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Hamstring injuries are common. Tight hamstrings or weak hamstrings are many times the culprit. Healthy hamstring muscles should be a combination of both strength and flexibility. Although many yoga postures can be valuable for stretching and building strength, we will break down how the hamstrings attach to the body and some of our favorite yoga poses that can help your clients build the delicate balance of strength and flexibility.
The hamstring is a collection of three muscles on the posterior portion of the upper leg. They are the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus. All three muscles begin at the pelvis and stretch down the length of the back of the leg to the knee.
The bicep femoris is the most lateral (closest to outside of the leg) of the three muscles. It's unique in comparison to the other two hamstring muscles because it has two heads (a long head and a short head).
Origin and insertion: One of the heads' origins is the ischial tuberosity of the pelvis and the other originates on the posterior portion of the femur bone. The heads come together and the muscle inserts on the head of the fibula.
The semitendinosus is located medial (closet to the inside of the leg) to the biceps femoris muscle and lies on top of the third hamstring muscle (the semimembranosus).
Origin and insertion: The semitendinosus muscle originates on the ischial tuberosity of the pelvis and inserts on the medial portion of the tibia.
The semimembranosus is the third hamstring muscle. It lies just underneath the semitendinosus muscle on the medial portion of the back of the leg.
Origin and insertion: Like the other two hamstring muscles, the semimembranosus originates on the ischial tuberosity of the pelvis but it inserts on the medial tibial condyle (1).
All three muscles work together to flex the knee and extend the hip. The hamstrings collaborate with the front of the leg (quadriceps) to move the legs and stabilize the knees and hips. There are many exercises to help build strength and stretch the hamstrings. We have a few favorite yoga postures to help your clients build both.
Flexible hamstrings are essential for healthy pain-free movement and performance. Tight hamstrings can tug on the pelvis which can cause the pelvis to rotate back. Because the body works together as one functional unit, even the slightest rotation impacts movement throughout the kinetic chain. This rotation or pelvic tilt can then contribute to back pain. Flexible hamstrings are also an essential component of athletic performance (2). Here are two of our favorite postures to support hamstring flexibility.
Your client should begin on their hands in knees with the wrist pointed straight ahead and aligned with the elbows and shoulders. The tops of the feet should be touching the yoga mat with the toes pointing straight back and aligned with the knees and hips. Clients should press their palms into the floor, lift the knees off the floor and tuck their toes so the bottoms of the toes are pressing into the floor. The pelvis should raise toward the ceiling as the client slowly straightens their legs as much as possible without locking the knees. They should continue to press their hands into the floor while lifting their pelvis towards the ceiling and gently pressing their chest towards their thighs. The body should be in the shape of an upside-down "V." Encourage the client to focus on the inhale and exhale through the nose throughout the movement.
The downward dog is often a transitional stretch that flows into other movements and postures. If the client is not transitioning to another posture, they can slowly bend their knees, lower their hips, and transition back into the starting position.
Clients should begin with their legs extended and feet straight out in front of them in a seated position on the yoga mat. The knees do not need to be straight unless flexibility allows. Clients with limited flexibility may benefit from learning the posture with a bend in the knees and gradually straightening them.
Instruct your client to inhale and raise the arms above the head while lifting the ribcage and lengthening the spine. Keeping the chest up and the spine lengthened, the client will hinge forward at the hips. With a straight back, the client will press their chest towards the feet and reach for their big toes. They should resist pulling with their hands or rounding their spine but rather elongate their torso and press their chest forward. They will transition back into the starting position the opposite way that got into the posture.
Hamstring strength is also essential for quality of movement, performance (3), and injury prevention. Weak hamstrings can contribute to knee pain and hamstring injury. The hamstring's antagonist is the quadricep muscle. Balance between the hamstring and the quadricep is important because they work together by opposite contraction and relaxation to create leg movement. If the quadriceps are strong and the hamstrings are weak, which is common, the hamstrings struggle to keep up with the quadriceps. This imbalance is one of the contributors to hamstring injury (4). The following postures can help clients build strength in their hamstrings.
Your client will begin in a standing position with arms pointed down towards the floor. They will shift the weight to one leg, keep the hips square, and hinge forward at the hips on one leg. The leg that is not in contact with the ground should remain straight and contracted and create a 90-degree angle with the balancing leg. The balancing leg should engage all the major muscles of the leg and maintain a strong knee.
As the client hinges forward, the arms should extend back and reach towards the direction of the toes opposite the balancing leg. The arms can alternatively stretch out in front of the body with the biceps close to the ears which creates a letter "T" with the body.
Again, it is important to have the client focus on the inhale and exhale throughout the posture. The client should come out of the posture slowly utilizing the hamstring to control the hip hinge back to the starting position.
The starting position for a reverse plank begins in a seated position with legs out straight and hands resting on the ground in alignment with the elbows and shoulders. The palms should press into the floor and fingers should point towards the toes. The client will contract the glutes and hamstrings and raise the hips off the floor, pressing the back of the heels into the floor to create a straight diagonal line from head to ankle. The hamstrings and glute muscles should be engaged at the top of the posture and then slowly lower the body back to the starting position.
As with most things in life and within the body, balance is key. Long and strong hamstrings are what we should be striving for and a consistent yoga practice can help your clients achieve those results.
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Rodgers CD, Raja A. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Hamstring Muscle. [Updated 2019 Oct 4]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-.
Garcia-Pinilos, F. et al. Impact of limited hamstring flexibility on vertical jump, kicking speed, sprint, and agility in young football players. Journal of Sports Science. 2015;33(12):1293-7. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2015.1022577. Epub 2015 Mar 12
Zakas A, Mandroukas K, Vamvakoudis E, Christoulas K, Aggelopoulou N. Peak torque of quadriceps and hamstring muscles in basketball and soccer players of different divisions, Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 1995 Sep;35(3):199-205
Ernlnd L., Vieira LA. Hamstring Injuries: update article. Rev Bras Ortop. 2017; 52 (4):373-382. Published 2017 Aug. 1. doi: 10.1016/j.rboe.2017.05.005.