What could be more inconvenient than a training injury? One of the most common injuries that befall athletes and amateur bodybuilders alike are hamstring injuries, an injury that can take a budding athlete out of commission for a few weeks. If you’ve ever had a pulled hamstring, you know how uncomfortable it can be and how such an injury can limit your performance. Hamstring strains are graded as 1, 2, or 3 based on their severity.
How common are hamstring strains? Among soccer players, a study found that in a given season more than half of all soccer players experience a hamstring strain or injury. That’s substantial! But you don’t have to be an athlete to be sidelined by a hamstring injury. Let’s look at why they’re so common and what you can do to lower your risk.
As you know, the hamstrings are the muscles that run down the back of your thigh. Anatomically, they’re made up of three muscles: the semimembranosus, the semitendinosus, and the biceps femoris. These muscles connect at one end to your hip and at the other to your knee. You use your hamstrings primarily to extend your hip and flex your knees. They also help with internal and external rotation of the hip. Functionally, your hamstring muscles also help you decelerate when you’re walking or running.
Are You at Risk for a Hamstring Injury?
It’s not clear exactly what causes a hamstring to become injured but if you’ve had one before you’re at higher risk for injuring a hamstring muscle again. The risk of experiencing one also goes up with age. As you might expect, there are anatomical factors that increase the risk, for example, weakness in the lumbar or pelvic region, weak hamstrings, and tight hamstrings. Fortunately, these are risk factors you can modify and, potentially, compensate for. Let’s look at some of the anatomical factors that contribute to a hamstring injury.
A number of studies support the idea that weakness in a hamstring muscle predisposes to injury. More importantly, an imbalance between the muscles in the front of the thigh, the quadriceps, and the hamstrings in the back are a factor. This is especially important for women since women tend to have greater quadriceps strength relative to the strength of their hamstrings and need to compensate by working on hamstring strength.
Some studies suggest that hamstring tightness contributes to the risk of hamstring pulls and strains but tightness and inflexibility of the quadriceps muscles are a contributor as well. One study also showed that hip flexor tightness is a contributor to hamstring injuries. Tight hip flexors are a problem for many people due to the prolonged time most of us spend sitting.
Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Another common problem, called anterior pelvic tilt, places extra stress on the hamstrings and can increase the risk of injury. This is a condition related to tight hip flexors, usually due to sitting too much. It’s created by the pelvis tilting too far forward, resulting in an unnatural curvature to the spine. With anterior pelvic tilt, the hip flexors in the front are tight and the antagonist muscles in the back, the glutes and hamstrings are loose and weak.
Problems with Other Muscles
The hamstring muscles are part of the larger posterior chain, the muscles that run down the back of the body. These muscles work together as a unit when you move. Therefore, tightness or injury to one muscle in the chain can impact the activity of others. So, any change in function in the muscles on the back of the body can place excess stress on the hamstring and increase the risk of injury.
How to Prevent Hamstring Injuries
I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s better to prevent a hamstring injury than to have to rehab one, especially when it takes 3 to 4 weeks, on average, to recover. Plus, you’re at higher risk for a future hamstring injury after you’ve had one initially.
The majority of hamstring injuries happen while running at high speed, often during deceleration, as the hamstrings contract eccentrically to slow the speed of running down. The greatest risk of a hamstring injury is in the late swing phase of running. Now, let’s look at ways to lower your risk of hamstring strains:
Improve Flexibility & Reduce Tightness in the Back and Glutes
A tight back is a contributor to hamstring injuries. This isn’t surprising since the nerves that control your hamstrings run through your spine. One of the best ways to loosen up the muscles in your back is with lumbar rotation stretches. To do this stretch, lie flat on a mat, bend your knees, and rotate your bent knees slowly from side to side to stretch out the lumbar area. Also, work on releasing your glute muscles by doing simple glute stretches. If you’re extremely tight in the glutes, use a foam roller to help release the tightness.
Strengthen Your Hamstrings
Studies show that strengthening the hamstrings eccentrically reduces the risk of hamstring injuries. By training the hamstrings eccentrically, you strengthen the hamstring muscle at longer muscle lengths and this helps lower the risk of hamstring injury. When the hamstrings are stronger at longer lengths, they can better weather the forces you place on them when you run. There are a variety of exercises you can do to strengthen the hamstrings eccentrically. One you’re probably familiar with is the unilateral deadlift. Two other exercises that strengthen the hamstrings eccentrically are “good mornings” and hamstring bridges.
Warm-Up and Recover Properly
Always do a dynamic warm-up to increase blood flow to the muscles you’re working, including the hamstrings. Warming up is important since cold muscles are more likely to develop a strain. Fatigue is another factor that increases the risk of a hamstring strain. Don’t over-train and make sure you’re giving your muscles a chance to recover between workouts.
The Bottom Line
Make sure that you correct any muscle imbalances to avoid placing excessive stress on your hamstrings. There’s no sure way to prevent one but you can lower your risk by keeping these factors in mind.
Up to Date “Hamstring Muscle and Tendon Injuries”
Med Sci Sports Exerc. “Eccentric Hamstring Strength and Hamstring Injury Risk in Australian Footballers”
Sports Injury Clinic. “Hamstring Strain (Pulled Hamstring)”