The hamstring muscles, like many other muscles in our body, are used constantly. They not only help us walk and run, they help with posture. In many cases, the hamstrings are overworked, which makes them vulnerable to injury. Running can especially stress the hamstrings due to the decelerating and accelerating of the legs with each stride. Normally, the hamstrings can handle this, but when they are weak and overworked, trouble arises. By strengthening the hamstrings, you will set yourself up for better postural mechanics and less injury.
Many people I see at the gym can point to their hamstrings, which are located on the back of the thighs, but few know where they actually attach. The hamstrings run from the bottom of the hip bone, beneath the glutes, to the back of the shin bone, below the back of the knee. This long muscle has two primary functions. One is to bend the knee joint, and the other is to extend the hip joint. To illustrate the knee function of the hamstring, just bend the knee while standing on one leg. The second function is illustrated when bending over a small fence to reach something on ground. During this act, you will bend completely from the hips as you lean forward over the fence. Your hamstrings are partly responsible for keeping you from falling forward while doing this, and are also working hard while raising you back to the upright position.
Usually during movement, the functions are used together to create more complex movements such as squatting, lunging, walking and running. With weak hamstrings, many of these motions will be compromised. This is why it is so important to keep them strong.
One of the best exercises I know to strengthen not only the hamstrings, but the entire motion that the hamstrings are a part of, is to do a supine ball leg curl. During this motion, the hamstrings, glutes and calves are exercised. Items needed are a 55-centimeter Swiss ball, which you can buy at just about any fitness store.
First, lie on your back. Then place the ball underneath your ankles so that both legs are in the air, resting on the ball. In this position, you will then roll the ball with your heels toward your body and then back out toward the starting position. Your knees should bend while doing this. Begin to put more and more pressure down on the ball, using your heels as you do it. While rolling the Swiss ball, you should feel your hamstrings tighten. If you push hard enough down on the ball while rolling it in toward yourself, your hips may begin to rise off the ground. This is what you eventually want to accomplish. Don't worry if you can't lift your hips just yet, but keep trying. You will be working the hamstrings regardless. Two to three sets of 10 should be done.
The seated leg-curl machine is another popular alternative hamstring exercise, especially if you can't lie down on the floor. Because of the various settings, you will need to be instructed on how to use the machine, however.
When the hamstrings are strong, injuries and spasms related to them should be less frequent for most people. Strengthening these muscles may also help with back and knee pains, and set you up for better mechanics, which takes the constant stress off the hamstrings in the first place. This implies that, while strengthening, you should also be working on conscious correction of your posture while moving. What I find most commonly with weak hamstrings is a slight forward lean while standing and walking. Although correcting this may have to be done by a physical therapist, voluntarily trying to stand upright can help relieve the overall stress on the hamstrings and back.
Bottom line: Strengthen your hamstrings, and you'll gain better function and flexibility.
Ted Santaniello, CSCS, is a certified personal trainer and the fitness manager at the Wellness Center at PARC, located at 295 New York Road (next to ARC) in Plattsburgh. For more information, call him at 324-2024.