The hamstrings, like all other muscles in the body, lack decision-making abilities – without sounding offensive, they are pretty dumb as far as the systems and structures that reside in our bodies go.

What these muscles do, however, is anything but dumb. They lengthen (stretch) and shorten (recoil) in three planes of motion, to support our varied life and sporting endeavours, and to assist the body to create effective and efficient movement and withstand the rigours of a lifetime.

In fitness, we still adopt an isolationist’s view of how muscles do what they do, with each individual component separate from each other, and as such how they must be trained. Isolationists believe that muscles act consciously to cause the bones of the joints they cross to move and, as a result, we have movement. This is the gym way of moving; however, this rarely happens outside the gym.

For some 470 years this has been the theory, which was based on cadaver studies in labs looking at electrical stimulation using direct current via the muscle electrolytes. This reinforced this notion for many years.

So, how do we make our training more authentic? The answer lies in nature’s principles – truths of human movement that have been exposed by the world renowned Dr Gary Gray, dubbed the “father of function” in the movement world, at the Gray Institute.

What are these principles – or truths? If we can understand and leverage the truths, then we can create, on demand, the best outcomes for our patients, clients and athletes when it comes to functional hamstring training.

The principles of human movement include, but are not limited to, the following key components:

  • ALL muscles operate in 3D. It’s always all three simultaneously. Take the hamstrings: they lengthen in flexion (hip and knee) in the sagittal plane; they lengthen in both directions of the frontal plane with abduction/adduction (hip and knee); they lengthen in both directions in the transverse plane with internal/external rotation (hip and knee). The hamstrings are known for their sagittal plane prowess, but most injuries occur in rotation; therefore, we must train it!
  • ALL muscles are turned on via task-specific movements (think reach, squat, step, etc.). Muscles are reactors to movement, NOT actors that cause movement. So, to turn them on authentically, we must do so via motion/tasks that pertain to life/sport/a person’s goal. There’s a great saying – “train movements and muscles will be enhanced; train muscles and movement will be lost” – meaning we must train using tasks to subconsciously stimulate the system (muscles). When you bend to pick something up or walk down the street you never consciously think of activating any muscle. You think “reach down” or “put one foot forward, then the other”. You pray it reacts and controls your motion for you and, because the human sensory/motor system is so intelligent, it does so.
  • Muscles work as part of a chain reaction (integrated system). We often isolate muscles to strengthen and stretch, but the truth is this only serves to weaken and dampen their sensory inputs to the body. Muscles are designed to share load/stress across multiple joints/muscles for energy conservation (efficiency), better co-ordinated output of movement, and to pump the system via circulation/nourishment. Isolating a muscle will serve only to isolate stress and, with no friends to share the stress, it will be too easy to exceed those tissues’ load-bearing capacity, which causes said tissue to yield (disrupt, injure).
  • Gravity and the ground loads and turn them on. As well as our internal 3D environment (our bodies), they also must navigate our 3D world (physics). Gravity and ground reaction force are the most ubiquitous forces we deal with in life – they are always there. When you are upright/standing (which is life/sport/daily tasks), your foot enters the ground in walking, lunging forward, squatting – the two forces stimulate a reaction within your body whereby bones/joints move. This triggers muscles to react (think back to component number two). As we are talking hamstrings, their job is to decelerate (control) knee flexion, abduction and internal rotation (see component one – it’s always three planes of motion in authentic task-driven actions) and hip flexion, adduction and internal rotation – movement was triggered by the body moving against forces (gravity and ground) and the muscles subconsciously controlled the motion to stop you falling on your posterior (butt). Lying down (prone or supine) confuses the input of gravitational force/load when compared to standing, thus the proprioceptors/muscles will experience different stimuli – therefore, upright must be the preferred position of choice to train for functional transfer.
  • Muscles are ‘driven’ to move. Muscles react to motion. In motion, there is an anatomical ‘driver’ that sets in motion a chain reaction event and it’s the job of the muscles to control/stabilise the body. If I take my right hand and reach down and across to the outside of my left at knee height, it will cause my left hip joint to go through flexion, adduction and internal rotation – those hamstring muscles have been significantly lengthened in all three planes of motion, which is the most significant way to stretch and stimulate the hamstrings.

In summary, we must train whole-body integrated, three planes of motion, in upright positioning using task-orientated movements, driven by the hands and/or feet to ensure a proprioceptively rich environment, delivering the most authentic outcome for training the hamstrings to perform optimally, bolster resiliency and defend against injury in our programmes moving forward.

To practically apply this, we will follow a three-step process using Mobility, Stability & Strength to bulletproof your hamstrings for anything life throws your way.

Solution 1: Mobility

We should always seek to create space and open good-quality range of motion (in all three planes) to execute motion effectively and efficiently. Side note: the best way to create/expand mobility is to give the body maximum stability.

Solution 2: Stability

Once we have opened ranges in motion (mobility), we must teach the body to be able to control/own movements, by taking away stability and allowing the body to explore and control 3D space. If you lack stability/control, your nervous system will guard against those motions when life or sport demands it. If you have stability (control) in motion, you are in motor control, which means you will feel/perceive threat/be locked out of accessing movement via your intelligent nervous system.

Solution 3: Strength

We must load 3D motions (mobility). For our hamstrings to be fully robust/resilient, they must not only possess end range and odd-position mobile abilities, but they must also possess a high-load tolerance, giving us the best chance to mitigate disruption (injury) of the hamstrings in unfamiliar positions/motions. If we train in 3D with this simple three-step programme, then bullet proofing and high performance become the net result.

Paul Edmondson is a dedicated leader within the fitness industry, having worked with, and for some of the leading pioneers and biggest brands in the world both nationally and globally, including Gray Institute, ViPR, Anatomy Trains, Institute of Motion and others. His thought-provoking sessions are designed to bridge the gap between the traditional and new sciences to better equip trainers to serve their unique and individual clients. Paul takes pride in delivering complex content in a simplified manner and is determined to drive those he works with to become “better versions of themselves”