Hamstrings refer to the two groups of tendons behind your knees or, more commonly, the three muscles extending down the back of your thighs, originating from a common point in your hips and extending to your knee joints. Your hamstrings help you flex your knees and extend your hips, making it focal in activities that propel you forward like running, skiing, and skating.
Quadriceps are the four muscles in the front of your thighs. They work antagonistically with your hams. When you straighten your knees to propel yourself forward, weak hams cannot lengthen quick enough to support your action. Your quads compensate by forcing them to lengthen, causing a “hamstring pull.” This is also why your quads and hams need to be balanced in terms of strength.
You can now imagine why “out of sight, out of mind” is not the mantra you should follow when it comes to your hams. Neglected hams translate into a quite literal pain in the rear. You need to strengthen your hamstrings if you intend to remain fit and not just if you’re a runner – it’s everyone’s problem! Here are ways to test if you’re hams are in good shape or a work in progress.
1. Perform Straight Leg Raises
While lying on your back, lift your legs straight up, one at a time. While you exert your abs to do so, you will also feel a significant stretch behind your thighs. If you have weak hamstrings, you will not be able to lift your legs beyond a few inches. In that position, strong, healthy hams will allow you to lift your legs about 80–90 degrees from the ground.
2. Touch Your Toes
In a standing position, slump down and touch your toes without bending your knees, as far as possible. The stretch you feel behind your thighs are your hamstrings lengthening. If you struggle to touch your toes, you have weak hams. If you feel a shooting pain down the back of your leg as you do so, your hamstring weakness may be nerve-triggered rather than muscular. You may also do this test while sitting with your legs stretched out.
3. Knead Your Hamstrings
Using the knuckles of a closed fist, knead the back of your thighs. As unfamiliar as it may feel, it will help you locate and identify strong posterior muscles. Look for loose areas of flab. If you find them in plenty, you have weak hams. Stretching so far back may be quite a strain for some, in which case ask someone to do the kneading for you and tell you what he or she feels.
4. Determine Your Ham-Quad Ratio
This is the most quantitative test on this list to check if you’re hamstrings have what it takes. You will need to perform one complete repetition each of weighted leg curls and leg extensions. Divide the maximum weight used for doing your leg curls by the maximum weight used for leg extensions and multiply by 100.
A normal quad:ham ratio is 50–80%, which means your hamstrings need to be at least half as strong as your quadriceps. In other words, if you do 100 pounds on leg extensions, you should be able to do at least 50 pounds on leg curls. If you can’t, you have weak hams.
For the next two methods, you’ll need some help.
5. Test With Functional Knee Bridges
Lie on your back, raise one leg straight out and rest your heel on someone’s shoulder. Pushing down on his or her shoulder, lift your hip upward off the ground in an attempt to align it with your thighs. Notice how your hamstrings strain and watch out for any discomfort or pain. Weak hamstrings make this simple action quite challenging.
6. Test With Resisted Knee Flexion
Lie on your back with your legs stretched out and ask someone to hold one ankle down. Consciously squeezing your hams, attempt to pull your fastened heel toward your glutes against the resistance provided by the other person. Pain or discomfort as you do so is indicative of weak hams craving some TLC.
While the proverbial going weak in the knees may be welcome, you don’t want it be because of neglected, weak hamstrings. It is common knowledge that strenuous physical activity or a muscle sprain (possibly due to tight hamstrings) are causes for pain and discomfort in your hams. However, a more serious trigger may be sciatic nerve irritation, particularly in your lower back. This is why it is always advisable to see a doctor to investigate a hamstring injury.
As a general rule, injured hamstrings should be allowed to recover without any attempt to forcefully strengthen them. Once they’re good as new, go all out to give them the workout they need.