In each muscle study, we’ll take a look at a muscle group, and examine what its purpose is in the body. Then using that information, we’ll take a look at a few ways to exercise the muscle and close with a sample workout that should effectively work the muscle. There may be some biological / technical jargon in this, but I’ll do my best to explain in plain English the terminology we’re throwing around as we go along!
The hamstrings are the collective name of three posterior thigh muscles between the knee and the hip. It consists of three total muscles: the Semimembranosus, the Semitendinosus and the Biceps Femoris.
The semimembranosus is the innermost muscle of the hamstrings and sits beneath the semitendinosus. The origin point of the muscle is the ischial tuberosity on the inferior pelvis and the insertion point is the medial tibial condyle.
The semitendinosus sits atop the semimembranosus, with an origin point also on the ischial tuberosity and an insertion point on the medial shaft of tibia.
The Biceps Femoris
The biceps femoris has two heads, one inserting deeper than the other. The origin point of the biceps femoris is also the ischial tuberosity and the insertion point is the head of the fibula.
So What Do These Muscles Do?
The hamstrings cross the hip and the knee, and as such, all three are involved with movements that extend the hip and/ or flexion the knee. Movements like running, walking or standing up from a chair all involve hip extension (when your thighs change position from a bent position – like when sitting – to a straight position – like standing). Knee flexion is bending the knee backwards (pulling your heel toward your butt by bending your knee joint).
Strong hamstrings allow you to create more force with the legs, which translates into stronger kicks, or being able to run faster and more efficiently.
So How Do We Best Work This Muscle Group?
Since the hamstrings extend the hips, and flex the knees, we can logically determine that anything that focusing on these movements will place resistant stress on the muscles.
So let’s look at three different exercises we can do to target the muscle fully, examine why they work, and how to properly perform them to best effect.
The deadlift, when properly performed, can work not only your hamstrings, but also your glutes (butt), lower and upper back and even your core (as a stabilizer). It’s a great compound movement that targets a lot of muscle groups, so it naturally made sense to include this gym rat favorite as our first exercise.
the deadlift can be performed a variety of different ways, the most well known utilizing a straight bar. However, the movement can be performed with a kettlebell, medball or even a dumbbell depending on how much you want to lift. We’ll describe the movement using a straight bar, but it should be relatively straightforward to modify with any of the other listed equipment. Choose a weight that’s challenging, but not your maximum. For safety, consider wearing a weight belt to support the lower back.
1The starting point of the exercise will be standing with your toes under the bar. The bar should be above the middle of your feet. Bend over at the waist, focusing on keeping a straight back, and grab the bar with your hands shoulder width apart. Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar – your knees should be inline with your toes at this point. Exhale as you execute this movement.
2When ready, inhale and hold it as you stand up with the weight. Focus on keeping your chest up, and lower back straight. At the top of the movement, squeeze your glutes and push the hips slightly forward. Hold the weight for a mental count of two with your knees locked and glutes tight.
3In a controlled fashion, return the weight to the floor by reversing the motion, moving the hips back and bending the knees until the rest against the bar back on the floor. Briefly rest at the bottom of the movement (another mental 2 count) and repeat the movement 5-10 times per set.
When performing the movement, the bar should never come above your knees, and your lower back should maintain a “neutral spine” – keeping it’s natural curve throughout the movement. Rounding your lower back can lead to injury by placing pressure on the spine, so always focus on keeping your spine neutral when deadlifting.
As mentioned, this movement can also be performed with a pair of dumbbells, a medicine ball, kettle bell(s) as well, but without the bar for reference, pay extra attention to how the toes align with the knees at the bottom of the movement.
The glute bridge is a limiting name for this powerhouse of a movement. Similar to the deadlift (but a lot easier for a beginner), the glute bridge focuses on the glutes and hamstrings, but will also help strengthen the lower back and core and aids with hip mobility.
For this exercise, you wont need any weights or special equipment, but you can feel free to add a weight plate, dumbbell, kettle bell or med ball if you need an extra challenge! Just hold the extra weight against your abdomen while performing the movement. Your breathing can be fairly neutral throughout the movement, so inhale and exhale according to what feels natural.
1Lie down on the floor on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing the floor (unless you’re holding a weight). bend your knees, and slide your feet up toward your butt – the closer your heels are to your butt, the easier this movement will be and the less you’ll feel it in your hamstrings – adjust to your fitness level. Your feet should be shoulder width apart.
2 Keeping your core tight, raise your butt off the floor, forming a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Hold this position for a mental count of 2 – this is your working position for the exercise. Squeeze (tighten) the glutes together, creating a slight upward thrust of the hips, while also squeezing the hamstrings and hold for a 2 count.
3Relax the glutes and allow your hips to return to the working position as noted in step 2 (also shown in the picture!). Rest for a mental one second count and repeat the exercise for 20 seconds, lengthening the time of the set as your ability allows.
Once in the position described in step 2, your butt should never touch the floor until you’re finished with the set and ready to take a break.
Seated Machine Leg Curl
I try not to include many machine based exercises in the muscle studies – in fact, this might be the first time I’ve violated that rule. I like to try to find exercises you can begin performing right away at home without needing a gym membership, or access to expensive equipment.
With that said though, the machine leg curl is a fantastic way to isolate the hamstrings, allowing you to really give focus to the muscle group. I prefer the seated vs. lying leg curl as it eliminates the use of the calves to “cheat” the work as well.
1Adjust the weight selected on the machine to a weight you can work with, and adjust the machine itself so that you can sit comfortably, with your back against the support pad. There should be a padded bar that rests on top of your thighs, it should press firmly (but not uncomfortably) against them, just above the knee. Place the back of your lower leg (a few inches below the calves, but above the ankle) on the padded lever that will be in front of the thigh support bar. Your legs will be stretched out in front of you. There are usually hand grips on top of the thigh support bar (not shown in the diagram). Grasp these firmly. Inhale.
2Exhale and initiate the movement by pushing the lower legs downward, bending the knees to push against the lever. Push the level down as far as possible, keeping the upper body stable throughout the movement. Hold for a 1 second mental count at the end of the movement, squeezing the hamstrings.
3Inhale, and return to the starting point over a 2-3 second mental count. Control the movement pause for 1 second when almost back to the starting point. You shouldn’t let your legs return to fully straightened until finished with the set – always try to keep at least a slight bend to the knees. This will ensure you’re working the hamstrings to the maximum. Repeat the movement to failure.
Stretch That Thing!
Strengthening the muscle isn’t good enough. You want a functional, strong, lean muscle that not only looks good, but that you can rely on. If you don’t stretch your muscles, you’ll begin developing range of motion issues that you don’t want. My rule of thumb – any time you work a muscle, you should also stretch the muscle. A few stretches you could perform after a hamstring workout might be:
Seated Simple Hamstring Stretch
Hurdler Hamstring Stretch
There are many reasons to exercise this muscle group, ranging from functionality to simply aesthetic reasons. Hopefully this article sheds some light on the complexity of this muscle group, and increases your knowledge of how it’s used by your body. I’d love to hear your thoughts on ideas how you might be able to train it to work even harder.
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