Hamstring injuries can be a real problem for sprinting athletes. Not only do they sideline the athlete for weeks at a time, but they are also very likely to reoccur. For an athlete, a lot of the risk of hamstring injury occurs when the lower leg uncouples from the upper leg during the sprinting motion.
When sprinting, we bring the heel up to our hips. We do this to shorten the leg so it can move more quickly. Once this is done, the lower leg uncouples so it can drive down toward the ground. As the leg uncouples, the hamstrings lengthen. Not only are they lengthening, but they also have to fire eccentrically to slow the leg down (otherwise we'd hyperextend when we run). The combination of the lengthening and the eccentric action is what often leads to that dreadful "pop" in your hamstring.
The upshot is that sprinting athletes need hamstrings that are strong in the lengthened position. This means that as a strength and conditioning coach, I need to focus on these types of exercise for athletes.
Amateur athletes have a very limited amount of time to train and often a limited amount of space and equipment to train in. This means exercises need to be very carefully considered when being included in a strength and conditioning program.
One of the most popular type of hamstring exercises performed in commercial gyms are Leg Curls. There are several variations of this exercise. You can perform them lying down, sitting down or standing up, but the most common variations utilize a machine. For each type of Leg Curl, the exercise begins with the knees extended (i.e., pretty straight) with a pad on the back of the ankle. From this position, the knee is flexed until the pad is as close to the hips as possible. To perform this exercise, the hamstrings have to shorten to flex the knee.
It does produce a burn in the hamstring, and for most gym-goers, that's enough to conclude that the exercise works. However, there are a number of reasons why this exercise isn't great for sprinting athletes.
Recall why we are performing hamstring exercises for the sprinting athlete. It is to improve sprinting performance and to prevent hamstring injuries. We need to strengthen the hamstrings in the lengthened position. After we've curled the weight towards our hips, we have to get back to the starting position. That's lengthening the hamstrings, right? Technically, yes. But it's just not a very effective way to strengthen them.
A 2014 article published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that when compared with the Romanian Deadlift, Good Morning, and Glute Ham Raise, the Leg Curl was the least effective exercise of the four at recruiting the hamstrings during the eccentric part of the lift.
Additionally, the necessity of a machine makes programming the exercise in a team setting very difficult. There are high school programs with over a hundred athletes in the weight room at one time. If you only have one Leg Curl machine, is it really efficient to program it? The machine also has a fairly large footprint, so even getting it inside a strength and conditioning facility can be a pain. You're much better off putting that money and space toward a good squat rack and platform that will allow you to perform hundreds of exercises.
So if you're someone who needs to run fast to perform well in your sport, you should not rely on traditional Leg Curls to help you get faster and to protect your hamstrings. What can we do instead?
Before we get to the weight room, let's talk about hitting the hamstrings during a warm-up. I like including Inchworms and Crabwalks into my sprinting athletes' warm-ups. These help both activate and strengthen the hamstrings. For both moves, I like to start by having my athletes cover just 5 yards with the movement, but gradually progress to 20 yards.
Additionally, Straight Leg Matches for 20-40 yards before Straight Leg Bounds for 20-40 yards is another favorite hamstring combo of mine. Remember, the hamstring drives the leg into the ground!
In the weight room, if our focus is on making the hamstrings stronger in the lengthened position, we don't want to be doing exercises that shorten them. This means we want to stay away from traditional Leg Curls. However, Nordic Hamstring Curls are a phenomenal replacement thanks in large part to the eccentric nature of the movement.
Squats and Hip Extensions are also great choices. During a proper squat, the hamstrings play a huge role. They help you stay strong and in control as you lower into the squat, then help power the hip extension that takes you out of the hole into the standing position. Hip extension exercises include options like Romanian Deadlifts, Back Raises, Stability Ball Hip Lifts and Good Mornings.
When it comes to the cooldown after a track/field workout, I still like stretching after sprinting. There are plenty of reasons static stretching prior to a workout has fallen out of favor, but once that workout is over, take some time to stretch out your hamstrings and get comfortable with them in the lengthened position. Foam rolling post-workout can also be beneficial. Check out the best cool-down circuit for your hamstrings.
Leg Curls are a staple of lower-body exercise for thousands, if not millions, of gym-goers. But the truth is that the traditional variations of this exercise don't offer much bang for an athlete's buck. Don't waste your time sitting on a Leg Curl machine when you could be performing more functional movements that will help you run faster and stay healthier.
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