I am writing this article as I am flying high above the Atlantic, on my way back from the Monaco Track and Field Grand Prix where I saw my two pupils, and Dwight Phillips, win gold in their respective disciplines of shot-put and long jump.
On the evening of the last day of the track meet, there was a reception at the Monte Carlo Fairmont hotel for all the track stars and their guests. As the athletes got their awards, they showed clips of them in action.
After seeing example after example of superb hamstrings development, I was inspired to write an article on how to train that body part, as it is one of the most universally underdeveloped body parts, particularly in American college athletes.
Most trainees train their hamstrings by doing some half-hearted leg curls at the end of their leg routines, but developing impressive hamstrings requires specialization and good training methodology. Luckily, hamstrings can be built up rather quickly, especially if you are willing to work them twice a day for a short time.
Before going on the specifics of the routine. Lets review the kinesiology of the hamstrings. When I work with my clients, I always find that educating them of the “whys” of the routine increases commitment, thus enhancing the results.
Kinesiology of the hamstrings
The hamstrings muscle group is composed of three separate muscles: the semimembranosus, the semitendinosus and the biceps femoris. Understanding the functions of each of these muscles is the first step towards devising effective hamstring workouts.
- Semitendinosus and Semimembranosus: They are also known as the medial hamstrings They both cross the hip and the knee joint and are therefore involved in extending the hip and flexing the knee. They also assist in turning the knee inward (medial rotation).
- Biceps Femoris: It is also known as the leg biceps. Like its cousin, the biceps bachii, and as its name suggests, the biceps femoris consists of two heads: the long head and the short head. The long head crosses both the hip and the knee joint and is therefore involved in extending the hip and flexing the knee. The short head only crosses the knee joint and thus is only involved in flexing the knee. Both heads assist in turning the foot outward (lateral rotation of the knee).
- Muscles synergistic to the Hamstrings: The muscles that assist the hamstrings in its knee flexor function are the sartorius, gracilis, and gastrocnemius. The muscles that assist the hamstrings in its hip extensor function are the glutes and erector spinae muscles.
By their structure, hamstrings have two major functions:
- Knee flexion, or bending the knee. This function is usually trained by all variations of the leg curl: seated, prone, kneeling, and standing. MRI studies show the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, sartorius and gracilis being recruited when doing this movement. Hence the morning workout of this routine focuses on the knee flexion aspect of hamstrings training.
- Hip extension, or kicking the leg back as in a sprinting motion. Exercises that train that function are from the following exercise families: semi-stiff leg deadlift (i.e. Romanian Deadlifts), Good Morning (i.e. Seated Good Mornings), Back Extensions, and Reverse Hypers. MRI studies of a couple of these movements show the adductor magnus, adductor brevis, biceps femoris, and semi tendinosus being recruited when doing these movements.
The information above implies that your hamstring workouts should involve exercises for both the hip extension function and the knee flexor function.
Furthermore, recent anatomical research points out what track and field coaches have known for years: hamstrings are connected as a chain to the glutes and back extensors (i.e. erector spinae).
Morning Hamstrings Workout
As mentioned, the morning workout focuses on the knee flexor function of the hamstrings. This only makes sense as the muscles involved in this function have a higher fast-twitch make-up.
And, because we are concerned with hypertrophy, a low rep tri-set method is well indicated for these fast-twitch muscles. Tri-sets are effective simply because they extend the training stimulus to a wider pool of motor units and increase the total time under tension for the associated muscle fibers.
The method entails the performance of three different exercises with minimal rest between sets. Simply adding a 15-second rest between exercises makes a world of difference in terms of results. This short rest makes it possible to use significantly greater loads than if no rest is taken, thereby putting greater tension on the muscles.
Hypertrophy is determined in large part by the product of time under tension and load. If you move immediately (as opposed to taking a 15-second rest) from one exercise to another, the reduced loads that must be used produce a sub-optimal training effect.
Also, note that the foot position is different in every exercise. This is to maximize recruitment of all the hamstrings motor unit pool.
Morning Hamstrings Workout
|A1||Lying Leg Curls Feet Inward||4||4-6||40X0||15|
|A2||Lying Leg Curls Feet Neutral||4||4-6||40X0||15|
|A3||Lying Leg Curls Feet Outward||4||4-6||40X0||120|
It is normal to have to drop the weight 4-5% with each successive tri-set.
Tip 1 – Point the toes away in knee flexion exercises
When your feet are in plantar flexion, the gastrocnemius (calf muscle) is somewhat inhibited in its function as a knee flexor. The gastrocnemius is a bi-articular muscle, that is, it crosses two joints: the knee joint and the ankle. The muscle fibers are too short in the gastrocnemius to do both knee flexion and plantar flexion at the same time.
Therefore it is more effective as a knee flexor when the foot is dorsi-flexed and more effective as a plantar flexor if the knee is locked in extension. This can be clearly illustrated when driving a car while sitting too close to the steering wheel. When the knees are bent, the gastrocnemius becomes ineffective, and it is thus more difficult to apply the brakes. It is the same reason why seated calf raises are prescribed to recruit the soleus muscles at the expense of the gastrocnemius muscle.
Conversely, when you bend the knee with the feet in plantar flexion, the overload shifts from the gastrocnemius and goes onto the hamstrings, making it a more effective hamstrings exercise. The cramping you are experiencing comes from the gastrocnemius, which is used to the old motor pattern trying to activate itself. This situation is only temporary.
The way to circumvent the problem rapidly is to do the concentric contraction with the feet dorsiflexed and lower the resistance for the eccentric contraction with the feet plantar flexed.
Concentric with foot dorsiflexed
Eccentric with foot plantar flexed
Since you are stronger eccentrically than concentrically, the hamstrings will start getting a greater overload during that eccentric lowering because the gastrocnemius will be inactive because of the plantar flexed position.
This is a much more effective way to do leg curls.
Tip 2 – Stretch the quadriceps between hamstrings sets.
Increasing the range of motion of your quadriceps prior to a leg curl exercise will increase the amount of motor units used in the hamstrings during the exercise and therefore, the effectiveness of the chosen exercise.
Since the quadriceps is the antagonist muscle to the hamstrings, and that stretching will allow it to relax, the force of the contraction in the hamstrings will be much greater in the subsequent contraction.
Tip 3 – How to find out if your hamstrings are balanced.
When there is a muscular imbalance, the body never lies. To do a simple test to see if there is a head of the hamstrings that needs remedial specialization, select a weight you can do for 6RM in the Leg Curl with your feet in the neutral position.
As you reach muscular failure, your feet will rotate in one direction if there is a lack of balance between the two heads of the hamstrings. If they turn towards the midline of the body (medial rotation), your semi-tendinosus and your semi membranosus are too strong for your biceps femoris.
If they turn away from the midline of the body (lateral rotation), your biceps femoris is too strong for your semitendinosus and semimembranosus.
The evening workout tri-set now recruits the hamstrings as part of the posterior chain and are now trained as hip extensors.
The synergistic glutes and erector spinae are added into the mix to extend the time under tension for the hamstrings. A higher rep bracket is done to exhaust all available motor units.
Evening Hamstrings Workout
|A1||Standing Good Mornings||4||6-8||4020||10|
You should expect to reduce the weight by about 6-7% percent on successive tri-sets.
If after a few tri-sets you find yourself feeling like you are 6 inches shorter because of the “pump” in the lower back muscles, just stretch your hip flexors statically between sets. Since they are the antagonists to the hip extensors, they will increase their force of the contraction.
Tip 4 – Pay attention to the drop-off curve.
If you are forced to drop the initial load by more than 20% on any of the given exercises, you are doing too much work for your level of conditioning. So for example if, in A-1, you were using 100 lbs for your first set, and by the second round you can only use 75 lbs in the good morning, stop.
By the next workout, you should be able to do at least a second round of tri-sets. It is not uncommon for trainees to do poorly on the evening workout as they are still wiped from the morning workout. Hence, I strongly recommend using Biotest’s Surge right after the morning workout. It will make a difference on how you can handle the evening workout.
Do this routine no more than once every 5 days, and for no more than 6 weeks.
Now before I get hundreds of e-mails asking “What if I can’t train twice a day?”, the answer is simple, do the full morning routine unchanged, followed immediately by the evening routine for only 2 sets.
Obviously, it won’t work as quickly, but the routine will still be effective. Remember, the key here is that it is a specialization routine for those of you that sport the hamstring development of a pancake.