Building Ham-Hock Hamstrings

by: Josh Bryant

Stronger hamstrings equal stronger deadlifts for Johnnie O. Jackson

Out of sight out of mind might be your go-to strategy with your credit card bill!  But, this mindset is responsible for hideous hamstring development on both gym rats and performance athletes, aesthetically resulting in an imbalanced physique, while injury risk is increased and performance is decreased.

Selfie-snapping “insta lifters” throw in a few sets of half-assed high rep leg curls while simultaneously texting their latest Tinder date to finish off a workout.  The issue here, besides a lack of focus and effort, is the hamstrings are not trained appropriate to their structure and function.

Kinesiology of Hamstrings

The hamstrings are made of three separate muscles; the semimembranosus, the semitendinosus, and the biceps femoris.

The  semitendinosus and semimembranosus are often referred to as the medial hamstrings.  These muscles cross both the hip and knee joint and are involved in hip extension and knee flexion.  They even assist in medial rotation or  turning the knee in. 

Your “leg biceps” the biceps femoris, like its upper body counterpart, consists of both a long head and a short head.  The long head crosses both the hip and knee joint and is involved in both hip extension and leg flexion.  The short head only crosses the knee joint and is involved in just knee flexion.

The muscles that assist the hamstrings in their function (synergists) are the glutes and erector spinae for hip extension. For knee flexion, the sartorius gracillis and gastrocnemius play the assisting role.

Function

The fastest sprinters generate massive amounts of force in a horizontal direction.  Research has demonstrated that horizontal propulsion is enabled largely by the hamstring muscles. The hamstrings are built for speed and are paramount to train if the objective is to increase sprinting speed. 

The ability to accelerate in sport is often the difference between “starting” and getting splinters in your ass from riding the pine. But you know what really separates the studs from the duds?  The ability to decelerate and do so quickly. In most situations, when deceleration occurs, an athlete must quickly initiate a propulsive force. Hamstrings are the primary muscle used for deceleration and initiating propulsive forces.

Hamstrings are heavily involved in knee stabilization and strong ones are a safe guard against ACL injuries. Furthermore, hamstrings work to stabilize your hips and keep your spine properly aligned.  Hamstrings account for 25 percent of all athletic injuries.

Hamstrings are important for performance, but remember, a physique will only be complete with a pair of ham-hock hamstrings.

Let’s now look at three proven principles to optimize hamstring development.

Fully Train Hamstrings

Hamstrings have two major functions, knee flexion and hip extension.  Knee flexion is developed with all forms of leg curls.  Hip extension is developed with exercises like Romanian deadlifts, swings and good mornings.  We won’t cover an exhaustive list but what you do need to know is: developing high-performance hamstrings that aesthetically match requires training both functions.

Band-Resisted Romanian Deadlifts

Low Reps

Bodybuilders have the most muscular physiques in the world but their hamstring development is closer to a hamster, when compared to elite-level sprinters!  The hamstrings are  designed for speed thus they are primarily made up of fast-twitch muscle fibers.  This means they respond best to low reps. Rarely do I recommend going over eight reps in hamstring movements.  Fast-twitch fibers simply do not have the endurance to sustain high amounts of tension in the 8 to 15 rep range, the intensity needed to meet these rep counts is simply too low to build size and strength.  Instead of the traditional three sets of 10 reps, try 10 sets of three reps in a cluster set style to maximize growth and performance.

Cluster Set Leg Curls

Power of Negative Training

I learned much of what I know about hamstring training from the late Charles Poliquin.  Charles pointed out that triple jumpers and long jumpers are known for their outstanding hamstring development. Independent of the sprinting they do, they have to absorb high-impact landings, which catalyzes huge amounts of eccentric tension in the hamstrings. Eccentric (negative) training refers to lowering heavier than normal loads for a given exercise. A plethora of studies show the importance of eccentric hamstring training and injury prevention.  Exercises like the band-resisted Romanian dealifts, staggered stance RDLs, Nordic Leg Curls and 2 Up-1 down leg curls are a few examples of eccentric emphasis hamstring movements.

Eccentric Emphasis Leg Curls (2 Up 1 Down)
Noah Syndergaard, Nordic Leg Curls 5 second Eccentric

Final Thoughts

This information you are now armed with will give you a leg up on the competition when it comes to hamstring development.  These principles will help you increase size strength and performance. 

Functional hypertrophy at its finest, the ISSA Bodybuilding Specialist Course, authored By Josh.

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