A gunshot to the leg.
That's what it felt like. One moment I was sprinting, and the next I was lying on the ground in agony. It felt like someone had ripped my left hamstring right off the bone. I could barely stand. There was no way I was walking. My friend had to carry me off the field.
Now, I've never actually been shot in the leg, but in my mind I expect it would feel like the worst hamstring pull times 1,000.
One moment your leg is good. The next, it's completely useless and filled with a burning sensation.
This was the first time I experienced a hamstring pull.
It sounds a little dramatic, I know. But if you've ever pulled your hamstring, you know how awful it feels. The pain and agony when it happens can quite literally take you off your feet. The worst part is that even to this day (10 years later) I'm slightly hesitant to sprint full speed in fear that it may happen again.
The truth is, my left hamstring has never felt the same since I pulled it that day.
It wasn't until that injury that I really started to investigate why athletes pull their hamstrings so often and how I can work to make sure it doesn't happen to me again.
First, I had to understand exactly how and why it happens in the first place.
What Exactly Is a Hamstring Pull or Tear?
To understand a hamstring pull let's first look at what the hamstring is and what it does.
The hamstring is actually made up of three different muscles, semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris. Besides the obvious functions of bending the leg at the knee and assisting to extend the hip, the hamstring muscle group also plays a crucial role in the deceleration of the leg during sprinting.
When you're sprinting, your hamstrings have to work extremely hard to decelerate the lower leg before your foot strikes the ground with each stride. The faster you sprint, the harder the hamstrings have to work to slow down the leg before it strikes the ground.
This function of the hamstrings in this moment is what we call an eccentric contraction. This means the hamstrings essentially resist the collapsing of the leg every time the foot strikes the ground.
Now, take a quick second to think about how much effort you exert while sprinting and how much force you apply to the ground.
Let's just say it's A LOT.
This is why eccentric overload—too much force for the muscles to handle—occurs, resulting in a hamstring pull, or a tearing of the hamstring muscles.
The severity of the pull, which is technically referred to as a strain, depends on how much tearing actually occurs—a pull, strain and tear refer to the same injury. More tearing equals greater severity, greater pain and longer recovery time.
Once I understood exactly what happened to my leg, I could begin to come up with a training plan to help prevent that same issue in the future.
3 Exercises to Help Prevent Hamstring Pulls
I quickly began to appreciate the importance of a well-structured strength and conditioning program to prevent the possibility of a hamstring tear, or any non-contact injury for that matter.
I believe it was Mike Boyle who said there's no such thing as an injury prevention program, there's just a good strength and conditioning program. A good strength and conditioning program will naturally prevent injury.
Thankfully, we have yet to have an athlete suffer a hamstring pull at O.B. Training & Sports Performance in the last five years.
Here are 3 exercises we use to help maintain that statistic.
Glute Ham Raise (GHR)
The Glute Ham Raise, in my opinion, is one of the best exercises to develop posterior-chain strength and prevent hamstring pulls.
Once you set yourself up on the GHR, you want to kneel as tall as you can and make sure your pelvis is in a neutral position. It's easy to arch your back and anteriorly tilt your pelvis to make the exercises easier. There should be a straight line connecting your knees, hips and shoulders at all times.
From the start position, slowly lower your body forward by extending at the knees only, essentially falling toward the ground. When you reach a position almost horizontal to the ground, forcefully pull yourself back to the top.
The lowering phase of this exercise is the most important. This is the eccentric phase that I mentioned above. You want to really focus on controlling your body throughout this whole phase to develop that eccentric strength, as it will be vital for your hamstrings to resist tearing under pressure.
Note: Placement of the knees on the pad determines how far up or down the hamstring the focus is. Knees higher up the pad place the focus lower down the leg; and knees lower on the pad place the focus higher toward the glutes.
The Single-Leg RDL is a great posterior chain exercise that allows you to focus on one leg at a time. Like most things, we tend to have a dominant limb. This means that one leg may be weaker than the other and cause the stronger one to overcompensate, which could lead to pulling a hamstring.
I prefer to use the Landmine as it allows for greater stability for athletes who are new to the exercise.
Starting in the standing position, place the weight on your outside leg. From here, bend your knee slightly and begin by hinging at the hip. Again, the main focus should be on controlling the lowering portion of the exercise to develop the eccentric strength that is so important. As you extend at the hip, your opposite leg will begin to rise while you maintain a straight line from head to heel. Lower the bar until the plate gently touches the floor and then forcefully extend the hip and "snap" back to the upright position.
Note: If you don't have a landmine you can also use a dumbbell or kettlebell.
TRX Hamstring Curl
The TRX Hamstring Curl is a great lower intensity exercise for focusing on really slow, controlled eccentric contractions. The great thing about the TRX is this exercise can pretty much be done anywhere.
Start by lowering the TRX handles to roughly shin height. Lie on your back and place your heels in the bottom loops of the TRX handles. Once there, extend your hips into the air by squeezing your butt and the backside of your legs. Slowly pull your heels toward your butt, hold for 1 second and then push your heels back out until your legs are straight again.
The keys to this exercise are keeping your butt elevated and controlling the movement throughout the whole range of motion. Like the exercises listed above, focus on the eccentric portion (extension) of the movement.
Note: If you don't have a TRX, you can also use a stability ball or furniture sliders to perform this exercise.
Putting It All Together
Now that you know how the hamstrings function, why they are so easily pulled, and how you can prevent it, it's time to get to work.
Try adding these exercises to your training routine, and don't forget to focus on the eccentric portion of each exercise and really control the movement. These exercises may not be super macho or cool, but they can do wonders for preventing hamstring pulls. Remember, a good training program can be the difference between injury and performance.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock