Archive for April, 2011

How are your Hammies?

Every athlete who walks through my door might think that they are going to come in, lie down on a bench and press a bar for a few sets of eight and then maybe some bicep curls while staring at themselves in the mirror and so on; but this is not really the case.  Before we go through any types of strength movements we have to see what we are dealing with.  Are there any mobility issues, strength imbalances or flexibility concerns that need to be addressed for optimal health and future performance; for most people the answer is yes.

Muscles of the Hamstring Group

One of the most common problems I see is that lack of optimal hamstring flexibility, especially among younger male athletes.  Poor hamstring flexibility, over time, potentially leads to reduced athletic performance, future tears in the muscle and surrounding muscles and excessive low back pain and tightness.  One study by Henderson et al. concluded that the risk factors for injury increase with age.  In their study of English Premier League Football (soccer) players they concluded that, “Older, more powerful and less flexible soccer players are at greater risk of sustaining a hamstring injury.”

In this article I will show you how to assess hamstring flexibility and some tactics to increase and maintain proper hamstring length and function.

Assess Yourself before you Wreck Yourself

Hamstring assessment is very easy to establish.  There are several different tests that can be implemented but one test should be sufficient.  Kendall suggests using the Straight Leg Raising Test.  To perform this test lie on your back on a table or ground with your legs straight and sacrum flat.  Keeping one leg straight and the low back down, raise one leg up keeping the knee straight.  An angle of approximately 80-90 degrees between the table and the raised leg is considered normal, anything less is considered abnormal.

A Passing Hamstring Flexibility Test

It is important to monitor the low back position during the raising of the leg because if the hamstring or surrounding musculature are tight they can cause the pelvis and low back to move to create a false positive test.

Sub-par Hamstring Flexibility

You Need Some Work, Now What?

Let’s assume that you or one of your athletes has a less than stellar straight leg test and need to get their hamstrings in check before they get into the discomfort zone.  Frequent foam rolling of the hamstrings and the surrounding muscles can improve tissue length and quality.  I also recommend that when you foam roll, you try three different positions; in leg internal rotation, neutral and in leg external rotation.  The hamstring group consists of four muscles (semitendinosus, semimembranosus, biceps femoris long & short head) each having their own origins and insertions and making it possible for one particular muscle to be shorter than another.

This may sound simple but adding the proper exercises into the strength and conditioning program is a huge asset when trying to gain optimal length of a particular muscle group.  For the hamstrings, almost any correctly performed leg movement can be a corrective exercise, however it is probably in your best interest to perform these movements with your bodyweight alone adding them in the beginning of your program or intermittently throughout.

Supine straight leg raises, high knee walks, cradle walks, single leg RDLs, and lunge variations in different directions are great ways to increase range of motion within the hamstrings and surrounding muscles.  Keep the movements within their full range, vary the direction and movements themselves, repeat frequently and keep the load at body weight or very light and your legs will be loose in no time.

Practice those Corrective Exercises

One final component is the dreaded “s-word” STRETCHING.  According to Physical therapist Kelly Starrett of San Francisco Crossfit;

“Stretch often.  Muscles are like obedient dogs.  They need constant, repetitive training.”

Stretching is critical and needs to be done frequently for optimum results.  I like to stretch my hamstrings by lying on my back and using a strap for leverage.  Once I set my end range position without straining I then begin to contract my thigh muscles and hold the contraction for a few seconds and then release the muscles along with my breath and gain a few more degrees in the range of motion.

Like my foam rolling, I also like to position my leg in different angels to make sure I am stretching the various muscles that make up the hamstring group.  Stretching both with the knee straight and bent stretching the hamstring group over the two joints the muscles group crosses.  I have also found that pronating (turn in) and supinating (turn out) the foot to be very effective in targeting the medial and lateral muscles of the hamstring group.

Straight Leg Hamstring Stretch

Bent Knee Hamstring Stretch

If people do stretch at all during the day it is usually only done for a minimal amount of time, usually too short to be deemed effective.  Again, Starrett suggests that:

“One session of stretching lasting one minute isn’t going to change anything.  Stretching big muscles like hamstrings and quads takes time.  Ninety seconds per leg should be a baseline, five or six times a day.”

Stretch with the Foot and Leg in Different Directions

There you have it, some surefire ways to get your hamstring in shape.  With a little discipline and diligence you too can have hamstrings that are ready to perform whatever task you ask them too..


Henderson G, Barnes CA, Portas MD. Factors associated with increased propensity for hamstring injury in English Premier League soccer players. J Sci Med Sport. Jul;13(4):397-402, 2010.

Kendall, FP, McCreary, EK, and Provance, PG. Muscle Testing and Function (4th ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams &Wilkins, 1993.

Starrett, Kelly. Hamstrung.  CrossFit Journal Issue 59 – July 2007.

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Get with the Circuit

I read and interesting little blurb on Facebook this past week that got me thinking a little bit about the training protocols that I implement with my athletes.  The blurb simply stated; “It’s not Strength or Conditioning, it’s Strength AND Conditioning.”  In many cases this statement is true.  If us trainers and coaches focus only on one aspect of a program for too long are we developing our athletes to their fullest potential?

There is so much more to proper development than just increasing strength by simply lifting objects and setting them down.  There is mobility, flexibility, stability, agility, power development, recovery and conditioning.  Like the other components, conditioning should be assessed and structured around the athlete’s needs at that particular time during their training.

Why Conditioning?

If you drew a straight line and at one end wrote the word “endurance” and on the other end the word “strength” these ends would represent the absolute energy system used for a particular sport.  For example, on the endurance end we would have a Marathon runner and on the strength end we could have an Olympic lifter.  For both of these athletes to be elite in their respective sports, their training must focus on the enhancement of their primary energy system.  It may be counterproductive to have the Marathon runner focus on proper producing movements when their sport does not require it, likewise jogging eight miles three times a week is probably not going to help the Olympic lifter snatch more weight overhead.

Those are two examples of sports being on completely different ends of the spectrum and I am sure you can think of other examples; however, I believe you would have a much easier time coming up with sports that fall in the middle area of the spectrum.  For example, I train soccer players and soccer is one of those sports that can be classified as an explosive or endurance sport.  It is easy to see that at a high level, soccer is very stop and go with its running, players run fast for short distances (usually no more than 40 yards), however at the high levels many players run a total of five to six miles of this stop and go style when the matches are complete.

Many sports share the same athletic qualities as soccer and it is important to train properly to meet the demands.  Spend time only on endurance running, the athlete’s speed and agility may suffer, likewise without some longer endurance work the athlete might not be able to make it through the match without running out of gas.

Conditioning Considerations

Generally speaking, most of my athletes participate in sports that fall into the middle spectrum so they will have some type of conditioning training within their program depending where they are at during their training cycle.  If an athlete just finished a long season and is beginning to get back in the gym, conditioning is set aside and more time is dedicated to assessment and strengthening of the areas that are deemed imbalanced.  For athletes that are close to a big match the conditioning is limited to make sure energy is conserved for their upcoming event.

For most of the athletes who do have conditioning protocols within their program, they will participate in them once per week towards the end of their training day.  Be careful with the volume of work done; you may want to have a smaller strength block on days where there is a conditioning circuit.

Exercise Selection

Unlike some large chain Speed Agility Quickness (SAQ) gyms;  At Rise Above I don’t have set circuits that are pulled out of a hat and given to every athlete for that day.  This blind picking of random circuits is literally true.  I was an intern at a local, and popular, SAQ facility when I was in college and the trainers randomly pulled out a workout from a binder (ok not quite a hat) and had all of the athletes perform that conditioning workout for the day.  There was no discerning between chronological age, physical training experience, and sport.  You had 13-year old female soccer players with college football linebackers; not exactly ideal for the individual athletes… but now I’ve digressed…

Through my experience I have found that those factors mentioned above need to be considered when it comes to proper condition training for athletes.  I also look to see where they are in their training cycle and what movements they had just completed earlier that day.  I tend to prioritize the circuits for my athletes.  If they are just getting back into the conditioning phase of their training, I don’t make them participate in circuits they can’t handle just yet.  You want your athlete to be able to perform the movements with proper technique, be able to keep moving for the set amount of time and you want your athlete to SUCCEED, not fail.

As the training weeks progress so can then increase the intensity of the circuits, also be aware of your athlete’s current well being; are they tired, quiet, high strung, sore etc. all of these factors play a role in their success during the conditioning circuit.

When selecting exercises, I like to do movements that were not directly in their strength portion of the workout.  I also like bodyweight exercises, unilateral movements (lunges etc.) and kettlebell swing variations.

Usually I am not fixated with the amount of weight used by the athlete.  Exercises requiring weight should be slightly challenging but manageable for the amount of work done in a particular time.  The athlete should be able to move to the next station slightly fatigued but not so much that they are setting themselves up for potential injury by compromising with poor lifting mechanics.  Your more powerful athletes, like football players, may tend to use more weight than some other athletes whose sports require less explosive power and more strength longevity, like basketball and soccer.

The number of movements depends on how much time you have and what the athlete has done previously.  I prefer anywhere from three to six stations.

Time Duration

Timing and rest do not need to be thought of as rocket science but some consideration of the work time, rest time and work:rest ratio is advised.  If the athlete is a power athlete, like a football player, they only need short intervals with about equal or even longer amount of rest.  Work to rest ratios of 15 sec. on/30 sec. off can work well to condition their continual power output needs.  In a stop and go sport like soccer the work and rest times can be short and in a close ratio, I like 30sec. work/15-20sec. rest in most cases.  For more endurance based athletes, like triathletes, a longer work time and shorter rest is usually the way to go.  Ratios of 60sec. work and 15-20 sec. rest work really well to increase their strength endurance.

Example Protocol

Here is a protocol that can be used for those middle-of-the-table stop and go athletes.  Complete three rounds with each round being 30 sec. of work and 20 sec of rest/transition to the next station.

Station 1:             Jump Rope

Station 2:             Body Weight Push Ups and Cinder blocks

Station 3:             D.Bell Alternating Reverse Lunges

Station 4:             2-Arm Kettlebell Swings

Station 5:             Body Weight Body Rows (Blast Straps or TRX)

To have fully well-rounded athletes that perform well in their sport strength training alone may not be enough.  A well balanced program should incorporate some appropriate conditioning protocol to get the most out of training and athletic potential.


Thursday, April 28th, 2011 Kettlebell Training No Comments

Around the Web: Eric Cressey’s “Your Arm Hurts? Thank Your Little League, AAU, and Fall Ball Coaches.”

Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance has written one of the best articles I have read all year. Many of you may have young little league players out there who are interested in pitching. I think this post is too important to pass up; please click the link below and read this informative article and gain the knowledge necessary to keep your kids safe from the common overuse injuries that occur in baseball.

Your Arm Hurts? Thank Your Little League, AAU, and Fall Ball Coaches.

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