Jan 29, 2015
Why Do It If We Know Better?

By Vern Gambetta

Why is everyone so infatuated with the ham/glute raise and the Russian/Nordic hamstring curls? These are both exercises that I threw out of my toolbox years ago because I found that they were ineffective and predisposed the athletes to injury.

I am not sure what people are trying to accomplish with them. They are both training muscles. I prefer to train movements that stress muscles in an appropriate manner for the desired training objective.

No doubt the hamstring muscle groups are very important in movement, but they do not work in isolation, nor do they act in slow eccentric moments and they work both at the knee and the hip. I hear another buzzword as justification, they work the posterior chain–so what?

How about the total kinetic chain and fitting the hamstring in that context? The hamstrings must be integrated and coordinated to be effective in doing their job.

To help understand exercise selection lets look at the three movement constants. Start with the body, which is what we are trying to change and get to adapt through training. The second constant is gravity–an ever-present force that constantly loads the system. Last but not least, there is the ground where we live, work, and play.

Without applying force to the ground we cannot move. Lets look deeper into the body and look at hamstring function and its architecture that helps to determine its function. In running linear and multi-directionally, the hamstrings’ main job is to decelerate the foreleg and in stance extend the hip, along with gravity it also helps to flex the knee (not it’s primary job).

Based on its architecture (the pennation angles within the muscle) it is designed for speed and large amplitude movements. They work in all three planes of motion, not just the sagittal plane. The hamstrings work synergistically with all the muscles of the hip and the leg to produce the required efficient movement. They are like any good team player; they can’t do their job without help.

Now lets look at the specific exercises. The ham/glute raise isolates the hamstrings through a limited range of motion. It works in a horizontal orientation against gravity. No use of the ground and slow speed of movement. The Russian/Nordic hamstring curl basically isolates the hamstring at one joint, the knee through a very limited range of motion. It is a very slow, almost grinding eccentric movement that places tremendous abnormal stress on the distal hamstring. And there is no use of the ground. Based on basic exercise selection criteria, both of these exercises fail on all counts.

So what should you do instead? The solutions are actually quite simple and involve no fancy names and have minimal equipment needs–just manipulation of the three movement constants. Lunges and lunge and reach in all three planes of motion with appropriate resistance. Step-ups with both a low and a high box, simply provide a no-frills integration into the total chain.

These exercises train force reduction, force production and have high proprioceptive demand. They involve triple extension and triple flexion at a relatively high speed. Simple, get all the parts working together to produce efficient flowing movement that will transfer into the competitive arena.

Vern Gambetta, MA, is President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla. The former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox, he has also worked extensively with basketball, soccer, and track and field athletes. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning. Vern also maintains his own blog.

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