It was the late 1990’s and I thought I was so ahead of the curve as I was learning from one of the top strength coaches in the industry about how if I turned my foot outwards on the leg curl machine versus inwards, or neutral, I could hit different parts of my hamstrings. Yes, back then, we were on the verge of functional training coming along, but we also thought some of these ideas were part of functional training. After all, if we got this or that hamstring muscle to be stronger weren’t we going to increase the function of our hamstrings?
Having been there in my own coaching journey, I do on one hand really understand how people have to go through their process to learn what functional training really means. While my challenges and those of my peers at the time was that we didn’t have a lot of information on functional training available to us, the problem now is you have so much information you don’t know what is good and not so good information.
Looking at what I thought was good functional training concepts for hamstring workouts really wasn’t a thoughtful as I may have believed. Does just strengthening the hamstrings in isolation make them work better? To be honest, we don’t have any research (at least not that I am aware of and I look pretty hard) to compare the hamstring workouts with isolated training versus more integrated training. However, there are some logical conclusions we can make off understanding how our body works.
The Body Is A Complicated System
While the idea of saying, “the body is a machine” may sound good at first glance, upon pondering it, it really isn’t true. Our bodies are FAR more sophisticated than any machine because of our nervous system. After all, replacing a part in your car can work so easily because there is no nervous system, it literally is just a bunch of parts, our body is not! If we understand how every action of one area of the body impacts another, we start to see this to be true just as this description of the body during squatting illustrates.
If that is A LOT of terminology there, don’t worry. The moral of the story is that our ankle, knee and hip work together and that means all the muscles connected to and surrounding those joints do as well. So, trying to isolate muscles like in our hamstring workouts doesn’t seem to follow how the body is designed to, or wants to work.
I Don’t Care About Function, I Want Muscle!
It has become the consistent response I hear from some when I discuss these ideas. They can agree that if you want to build greater strength, movement, and performance (not sure why people would not) then functional training is great, but if you want muscle, you gotta isolate muscles like leg curls in hamstring workouts. Funny enough, nowhere in science and any research has this been proven to be true, it is “gym science” (meaning people in the gym just keep repeating it without any evidence of its truth).
However, there are some will say it is important to train the function of the hamstring in flexing the knee for muscle and function. Maybe that is true, the science is lacking there, but let’s say it is! People might point to exercises like Nordic leg curls where people lower their bodies from a flexed knee position and research has shown in athletes for such training to help prevent hamstring injuries. So, isn’t this a good way to do isolated muscle work in hamstring workouts?
Well, what most people miss that has been discussed in a lot of the research is that it isn’t isolating the hamstrings or working from a flexed knee position that was so important. More so, the eccentric (lowering and lengthening) of the hamstrings under such intense conditions that probably was the reason there were less hamstring injuries.
So, if I killed your excitement about Nordic leg curls (as there are a lot of precautions by researchers about their use) please don’t get too upset yet. There is a way to build muscle and improve function. How so?
SHELC (Supine Hip Extension Leg Curls)
Fitness expert, Alwyn Cosgrove, coined SHELC as a much easier name for an exercise we learned around 1999. The idea was to take the action of the leg curl in hamstring workouts and make it much more effective. During the leg curl we don’t get the core involved and that causes two issues. First, if we don’t learn to create core stability our lower body can not produce as much strength as we want and second, hip extension (yes, which is part of the core) addresses where the hamstrings actually start so you train MORE of the hamstrings during these exercises than you would laying on a leg curl machine for your hamstring workouts.
It is funny, I have seen people who can stack up the weight on a leg curl machine REALLY struggle on SHELCs because the entire chain and MORE of the hamstrings have to be used in a way where you just can’t rely on the machine. Best of all, this makes doing your hamstring workouts much cheaper and easy to do anywhere.
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These hamstring workouts are SO intense I recommend you start one leg at a time and progressions like physical therapist, Jessica Bento shows above. You can use gliders, stability balls, or suspension trainers. There are some slight differences with each, but the important part is how you use the tools and that you integrate the core like Jessica shows above before moving onto more advanced versions like strength coach, Martine Adame shows below.
With smart training you don’t have to choose building muscle or improving function, they SHOULD go hand in hand. Try using these exercises into your program and see how you can accomplish those goals as well as reducing the risk of injury to the knees and low back plus a tough way to train the glutes!
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