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Hamstring tightness

Hamstring tightness – a real pain

Athletes from all sports know that hamstring tightness can hit them at anytime both during and after exercise. Whether it’s training or competition, hamstring tightness usually signals the end of an athlete’s participation.

Fortunately though, to aid hamstring tightness there are number of strengthening exercises that can be undertaken to minimise the threat of pulling up.

Warm-up leg swings

Include the following series of dynamic-mobility leg swings as part of your warm-up routine:

A. Forward-backward leg swings - knee flexed

Stand with your weight fully supported on your left leg (you may place your right hand on a wall or other support to maintain balance). Begin by flexing your right hip and raising your right knee up to waist height (so that your right thigh is parallel to the ground), with your right knee flexed to approximately 90 degrees or more. Perform this action reasonably quickly so that your leg 'swings up' to this top position - rather than being slowly lifted. Continue the exercise by swinging your right leg downwards and backwards until your right leg is extended behind your body (as if following through on a running stride). Your right knee should be completely extended at the end of this backswing, e. g., your right leg should be nearly straight at the back of the swing - just as it would be after take-off during a sprint stride.

Repeat this forward and backward action 10 to 20 times while gradually increasing the speed and range of motion of the movement. Then, carry out the same movements with your left leg.

B. Forward-backward leg swings - knee extended

Stand with your weight fully supported on your left leg (you may place your right hand on a wall or other support to maintain balance). Begin the exercise by flexing your right hip and raising your right knee up to waist height (with right thigh parallel to the ground) and with your right knee near fully extended (straight-legged). Perform this action reasonably quickly so that your leg 'swings up' to this top position - rather than being slowly lifted. Continue the exercise by swinging your right leg downwards and backwards until right hip and leg are extended behind your body (as if following through on a running stride). Your right knee should remain nearly fully extended throughout the entire movement, eg your leg remains straight at all times.

Repeat this back-and-forth action 10 to 20 times while gradually increasing the speed and range of motion of the movements. Then, repeat the same movements with your left leg.

As you become more comfortable with these exercises, use the principle of progression to increase their value. As the weeks go by, carry out the swings at faster speeds; faster movement is more difficult and requires a higher degree of coordination and power. In addition, increase the range of motion (ROM) of your swings. Greater ROM is tougher to perform, and it must always be done within reason. You should maintain an upright body position and rhythmic coordination; never sacrifice form (including good posture and coordination) to achieve more ROM or speed. The final part of the progression is to gradually increase your quantity of repetitions. Eventually, you should be able to complete nearly 40 to 50 reps with each leg at nearly full ROM with very high speed, but it will take time to develop this level of ability. It's a good idea to carry out both the knee-flexed and knee-extended swings before all of your workouts (but only after a good warm-up lasting at least 10 minutes, of course).

Specific strength: bicycle leg swings

Perform the following exercises early during your workout when you are reasonably fresh and free from fatigue. These exercises should be performed twice a week by individuals who do not have a hamstring injury and at least three times a week by those who are suffering from hamstring troubles.

A. Bicycle leg swings without resistance

Stand with your weight fully supported on your left leg (as with the warm-up swings, you may place your right hand on a wall or other support to maintain balance). Begin by flexing your right hip and raising your right knee up to waist height (your right thigh should be parallel with the ground); as you do this, your right knee should be flexed to 90 degrees or more. Once your thigh is parallel to the ground, begin to extend your right knee (swing the lower part of your right leg forward, unflexing the knee) until your knee is nearly fully extended (eg your leg is nearly straight), with your right thigh still parallel to the ground.

As your right knee nears full extension, allow your right thigh to drop downwards and backwards until the entire thigh and leg are extended behind your body (as if following through on a running stride). Your right knee should be near full extension (your leg should be straight) until it reaches the peak of the backswing. As your right hip nears full extension (eg as you approach the end of the backswing), raise your right heel by bending your right knee; your heel should move closely towards your bum as you do this.

As this happens, move your right knee forward until it returns to the appropriate position in front of your body, with your right thigh parallel to the ground. Repeat this entire sequence of actions in a smooth manner such that the hip and leg move though a continuous arc without stopping or pausing. Once you are able to coordinate the movement, strive to perform the swings at a cadence of at least 12 swings every 10 seconds (slightly faster than one swing per second).

Begin with one to two sets of 15 to 30 repetitions with each leg. As you become more comfortable and skilled with this exercise over a period of several weeks, progress to one to two sets of 40 to 60 repetitions. To more closely mimic the specific actions of the running stride, it is important that you increase the speed and ballistic nature of the movement over time as well.

B. Bicycle leg swings with resistance

Repeat the above exercise with a piece of rubber tubing attached to the ankle of your swing leg and anchored to a fixed point at knee level in front of you (start with beginner bands and work up to advanced models). The tubing should be stretched somewhat when you are standing in the starting position. In addition, the tension should be increased (by standing farther from the fixed point or increasing the strength of the tubing) as you gain more strength and coordination with the exercise. Once you are able to coordinate the movement, strive to perform the swings at a cadence of at least 12 swings every 10 seconds (faster than one swing per second).

Begin with one to two sets of 10 to 20 repetitions per leg. This can progress to one to two sets of 30 to 50 repetitions over a period of several weeks as your strength improves and you become more skilled with the exercise. It is important that you increase the speed and ballistic nature of the movement over time to more closely mimic the specific actions of the running stride.

General strength: high-bench step-ups

Perform this exercise twice a week after you have warmed up thoroughly.

Begin from a standing position on top of a bench that is approximately knee high, with your body weight on your left foot and your weight shifted toward the left heel. The right foot should be free and held slightly behind your body. Lower your body in a controlled manner until the toes of the right foot touch the ground, but support all of your weight on your left foot. Return to the starting position by driving down with the left heel and straightening your left leg. Maintain an absolutely upright body posture with your trunk throughout the entire movement, with your hands held at your sides.

Perform this exercise for two sets of 10-15 repetitions with each leg. You can make the step-ups progressively more difficult by holding dumbbells in your hands as your perform the exercise (start with three to five pounds and gradually increase to 25 pounds) - and by gradually increasing the height of the step. Increase the height of the step by no more than two inches from workout to workout. Of course, you can eventually add on additional reps and sets as well - and increase your overall speed of movement.

Incidentally, you may have noted with some surprise that we called the bicycle swings a specific strength exercise for the hamstrings - and labelled the high-bench step-ups a general hamstring-strengthening activity. Since the high-bench step-ups force the hamstrings to exert force while they are in a weight-bearing mode, while the bicycle swings call for hamstring action when the hams aren't bearing any weight, shouldn't that be the other way around? The high-bench step-ups seem more specific to the act of running, which of course was a weight-bearing activity the last time we checked.

To understand why we have labelled the exercises this way, think about this question: do hamstring injuries occur more often when the leg to be injured is actually weight bearing, or when that leg is in the air (during the swing phase of the gait cycle). To put it another way, is a typical hamstring injury a 'closed-chain' or 'open-chain' event?

It's likely that most hamstring injuries actually occur as a result of an open-chain (non-weight-bearing) problem. As we have mentioned, the key difficulty is that the thigh swings forward repetitively during running while the hamstrings are becoming more and more fatigued; the hamstrings in fact have to control this forward swinging, yet they become too fatigued to properly handle the forward-pulling, eccentric action (eg the strain on the hamstrings during the swing phase of the gait cycle becomes greater than the strain the hams can withstand without getting hurt). As we mentioned, fatigue is not a necessary factor for injury, but it certainly helps. If the hams are not fatigued, they may still be over-stressed early in workouts or races by explosive and expansive strides which also place too much strain on the hams during swing.

Thus, the 'swing' exercises described above are designed to strengthen the hamstrings during the swing phase of gait by manipulating and increasing the speed, range of motion, and resistance that the hamstrings must properly handle while the leg is off the ground. These exercises are specific to the action during which the hamstrings are most often injured. Meanwhile, the high-bench step-ups strengthen the hamstrings during weight-bearing movement, but since this is not the specific time when most hamstring injuries occur, we label the step-ups a general strengthening activity for the hams.

Post-training exercise: the standing isometric hamstring stretch

Perform the following stretch at the end of your training session. You should not be overly fatigued when using this stretch, so incorporate it into workout sessions that are not excessively difficult. The standing isometric hamstring stretch should be performed twice a week if you don't have a hamstring problem and three times a week if you are currently rehabilitating a hamstring injury.

Begin by standing with your weight fully supported on your left leg (you may place your right hand on a wall or other support to maintain your balance). Then, place your right heel on a chair, table, or other similar support in front of you. The height of this supporting structure should be somewhere between your knee and hip; the more flexible you are, the higher the support can be. Your right knee should be extended so that your right leg is straight. With your shoulders and chest facing straight forward (towards your extended right leg), attempt to move your belly button as close to your right knee as you can - until you feel a strong (but not painful) stretch in your right hamstrings.

At this point, you are ready to begin the isometric portion of the stretch. Starting gradually, attempt to push your right heel down towards the floor by contracting your right buttock, hip, and hamstring muscles for a count of six to eight seconds. This contraction should start gradually and build to close to maximal effort by the fourth second or so. Allow your muscles to relax completely for a few seconds after the contraction, and then again attempt to move your belly button a little closer to your right knee. Repeat this sequence, Isometric contraction - move closer to knee - isometric contraction - move closer to knee - at least three to five times before performing the entire sequence with the other leg. Rest for a short period, and then repeat with both legs. These isometric hamstring stretches will take you no more than five to six minutes to perform.

Another great stretch for the 'strings - although not an isometric one - is the rotational hamstring stretch (RHS). To perform the RHS, stand on your right foot with your left leg elevated to nearly hip height in front of you, with your left heel resting on top of a bench or table. Your right foot should be turned outward approximately 45 degrees from straight ahead. Then, lean forward slightly to induce stretching on the left hamstring. At this point, rotate your left foot, ankle, knee, and hip inward and outward 15 times to each side. Repeat the above action with your support (right) foot rotated inward approximately 10 degrees. Finally, repeat both of the above actions with the opposite leg. Carrying out the RHS after your warm-ups and also after your workouts are over (in addition to the standing isometric stretch) is a great way to improve hamstring flexibility. Remember that as hamstring flexibility improves, the hamstrings are less likely to be overstressed during the swing phase of the gait cycle.

Pull bounding and hopping

Yet another way to improve the strength and dynamic mobility of the hamstrings would be to perform some exaggerated pull bounding. To do this, warm up with at least 10 minutes of relaxed jogging, and then - on a gym floor or smooth grassy surface - bound quickly for about 30 to 40 metres, emphasising longer-than-usual - but also very quick - strides. During these exaggerated pull bounds, you should focus on both increasing the forward swing of each leg (hip flexion) and also the backward pull (hip extension) of each leg once the foot has hit the ground. By doing so, you are increasing hip (and thus hamstring) range of motion, fostering the ability of the hamstrings to withstand injury-producing forward-swing forces, and also aggrandising hamstring strength. Progress your exaggerated pull bounding by increasing the number of reps (start with just three to four 30- to 40-metre reps), by expanding the length of the reps (to 100 metres or so), by upgrading your speed of movement, and by then moving the venue for the pull bounds from a flat, forgiving surface to a hill of moderate steepness.

Another progression, of course, would be to move from pull bounding to exaggerated pull hopping. This exercise proceeds exactly the same way as pull bounding, except that you remain on one leg for the full duration of a repetition (staying on one leg will dramatically improve the fatigue-resistance of your hamstrings). Begin with 10-metre reps and gradually increase to 50 metres (the pull hops may also be performed on a hill).

'If you have had hamstring problems in the past, you are at significantly greater risk of hamstring troubles in the future'

Another way to increase the fatigue-resistance of your hamstrings, especially if you are planning to run a marathon, is to challenge your hamstrings when they are already in a somewhat fatigued state (obviously, this challenge must not be great enough to injure your precious hams in the process). As you get ready for the marathon, one way to vanquish hamstring fatigue (in addition to carrying out the exercises described above) is to change the nature of your long runs. Instead of merely ambling along for 20 to 22 miles at slower than goal marathon pace, run 15 miles moderately - and then click off five to six miles or so at your goal speed, the one you hope to sustain on your big day. Doing this several times during your pre-marathon build-up will increase the ability of your hamstrings to handle the late-race pressures and strains which can damage less adequately prepared 'strings. After you have completed several of these marathon-specific runs, your hamstrings will have enough fortitude to lower their risk of trouble in late stages of the race.

If you have had hamstring problems in the past, you are at significantly greater risk of hamstring troubles in the future, compared to athletes who have been free of hamstring maladies. If your hamstrings haven't given you too much distress, what's the best way to assess your risk of difficulty? There seem to be three important risk factors: (1) poor hamstring flexibility and mobility, (2) inadequate hamstring strength, and (3) being generally out of shape. The first two factors place too much stress on the 'strings during the swing phase of the gait cycle, as we have mentioned. Being out of shape is also risky, because it increases hamstring fatigue during training. As we have already noted, tired strings do a poor job of controlling forward leg swing and are more likely to be overstrained during running.

Is a big calf a big risk factor?

And there may be yet another risk factor - the possession of large calf muscles and/or big feet. Although this may seem strange, it's clear that heftier calves or bulkier feet would place added stress on the strings.

The Conclusion

Hamstring tightness can really put the skids on training plans and competition aspirations. If you follow these simple exercise routines you have a much better chance of staying clear of it and reaching your final goal.

Owen Anderson

Hamstring tightness