Hamstrings are the neglected stepchildren of the well-built body.
It’s usually true that strength athletes are a step above the gym bros who only hone their trophy muscles, and serious lifters know the importance of building strong legs, a heavy deadlift, and a powerful butt.
But hamstrings, tucked away behind the quads and under the butt, are still easy to neglect. That’s bad, because the three hamstring muscles – the biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus – aren’t just important for running fast.
They’re both knee flexors and hip extensors and they’re heavily involved in knee stabilization, so keeping them strong is important for avoiding injury, particularly if you’re a fan of functional fitness-style workouts that involve a lot of speed and agility. (ACL tears can often be linked to disproportionately weak hamstrings.)
In addition, the muscles work to stabilize the hips and keep the spine properly aligned, plus they’re a crucial component of the deadlift and squat, which is why strengthening your hammies can be the missing link in hitting a new PR.
So, how do you know if your hamstrings are weak?
We spoke to doctor of physical therapy and head coach of Dubai’s CrossFit Gold Box, Eugene Babenko, about testing for weak hamstrings.
“If you don’t feel your hamstrings with the deadlift or the single-leg deadlift, if you don’t feel a burn there after a high volume workout, it’s a sign they are weak,” he says.
If you have access to the machines, a popular starting point is to test your one-rep max in the leg extension and leg curl. Comparing the two is traditionally done by dividing the leg curl by the leg extension: if your curl is 100lb and your extension is 200lb, your ratio is 0.5. Most sports medicine folks say that the ratio should be 0.6 to 0.8, but this can be a controversial approach to the subject, with some experts preferring as close to a 1:1 ratio as possible.
Babenko’s favorite test for hamstring strength, on the other hand, is the partner glute-ham raise. The benefit of the partner glute-ham raise is that it doesn’t require a GHR machine, which a lot of gyms lack. Here’s a nice breakdown of the movement from CrossFit HQ.
It’s also possible to perform the move without a partner by setting the feet underneath anything heavy that can hold your ankles. Even a sofa can do sometimes do the trick, but there are plenty of places to do it at the gym, too – just try to make sure you have some padding under your knees, like the first movement in the video below.
When performing the movement, it’s really important to keep the body rigid and not bend at the hips. If your hamstrings aren’t quite up to the task, your body will want to pull the hips and butt back and perform more of a back extension. Don’t do that; keep everything tight.
As you can see, athletes typically fall from upright to the floor and use an explosive push-up to help themselves get back upright. It takes a lot of practice – emphasizing the negative portion can be especially helpful for beginners, as the hamstrings respond well to eccentric loading due to their high amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers.
If you can complete one or more GHRs with good form, you can be confident that your relative hamstring strength is well above average.
Not the smoothest of reps, nor the fastest but here’s 180kg/396lbs parallel box squat for a triple! Heaviest I’ve gone with these. Feeling pretty shitty too! 🤢 #Boxsquat #Fitnessmotivation #powerlifter #powerlifting #Power #Strength #Squats #heavyweights #Heavylifting #Heavysquat #pausedsquats #skwat #Powerliftinglife #Fitness #Fitfam #Strong #Strengthsports #Fitfamily #Powerliftingmotivation #Gym #instafit #Squatsofinsta #squatfordays #squatchallenge #squatrack #Dontskiplegday #Legs #Quads #Lowbarsquat #Marriottperformance
Many of us feel that deadlifts and squats are enough to maximize hamstring development, but that isn’t quite the case.
If your hamstrings are weak, train them. Not as an afterthought, not at the end of a leg workout – put them first. Interestingly, some evidence has shown that starting a squat workout with hamstring curls or glute-ham raises can improve your efficacy at the squat itself. Try three sets of GHRs before your leg workouts and see what happens.
It’s also smart to do dedicated hip extension work for the hamstrings to maximize their function, so including Romanian deadlifts (both single leg and conventional), good mornings, reverse hypers, and back extensions in your programming can be useful in this regard.
This is also a good reason to experiment with different kinds of squats: Box squats teach you to sit back and engage the hamstrings during the movement, and deep squats may do a better job of engaging the glutes and hamstrings, so try to find space to include them as well.
Finally, if you’re trying to decide on a conditioning workout and you’re not crazy about your hamstring development, kettlebell swings are a fantastic choice for this purpose.
Following the tips in this article will help to keep you powerful, improve your posture, and reduce your risk of knee pain. Have fun!
Featured image via @superfitkit on Instagram.