Hamstrings

How to build bigger hamstring muscles

IN this YouTube video, IFBB bodybuilder Benjamin Paluski demonstrates a great hamstring curl machine exercise. He explains that the hamstrings don't just flex the knee joint, they also extend the hip joint. So for maximum effect in any hamstring exercise, you need to make sure you're activating both ends of this muscle group. The machine he uses is one you won't see in most gyms, as the angle is different. You're probably more used to the lying (prone) hamstring curl machine. Benjamin shows all the qualities of an outstanding personal trainer: he explains clearly how the muscle functions, he demonstrates the most effective method of the exercise and why it's so effective, and then shows variations of the movement.

Strong and flexible hamstrings are a key part of your leg development. Also known as your 'leg biceps', your hamstrings are at the back of the thigh and oppose the quadriceps, the muscles at the front of the thigh. According to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the primary exercises for the hamstrings are leg curls (both seated and prone), squats (particularly the lower portion), lunges, and deadlifts.

When he reached a plateaus in his leg development, the bodybuilder Tom Platz used what he called the 'stripping method'. This involves selecting a heavy weight, and doing as many full reps as possible. When he could not perform any further full reps, he would continue with half reps. When he had exhaused this range of motion, he would proceed directly to quarter reps, and perform to exhaustion. This is a high-intensity method, which demands mental toughness. It's one of several methods which Arnold Schwarzenegger calls "Shock Principles". In his words, "Pushing the legs to their ultimate development requires a mixture of courage, technique, and imagination."

Your hamstrings comprise three major muscles at the rear of the thigh. And like the quads, the hamstrings are evolved for both strength and endurance, so to develop them you should do fairly high reps (15-20) with heavy weights.

Make sure you always start your hamstring exercises with light weights and very high reps (15-20) to thoroughly warm them up. You don't want to pull this muscle, or you'll be hobbling around for days. Perform the movements slowly and smoothly at all times. And at the end of your workout, stretch the hamstrings thoroughly, holding each stretch for at least 1 minute. The hamstrings are prone to tightness, more than any other muscles, save perhaps for the calves.

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Your hamstring muscles need a longer stretching session at the end of a workout than most muscle groups, as they have a tendancy to become over-tight. Always stretch at the end of a workout, or a run, or any sport. Hold each hamstring stretch for a full minute, to really stretch them thoroughly.

I recommend you perform several different hamstring stretches in one session, to really stretch these stubborn muscles from all angles. I knew a personal trainer in east London who devoted a full 10 minutes to hamstring stretches at the end of his legs workout. You can do standing stretches with a leg up on the back of the sofa (or the side-rail of the running machine at the gym), stretches lying down, or sitting. It's worth doing the whole range.

As well as flexing the leg at the knee and extending the thigh at the hip joint, the hamstrings also act as a braking system to slow down the leg at the end of its forward swing in walking and running. This is why runners are prone to pulled hamstrings, particularly sprinters. When you see a sprinter on TV hopping along the track and grimacing in pain, he's pulled a hamstring.

Your hamstring muscles

The 3 muscles of the hamstrings are the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. These three muscles are all biaxial (or biarticulate) as they straddle two joints, in this case the knee joint and the hip joint. Contrast this with the quadriceps, where just one of the 4 quad muscles is biaxial (rectus femoris).

Biceps Femoris

This is your biggest hamtring muscle. The origin of the 'long head' of this muscle is the ischial tuberosity. The ischium is commonly known as the 'sitting bone', at the base of your pelvis. There is also a 'short head' which originates a quarter of the way down the rear of the femur (the bone of the upper leg). Both heads insert at the lateral side of the head of the fibula and tibia, the bones of the lower leg.

Semitendinosus

This muscle also originates at the ischial tuberosity. It inserts at the medial surface of the shaft of the tibia.

Semimembranosus

Like the other two, this muscle also originates at the ischial tuberosity. It inserts at the rear of the head of the tibia.

Include these exercises in your hamstrings workout:

Leg Curl Machine - The number one exercise for hamstrings, this can be done lying face down on a leg curl machine, or on a seated version (seated is preferrable if you have lower back problems). Some gyms even have a standing leg curl machine.

Barbell stiff leg Deadlifts - Good form is vital for this exercise. Don't round your back, perform the movement slowly, and build up the weights gradually. Get a personal trainer to check your technique. This exercise is a fantastic whole-body builder, which also works many back muscles and stimulates a growth hormone release when you lift heavy.

Squats - this also works the quads. The deeper you squat, the more you recruit hamstrings/quadriceps. Shallow and heavy squats recruit the glute muscles more. If you squat with barbell in front of body, this emphasises the quads. But if you squat with barbell behind neck,this puts more emphasis on the hamstrings. Beware of squatting below 90 degrees of knee flexion, this is too deep and puts too much pressure on your knee joint.

Leg Press Machine - also works the quads. Keep your back flat against the seat, and keep the tempo slow and controlled. Stop if you get knee-joint pain.

Lunges - similar effect to squats but with some additional balance and stabilization of spine required. A lunge to the front works the front leg, while a lunge to the rear works the non-lunging leg, as it's more like a one legged squat, with the back leg used as balance. A more advanced variation is the walking lunge, as you need more balance and stability as you move forward step by step in this dynamic movement.

Remember to stretch!

I know I've mentioned it above already, but it's worth saying again. Hamstrings are stubborn muscles to stretch, and require a little longer than most muscles. I recommend 1 minute per stretch.

I know a personal trainer in London who can do the splits, his hamstrings are so flexible. You don't need to be that flexible, but it's worth devoting plenty of time to stretching out your hamstrings after a leg workout or any activity that has worked the leg muscles (tennis, running etc). Tight hamstrings will set you up for a nasty injury if you're not careful, so stretch this stubborn muscle more than any other. Tight hamstrings can compound knee-jarring, and set you up for knee injuries. And if you get a knee injury in your 20's, you're more likely to suffer arthritis in that knee in later life. So it's worth stretching your hamstrings diligently.

You can stretch your hamstrings alone, but for an extra-effective stretch it's worth having a personal fitness trainer to assist you.