What is your hamstring?
Posted on 11 January 2016
If it’s soccer or rugby season, you’ll hear about sportsmen suffering from hamstring injuries. But what are those mystery muscles, and how can you strengthen and protect your own?
First of all, your hamstring isn’t a single ‘string’. It’s actually a group of muscles that run down the back of your thigh, from your hip to just below your knee. They’re very susceptible to tears and strains (just ask those soccer and rugby players), and are most often injured due to being overloaded, or through activities that involve a lot of sudden stop-start running.
‘The best way to strengthen and protect your hamstrings is through stretching,’ says Dr Herman Kotzé, a doctor of sports medicine at Mediclinic Stellenbosch and the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. ‘When most people train in the gym – especially when they do weights – they’ll do a lot of quad exercises, which build the front of their legs.’ (Remember, while your hammies run down the back of your legs, your quads – or quadriceps femoris – are the four main muscles on the front of your thigh.)
‘It’s very important to get a balance between your quads and your hamstrings, making sure that they’re both in balance and that you train them simultaneously or equally,’ says Dr Kotzé. ‘Many people have massive front legs, but their hamstrings are weak.’ So next time you’re doing Leg Day at the gym, remember those muscles ’round back.
If you’re looking for hamstring-strengthening exercise moves, start with the clean deadlift. This one is slightly different from the normal deadlift, in that it works your posterior chain, rather than just your lower back. Start with your shoulders slightly in front of the barbell, with your shoulder blades retracted. Grip the bar and extend your knees and hips to achieve a standing position, with the bar at arms’ length. Be sure to keep your quads, glutes and abs tight, and maintain slightly more pressure on your heels than the balls of your feet. Return the bar to the floor under control to complete the rep.
If you’re not into weights, try a gym machine instead and do lying leg curls. This one’s easy, once you’ve found the right machine. Adjust the machine to fit your height, then lie face-down on the machine with the pad of the lever on the back of your legs, just below your calves. Keeping your torso flat on the bench, go into the start position by stretching your legs and hold onto the handles on the side of the machine. Start by exhaling – and as you do so, curl your legs up as far as you can without letting your upper legs lift off the pad. Hold for a beat, then inhale, returning your legs to the start position as you do so. That’s one rep.
You’ll have noticed that neither of these exercises completed isolates your hamstrings. Dr Kotzé explains: ‘When you work your legs, don’t only train your quads and your hammies. You need to work your buttock muscles – that’s your gluteus muscles, or your glutes – as well. The most important thing to remember is balance. You want balanced exercises that work your glutes, quads and hamstrings together, equally.’