JUST hamstring exercises. We should think about the chain and the fact the hamstrings have a close relationship with the feet, hips, and core. In knowing this, why would we ever aim to try to isolate our hamstring exercises versus making them better! Higher level hamstring exercises should look like those below where we are focusing on more integrated movement and teaching the hamstrings to function as they are meant to perform in our daily lives. This means not only better results but more fun ways to challenge our body!

Don’t miss the chance to get Jessica’s new DVRT Rx Gait Course for 30% off this week (less than $40) where she breaks down these concepts and more! You will get not only a great level of knowledge of human movement, but highly effective and easy to use screens, programming, case studies, and so much more. Just use code “gait” HERE only 48 hours left!