Maximising Hamstring Exercises

Hamstring tightness is a common issue in the current environment where prolonged sitting is prevalent. For those with a need or desire for increasing hamstring flexibility and hamstring strength, the individual’s foot position may be an important factor to take into consideration during exercises.

 

Spend some time at virtually any amateur sporting event and you will inevitably stumble upon athletes limbering up and getting their body ready for combat. Without proper guidance, amateur athletes are left to imitate images symbolising “stretching” and potentially skewing the appropriate techniques.  One of the most widely disseminated images involves the athletes grabbing their toes and pulling it towards themselves in an attempt to stretch those pesky, tight hamstrings.

These widespread images have created a common misconception that “grabbing the toes” is a key technique point in facilitating a hamstring stretch. Through an understanding of the underlying anatomy combined with clinical experience, we can determine a more effective path to hamstring flexibility and improved hamstring dynamics in general.

Time for an anatomy lesson

There are several muscles that act to flex the knee joint. The “hamstrings” are a combination of Biceps Femoris, Semitendinosus and Semimembranosus which all act to flex (bend) the knee joint as well as extend (straighten) the hip joint. The Gastrocnemius also works to flex the knee and connects to form the Achilles tendon and also serves to plantarflex the ankle.

The Gastrocnemius (along with Soleus) is also commonly known as the calf muscle. To stretch the calf we must dorsiflex (toes towards the body) the foot while keeping the knee extended to create the longest possible path for the muscle.

Similarly, to stretch the hamstring, we must create the longest possible path for the muscle by flexing at the hip and extending at the knee. 

Stretching: Hamstring vs Calf

The problem that arises is that the calf has a relatively short belly with a long tight tendon. The calf muscle can be stretched with only a few degrees of ankle dorsiflexion. The calf is therefore maximally stretched well before the hamstring. As the hamstring remains fairly neutral in length, there is no net stretch observed and hamstring flexibility doesn’t improve in an efficient manner.

To address hamstring flexibility, we must negate the stretch of the calf by pointing the toes away from us. Practically, hip flexion can subsequently be increased and the stretch feeling moves up from the back of the knee into the belly of the hamstring. Bingo.

Effect on Other Hamstring Exercises

In the same way that an understanding of anatomy can help negate the stretch of the calf from limiting our hamstring stretch, the principle of plantarflexion (pointing toes away) during hamstring activity can help promote correct muscle recruitment.

An example of applying the principle can be observed using the leg curl machine. The exercise usually involves lying prone (face down) with resistance just above the heel. Flexing the knee while the foot is in dorsiflexion can result in a predominately calf strengthening exercise rather than the hamstring strengthening that is desired. Often the calf is weaker and although it feels like there is more tension, the calf is dominating the movement and the hamstring is underutilised and improves at a slower rate.  To effectively target the hamstring in this exercise, the toes must be pointed away to negate the calf’s activity. 

 

Exercise Right’s top tip to maximise hamstring exercises

 

To maximise hamstring exercises including stretching and strengthening, ensure that you are negating the calf muscle by plantarflexing the foot to allow for greater hamstring recruitment and more efficient results.

 

 

Hany Georgy is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Director at Activate Clinic.

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