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Strong Hamstrings Matter: Here’s How to Build Their Strength

Your hamstrings are the large muscles in the back of your thighs that attach to your sit bones and the back of your knee. They control and stabilize movement when you bend your knee or extend your hip. You use your hamstrings for walking, running, sitting down and standing up.

Your hamstrings help protect your knees, hips and back. “Strong hamstrings support your back when you bend forward, whether you’re washing dishes, picking up your kids or doing laundry,” said Jared Hoffmann, a physical therapist with Banner Physical Therapy.

When your hamstrings are weak or tight, it can be harder to do simple tasks and you’re more likely to strain your hamstring or injure your joints. You may develop poor posture and lower back pain.

Why strong hamstrings are important

When your hamstrings are strong, your whole lower body is more stable. Since your hamstrings support your pelvis and spine, they can help keep your posture aligned and reduce the strain on your lower back. They help enhance your balance so you can react quickly to changes in your footing, and you’re less likely to fall

During sports and exercise, strong hamstrings reduce the risk that you injure a tendon. Since they stabilize your knees and hips, they lower the risk of injuries when you move or change direction quickly. 

What weakens your hamstrings?

A few different factors can impact your hamstring strength:

  • Age: Your muscles’ strength and flexibility may decline as you get older.
  • A sedentary lifestyle: When you spend a lot of time sitting or don’t get regular physical activity, your hamstrings can become imbalanced, weak, stiff and prone to injury. 
  • Not stretching: If you don’t stretch your hamstrings properly, they can get tight and are more likely to cause strains or tears.
  • Poor posture: When you slouch or round your shoulders, you can stress your hamstrings.
  • Previous injuries: If you’ve hurt your hamstrings or nearby muscles and haven’t done the right rehab exercises, you could injure them again.

How can you strengthen your hamstrings?

Hoffmann said when you want to improve strength in these muscles, it’s important to do exercises with good form. You need to engage your core and glutes so you can find your hamstrings. “It’s about feeling it in the right muscle. If your hamstrings don’t feel engaged, they’re probably not doing the work,” he said.

You may not have as much range of motion as a trainer or someone you’re watching on a video, and that’s OK. “Do it right, even if it’s not full range,” Hoffmann said. “Eventually, you’ll be able to get deeper.”

If you’re not sure if you’re exercising your hamstrings properly, a physical therapist or personal trainer can help you build the proper form. They can also help you develop a strength training program designed for your fitness level.

Before you start, do some light cardio exercise such as jogging, cycling or jumping jacks to get the blood flowing to your muscles, raise your body temperature and lower your risk of strains or tears. Include some leg swings and walking lunges with a torso twist to target the hamstrings.

Here are five exercises to try. Most exercises can be done at home, but some may require fitness equipment or access to a fitness center. Start with a light weight and increase it as you become stronger. Keep your movements controlled and avoid arching your back. 

1. Hamstring curls

Hamstring curls strengthen the part of your hamstring closer to your knee. 

  1. Lie face down on a leg curl machine (or bench with leg attachment) with your ankles under the padded roller. 
  2. Grasp the handles for stability, and make sure you extend your legs. 
  3. Exhale as you flex your knees, pulling the padded roller towards your buttocks. 
  4. Hold the contraction briefly, then slowly lower the weight back to the starting position. 
  5. Repeat for one to two sets of ten. Once you can do three sets of ten with good form, you can start adding weight. 
2. Deadlifts

Deadlifts strengthen the part of your hamstring closer to your glutes. 

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a barbell or dumbbells in front of your thighs with an overhand grip. 
  2. Keep your knees slightly bent and hinge at the hips, lowering the weight towards the floor while keeping your back straight. 
  3. Lower the weight until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, then engage your glutes and hamstrings to return to the starting position. 
  4. Keep the weight close to your body throughout the movement and avoid rounding your back or hyperextending.
  5. Repeat for one to two sets of ten. Once you can do three sets of ten with good form, you can start adding weight. 
3. Glute-ham exercise ball bridge with curl
  1. Place your heels on a stability ball and lift your bottom off the floor. Keep your hands on the floor at your sides to stabilize yourself.
  2. Engage your core and dig your heels into the ball.
  3. Use your hamstrings to curl the ball toward your bottom, squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement.
  4. Straighten your legs and return to the starting position. Make sure to avoid knee hyperextension (keep knee slightly bent). 
  5. Lower your bottom back to the starting position.  
  6. Repeat for one to two sets of ten.
3. Bridges
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. 
  2. Engage your core and glutes, and lift your hips towards the ceiling, creating a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Don’t arch your lower back excessively. Focus on pressing through your heels and engaging your hamstrings and glutes. 
  3. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement, then lower your hips back to the starting position. 
  4. Repeat for one to two sets of ten. Once you can do three sets of ten with good form, you can start adding weight. 
4. Donkey kick
  1. Position yourself on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulder and your knees under your hips.
  2. Slowly raise one knee out to the side, then return it to the floor. Be careful not to arch your back.
  3. Repeat for one to two sets of ten. Once you can do three sets of ten with good form, you can start adding ankle weights or resistance. 
  4. Repeat on the other leg.

To keep the hamstrings flexible, stretch them at least two to three times a week. Good options are standing hamstring stretches and seated forward bends. You want to hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, focusing on feeling a gentle stretch in the muscle without causing pain or discomfort. 

How to avoid injury

It’s best to start easy with hamstring exercises and slowly add repetitions and weight. Pay attention to your body and watch for signs that you’re tired or uncomfortable. Be sure that your training schedule includes rest days, so your body has a chance to recover and repair.

Excess body weight can stress the hamstrings and increase your risk of injury, so try to maintain a healthy weight by choosing a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains.

The bottom line

Your hamstrings are important muscles for walking, sitting, standing and bending. But they can become weak from sitting, poor posture and aging. Strengthening them can help keep them performing well as you age. 

For expert advice on strengthening your hamstrings or building your overall fitness, reach out to a provider at Banner Health.

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