This article briefly outlines the anatomy of the hamstrings and its biomechanical role in the skeletal muscle system. It also covers training the hamstrings muscles from a bodybuilding perspective, and offers a sample routine that can be used to effectively target, build and develop the hamstrings complex.
Anatomy of the Hamstrings
The hamstrings are a group of muscles located in the posterior (back) of the thigh. The hamstrings are made up of three main muscles.
- The first of these muscles is Semitendinosus. This muscle is located posteriorly and medially (i.e. at the back of the thigh and towards the middle).
- The second muscle is Semimembranosus. This muscle is also located posteriorly and medially and is superficial (on top of) to semitendinosus.
- The last muscle that makes up the hamstrings complex is biceps femoris. The biceps femoris muscle, as its name suggests, is made up of two heads; the long head and the short head. This muscle is located posteriorly and laterally (i.e. on the outside back of the thigh).
All the muscles that make up the hamstrings (with the exception of the short head of the biceps femoris) originate from the pelvis (ischial tuberosity), cross the hip joint and knee joint and attach to either the tibia or the fibula (the two leg bones). The short head of the biceps femoris also attaches here however it does not cross the hip joint and originates from the bottom aspect of the femur (the thigh bone). The hamstrings muscles are all innervated by the Posterior Tibial Nerve. The short head of the biceps femoris is the only exception again. This muscle head is innervated by the Common Fibular Nerve.
Role of the Hamstrings Muscle Complex
Like the majority of muscles of the lower limb, the hamstrings are vital to gait as well as a number of other body movements. As the hamstrings cross both the hip and knee joints they therefore are able to have an effect on both these joints (with the exception of short head of the biceps femoris which doesn’t cross the hip). The hamstrings, when activated, cause flexion of the knee joint and extension of the hip joint. Their main roles include assisting in walking, running and jumping, as well as having a role in trunk support. The hamstrings also have a role in rotating the leg both internally and externally, however this role is minor. They also have a role in knee stability during both gait and stance.
Like so many of the muscles of the lower limbs, the hamstrings are a neglected muscle group. This is a shame as well developed hamstrings often make the lower body that much more aesthetically appealing. In competitive bodybuilding, the hamstrings can either make or break a competitor’s lower body physique. Too often you see bodybuilders with well developed quadriceps but absolutely no hamstring size or definition. Unfortunately this is easily spotted and can detract a lot from the physique. While training hamstrings should be undertaken from an aesthetic point of view, there are also other more serious factors that can come into play by neglecting to train them. Neglecting to train the hamstrings can lead to muscle imbalances, which can lead to poor posture and gait, as well as muscular fatigue, pain and dysfunction. While this is not a risk for most individuals, for those that start to develop significant muscular hypertrophy in the opposite, antagonistic muscles (i.e. the quadriceps) then problems can occur. The hamstrings need to be given as much attention as any other muscle group and they need to be trained with the same intensity and dedication. Simply following the motions and doing a few hamstrings exercises at the end of a workout will not cut it for those wanting serious growth.
Exercises For Balanced Hamstrings
Fortunately hamstrings are worked indirectly by a lot of different exercises, especially compound exercises primarily utilised for quadriceps, such as squats and lunges. However, for those wanting to take their physique to the next level, the hamstrings should be targeted and isolated to maximise muscular hypertrophy potential. Some of the more effective exercises that primarily isolate and work the hamstrings muscle complex include:
- Barbell Stiff-legged Deadlift
- Dumbell Stiff-legged Deadlift
- Romanian Deadlift
- Standing Hamstring Leg Curls
- Seated Hamstring Leg Curls
- Lying Hamstring Leg Curls
- Barbell Good Mornings
- Flutter Kicks
As the hamstrings muscle complex has a large influence on the functioning of the lower back, these exercises should be done with perfect form, starting with light weight and a good pre-workout warm-up to avoid injury. Additionally, in most individuals (especially adolescent males) the hamstring muscles are extremely tight (due to sitting down with the knees flexed at cars, desks, computers etc. all day). Thus it is important that an adequate warm-up that includes stretching of the hamstrings is completed before and after each workout.
Hamstring Training Reps & Sets
Many people believe that hamstrings respond best to high rep, moderate weight routines. However there are those that believe the opposite i.e. heavy weight with low to moderate reps. The truth is that both will work but that one of the techniques may be more beneficial than the other for some individuals. The best approach is to use a combination of both heavy weight, low reps and moderate weight high reps. Although it may take some time, eventually you will identify your ideal rep range to use. When doing low reps the amount of repetitions should not exceed eight. On the other hand, high reps should be anywhere from 10 to 15 repetitions. In regards to the number of sets, anything from three to five sets should be adequate for most individuals. Especially if other compound exercises have been completed earlier that activated the hamstrings muscles to some extent such as squats.
Sample Hamsting Training Routine
Hamstring training is more often than not completed after quadriceps training. It can be done whenever fits your schedule, provided you are not working them excessively over two consecutive days i.e. you wouldn’t train hamstrings the day after training quadriceps. Training hamstrings should not take you hours to do. When training hamstrings it is important to really concentrate on form to avoid compensation with the lower back muscles. Furthermore it is beneficial to pause at the top of the movement and really contract your hamstrings before slowly lowering the weight back to the starting position. Slow controlled movements, both in the concentric and eccentric phases of the exercise, is what works the best for muscular hypertrophy as it places continuous tension and stress on the muscle fibers.
The following is a sample hamstring routine suited to those just starting to train hamstrings:
- Barbell Stiff-legged Deadlifts (3-4 sets, 8-15 reps) – gradually adding weight for each set
- Lying Hamstring Leg Curls (3-4 sets, 8-15 reps) – gradually adding weight for each set
- Stiff-legged Deadlifts (3-4, 8-15 reps)
This may not seem like a lot but remember this is just a sample routine and chances are you would have hit your hamstrings when doing other compound exercises for your quadriceps. Try different exercises and experiment with sets, rep ranges and weight and you will soon find what works best for you. Also make sure you start with light weight and slowly work your way up, it is very easy to injure your lower back when undertaking hamstring exercises.
Bodybuilders Famous For their Hamstrings
Here is a list of a few bodybuilders that are known for their hamstrings development. A lot of hard work, time and dedication were put in by these bodybuilders to develop hamstrings like these.
- Francisco Bautista
- Erik Frankhouser
- Ben Pakulski
- Dorian Yates
- Tom Platz
- Mike Matarazzo
The Importance of Training Hamstrings
In conclusion, hamstring training is just as important as any other muscle group. Developing your hamstrings will add that extra something to your physique that will make it stand out. If you plan on competing in bodybuilding, it will give your lower body that extra edge over your competitors. Give your legs, including your hamstrings, the same attention you would give any other muscle group you will see results.