Out With A Hammy

Out With a "Hammy?" I Don't THINK So!
Phil Hueston, NASM-PES, IYCA-YFS

Every so often, science proves something that I've believed since I started training athletes. In some cases, like this one, I feel validated in a very direct way, thanks to the Scandinavians!

Stay with me on this one.

I have said on many occasions that the hamstring pull is the most preventable injury in all of sports. I've also said that if you have a recurring or nagging hamstring pull or strain, your training sucks; by extension, if you work with a Sports Fitness Trainer and you have "hammy" injuries, guess what (or who) else sucks? RIGHT! Your "Sports Fitness Trainer!"

Why can I say that? Because my athletes (clients) maintain the proper functional flexibility required to virtually eliminate hamstring injuries! They can be vanquished! A group of Scandinavian scientists back me up on this one, even if their methods were a little behind the curve.

In December of 2006 in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, researchers detailed the results of a study done on soccer players in Iceland and Norway. This study detailed the effectiveness of an eccentric ("negative" or lengthened muscle movement) training protocol versus a concentric training protocol on the incidence of hamstring strains and pulls in a group of players.

The scientists recognized that hamstring injuries were becoming a larger injury threat to soccer players than ankle sprains, accounting for as much as 16% of all soccer injuries! They also found that most of these injuries occur during the eccentric deceleration of the sprint movement or the end of the kicking stroke. In other words, as the hamstring slows and controls the leg at the end (top) of the kick, the hamstrings have to exert the largest force, and are subject to the greatest injury risk.

Now think of how we typically train the hamstrings. Typical gym "strength" exercises include lying hamstring curls (ugh!), seated hamstring curls (UGH!) and static stretching. Hamstring curls "strengthen" the hamstrings by shortening the muscle to create more concentric ("positive" or shortening movement) force.  The SJMSS study found that it was the eccentric deceleration of the leg that was the injury mechanism! What good is a strong hamstring curl doing you when the muscle is fully extended at the end of a kick?!?

What's really needed is more effective eccentric strength in the hamstrings in order to prevent injury and create stronger, more efficient sprinting, kicking, starting and stopping on the field.

The researchers used a protocol involving an eccentric strengthening exercise known as a "Nordic Hamstring Lower." Its execution is described below.

Here's a warm-up & flexibility training routine to try:

1. Lunge with rotation - Start in a standing position, with the hands together, extended in front of and pointing away from the body. Take a moderately long step out, squarely planting the heel of the front foot and pressing the middle toe of the back foot into the floor. Staying tall through the spine, with the abs braced, rotate the shoulders so the hands point to the side of the forward leg. Go as far as you can without altering the leg position, and without leaning. Rotate back to center, stand and repeat on the other leg. Perform 12 -16 reps, alternating legs each rep.

2. Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch - One of the "essentials" for my athletes. Kneel on one knee, with the opposite foot flat on the floor and both knees at 90° angles. Tuck the hips under you and keep the bellybutton drawn in. Squeeze the glute of the kneeling leg and slowly push the hip (only!) forward until a stretch is felt down the front of the kneeling leg. Hold for 20-30 seconds. Repeat twice per leg.

3. Lying Active Hamstring Stretch - Another stretch I insist on. Simple to do; lie on your back, knees slightly bent. Straighten and raise one leg, toe pointed to the sky. Put both hands behind the raised thigh. Lock the knee out straight. Hold for 5-10 seconds. Slowly bend the knee, keeping the hands behind the thigh. Do not lower past 90° at the knee. Perform 4-6 reps per leg, moving the raised leg closer to the head as flexibility increases.

4.SMR (Foam Rolling) for the Ilio-Tibial Band - This is a great way to increase inter-muscular coordination and improve the function of the hamstrings, quads, glutes and the entire lumbo-pelvic hip
complex. This improvement helps take undue strain off the hamstrings. Using a high density foam roller, lie on your side with the roller at a 90° angle to your leg. Place the roller near the top of the leg,
about where your pocket would be. Keeping the body and working leg straight, bring the other leg over the top and put your elbow on the floor to support your weight. Starting position should look like this:

(you don't need the kettlebells...they're optional!)

Begin moving your body so the roller moves towards your knee. GO SLOW! When you come upon tender spots, stay on them, keeping pressure on the roller until the pain level drops by 50-75%. Continue on like this until you reach the knee, then work back up to the hip in the same manner. Note: moving too fast will actually create more adhesions (the abnormal scar tissue you're trying to get rid of) than it eliminates.


5. Nordic Hamstring Lower - See the description and picture below:

The working partner holds his body in a hip-extended position while slowly lowering himself to the floor until his hands touch. He then lowers himself until the chest touches and explodes upward. As the athlete masters the slow, controlled tempo for 12 reps, he can then add speed to the start of the movement. This is a great way to rapidly increase eccentric strength in the hamstrings.

It should be performed only AFTER a good warm up exercise and some active flexibility and/or some self-myofascial release on the hamstrings, adductors and ilio-tibial band.

How do we know this works? The study group that made the most significant inroads into preventing hamstring injuries was the group that performed the Nordic Hamstring Lower along with a proper warm-up and assisted stretching!

So the "moral" of this story is simple: pay some attention to proper stretching, warm-up and eccentric training and you will never have to utter that most ridiculous of sports-related phrases: "I'm out with a hammy."