I love Shark Week. Watching a 2½-ton fish breach the calm sea, forcefully impact its prey and get airborne is exhilarating and a little terrifying. Now, for the record, I’m no tough guy. Before tuning in to watch these vicious shark attacks, I make sure I’m properly wedged between two couch cushions, armed with the most ferocious four-legged land creature known to man—my forty-pound miniature golden retriever, who’s afraid of the mailman—and keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. You know, just to remind myself that I’m on land.
For whatever reason, my Shark Week Netflix binge usually occurs a week or two before a beach vacation. Don’t ask me why this always happens. Yes, I know, the stars didn’t suddenly align and force me to watch Shark Week. I made the conscious decision to press the play button. But for those of you who watch Shark Week, you know about its ability to suck you in like a tractor beam!
So, during my ocean vacation, my mind of course jumps to that poor little sea lion shark snack. Like any real man, I think, “You’re fine; you’ll never get attacked by a shark,” and swim out into the water another 10 feet before quickly turning around and hauling ass back to the beach for a burger and a beer.
Athletes typically have the same mentality when it comes to hamstring injuries. The “that would never happen to me” mentality works until the moment time slows down, you feel your muscle tear, and you know—like that poor little sea lion—it’s game over!
The Great White of Sports Injuries
Hamstring strains are the most common injury in all sports. Hamstring injuries account for roughly 16% of all injuries in athletics. A severe injury can end an athlete’s season and put him or her at risk for more severe hamstring injuries down the road. The lifecycle of a hamstring strain is brutal. Severe strains can sideline an athlete for 16–50 weeks, and the one-year re-injury rate rises to 30%!
Let’s take a look at hamstring mechanics during sprinting for a little insight into how injuries occur.
When and How Hamstring Injuries Occur:
Hamstring strains usually occur during the terminal swing phase while sprinting, i.e., just before the foot contacts the ground. This is when the hamstring is near maximal length. The hamstring eccentrically contracts to decelerate the leg and must immediately produce a rapid, forceful and violent concentric contraction to propel the athlete down the field. It’s during this elongated eccentric contraction that the hamstring is most vulnerable.
Degrees of Hamstring Strains:
Grade I/Mild: Pain but no loss of strength
Grade II/Moderate: Loss of strength and pain with resisted contraction
Grade III/Severe: Rupture of muscle and complete loss of strength and function
Increasing Eccentric Hamstring Strength to Prevent Injury:
Researchers looked at the impact of eccentric hamstring strengthening exercises like Nordic Curls on the rate of hamstring injuries. They found that athletes who incorporated eccentric hamstring exercises in their training were three times less likely to suffer from hamstring injuries.
Our Take on Nordic Curls:
The Nordic Curl is an interesting movement. To properly perform a Nordic Curl, you need to wedge your feet under a bar or have another person hold your feet down. Starting in an erect position on your knees, the goal is to lower yourself slowly, through a full range of motion, by maintaining as much tension as possible in your hamstrings.
Nordic Curl Issues – Developing Strength through the Full Range of Motion:
The eccentric phase of the movement is effective up to roughly 45 degrees of extension. At this point, however, most athletes are not able to maintain a forceful enough contraction to maintain a slow lowering pace. They “break” and fall quickly to the ground.
Nordic curls don’t allow athletes to properly train their hamstrings through a full range of motion. More importantly, athletes are not able to develop hamstring strength near full extension where the muscle is most vulnerable.
Improving Eccentric Strength is Just Half the Battle.
As discussed, the hamstrings not only decelerate the leg during sprinting; they’re also responsible for producing violent and powerful contractions that propel the athlete horizontally. Thus, it’s important to train the concentric phase of the movement as well.
Nordic Curl Issues Continued…
Unfortunately, the concentric phase of a Nordic Curl is nearly impossible. In fact, I’ve only seen one person in my entire life actually perform multiple sets and reps with proper form. Oh, and by the way, he did it with weight. Don’t let this information bruise your ego too badly, though; he also set multiple NFL combine records. It just goes to show how strong you have to be to perform the concentric aspect of the movement.
If you watch an athlete perform the concentric phase of a Nordic Curl, you’ll see that the vast majority of athletes need to use momentum to get past 45 degrees; they use their arms to push up to or past 45 degrees. From there, they engage their hamstrings and pull themselves to the top.
Obviously, performing Nordic Curls is better than nothing, but in our opinion, it’s not the best option.
Two Primary Issues with Concentric and Eccentric Nordic Curls:
- The vast majority of athletes aren’t strong enough to perform either the eccentric or concentric phase of the Nordic Curl movement through a full range of movement.
- Athletes are not able to develop hamstring strength near full extension where the muscle is most vulnerable.
If you’ve read Simple Hamstring Exercise to Develop Super-Human Speed, then you know that not all hamstring exercises are created equal. If you haven’t read it yet, take it a look; it’s a great article on how to significantly increase running speed.
Developing Strength through a Full Range of Motion:
Our goal is to develop hamstring strength through the full range of motion to not only prevent injury but also improve performance. In order to accomplish this, there are a couple things to take into consideration. The first is the degree of effectiveness of the exercises. The second is the exercise’s degree of specificity, i.e., how well a movement translates to improving performance on the field.
Research has shown that glute ham raises (GHRs) and Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) produce the highest level of muscle activation of any hamstring exercise. GHRs are more effective during the concentric or muscle shortening phase of the movement. Romanian deadlifts are more effective during the eccentric or muscle-lengthening phase.
Combining RDLs and GHDs
If we combine GHDs and RDLs, we can benefit from increased muscle activation and an increased degree of specificity. Let’s take a look at some examples.
- RDLs + Hybrid GHD Raises
- RDLs + “GO” GHDs
- RDLs + Rebound GHDs
* If you’re not familiar with these exercises or variations, check out The 10 Best Hamstring Exercises for videos on how to perform these hamstring variations.
The goal with these combinations is to increase eccentric strength while simultaneously training the hamstrings to produce massive amounts of force during the concentric phase of sprinting. These combinations will not only reduce the risk of hamstring injuries; they will significantly improve the athlete's performance.
Yes, there is a sea lion slaughtering epidemic going on out there, and there's not too much our furry little friends can do about it. Unless they find a way to design and attach shark-killing laser beams to their heads, our little buddies are going to have to rely on strength in numbers to avoid Mr. Great White.
Humans are experiencing an epidemic as well. The rate of hamstring injuries in sports has not decreased in THREE DECADES. We're experiencing a hamstring strain epidemic because athletes are not properly training and conditioning their hamstrings. Coaches and athletes, now more than ever, should be focused on incorporating highly effective hamstring exercises in their training. Not only will hamstring training decrease the rate of hamstring injuries, but effective hamstring training will also give players and teams an edge over land competitors.
Sorry, guys; you're on your own in the water....
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