I’m sure all of us at one time or another have experienced the long-lasting, nagging hamstring injury. The length of healing time involved, combined with pain and lack of function, often leaves you feeling totally frustrated. I will show some of the basic causes of hamstring injuries and dispel some of the more common misconceptions regarding these specific injuries. We’ll also look at some different ways to condition and train the hamstring muscles.

You’ll often hear, “I pulled my hamstring” — in actuality, this is most likely a strain which is a term used to describe a number of smaller microscopic tears within the various individual muscle fibers. There are several different reasons one may incur a hamstring strain, including poor flexibility of the thigh muscles, a muscle imbalance where one muscle group is much weaker than its opposing counterpart, poor core strength or an extension of the hamstring muscles beyond their normal limits.

Having tight hamstrings often predisposes one to eventual injury. Why? Well, because when you participate in an activity that requires those muscles to elongate to perform a specific task, they cannot, because they have not been trained to do so in that specific range of motion. You may find that you stretch, but don’t seem to loosen. Try performing five to 10 leg swings prior to exercise by swinging out your leg forward and backward, parallel to the floor while standing and then touching it with the opposite hand, then alternate legs. Recent studies have shown that static stretching — prolonged hold with no movement — prior to exercise did not significantly reduce muscle strain injuries. On the other hand, dynamic type movements have been shown to increase tissue temperature, which in effect provides a greater resistance to injury. Another effective approach is to perform static stretching after activity, when the muscles are warmer. Placing the heel of the leg you are stretching on the floor, stair or bench can do this. Bend at the waist until you feel a gentle stretch in the hamstring and rotate the foot inward and outward during the stretch, so all three hamstring muscles will be targeted. This should be held between 30 and 60 seconds.

A big misconception in hamstring strengthening is that one must perform hamstring curls on a machine to strengthen them in order to prevent injury. By doing this, you are confusing the muscles by performing one function in training and asking it to do something totally different in performance. When walking or running, the first muscle group to fire when the heel strikes the ground is the hamstrings. Its function is to provide stabilization at the knee joint and to prevent the lower leg from over rotating. So why are we training it to flex the knee when that is not its primary function during movement performance?

It would make more sense to me to strengthen the hamstrings in a fashion similar to their function during movement activities. To accomplish this, one can simply perform lunges, leg press or use a stability ball. The “triple threat” exercise with the stability ball is an excellent and easy way to specifically target and strengthen the hamstrings. It focuses on three basic exercises. First, while lying on your back, place the ball under your heels, so that your knees and hips are bent at 90 degrees. By digging your heels into the ball, curl it up until it touches your butt, then reverse the direction of the ball and repeat. Second, start as the first, and then raise your hips up until your thighs are level with your upper body. Finally, bridge with your legs extended and feet flat on the ball, holding for a five count. Perform one set of five reps for each exercise and add a rep each successive day you perform it. Eventually you will get stronger and can progress to one leg. So the next time you go to do hamstring curls, try one of these alternative methods. You’ll be amazed with the results.

Steckley is a certified athletic trainer at UR.

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