This Exercise Can Stretch *and* Strengthen Your Hamstrings at the Same Time

Photo: Getty Images/herraez
The hamstring muscles are involved in basically every upright activity we do as humans, from walking and running to simply standing up. So it’s essential to keep them healthy through consistently working on hamstring mobility and flexibility and building up their strength and endurance.

But who’s got time for all that? Fortunately, there’s a way to both stretch and strengthen the hamstrings at once—and very effectively.

The key is something called “eccentric training.” There’s substantial evidence showing that eccentric training improves both flexibility—measured by either joint range of motion or actual length of the muscle—and strength. It’s a topic that’s been studied for years, and continues to be fleshed out.

Experts In This Article

“Eccentrics refer to the part of a movement where a muscle is lengthening under load,” says Brian Kinslow, DPT, owner of Evolve Flagstaff. For example, it’s the portion of a biceps curl when you’re lowering the weight back down to the starting position, he says. “The biceps muscles are contracting while lengthening to control that movement.”

This eccentric component is a key part of functional movement, particularly during running. “The hamstrings eccentrically contract to decelerate the leg as it comes forward in front of the torso,” says Dr. Kinslow. This is when the hamstrings are acting as brakes to slow down the leg—and when the highest amount of stress is put on the muscle group. So preparing for this moment through eccentric training can keep your hamstrings healthy and injury-free.

How does eccentric training compare to static stretching?

When we want to increase our flexibility, most of us simply get into a position that lengthens the muscle, then hold that. This is called a static stretch. There’s no active contraction in the muscle—it’s a passive hold. And it's typically what we think of we we're considering how to stretch hamstrings. But think about your daily life: Holding a pose that way rarely takes place during actual day-to-day movements and functions.

That may help explain why static stretching hasn’t been found to reduce injuries or injury risk. In comparison, eccentric hamstring training is considered the gold standard for reducing hamstring injuries, lowering your risk by as much as 65 percent!

“Eccentrics have also been shown in some studies to promote robust remodeling—or healing—of injured muscle or tendon,” adds Dr. Kinslow. “This makes them a key part of fully rehabilitating an injured hamstring.”

Why athletes swear by it

Although eccentric hamstring training is becoming more prevalent in the general population today, it’s been a stalwart of athletic and sports training programs for many years, according to Gerry DeFilippo, a strength and sports performance coach who owns Challenger Strength in Wayne, New Jersey.

“There’s three different lenses you can see eccentric training through,” he says. The first: “Slow and focused sets can increase total time under tension, which leads to hypertrophy (greater muscle size).” The second: “Dynamic motor control improves movement through a full range of motion.” And finally, eccentric training increases stability “by improving the body’s ability to handle the forces loaded onto it.”

In other words, eccentric training increases muscle size since the muscles are working for more time during the exercise, improves movement control because you’re working through a greater range of motion, and encourages stability because you’re getting stronger overall—all at the same time!

How to incorporate eccentric hamstring training into your workouts

Like any other exercise, eccentric hamstring training needs to be methodical and progressive—starting with lower intensity training and advancing to higher intensity as you’re able to tolerate it.

With that in mind, this three-level plan safely and effectively climbs up the ladder. Within each exercise, don’t progress to the next level until you can complete three sets of 10 reps comfortably and without any soreness.

1. Beginner: Hamstring sliders

Lying on your back with the knees bent, this exercise works your hamstrings as you slide your heels out and away from the body, then back in again. (If you don’t have gliders, you can use paper plates or wear socks.)

Since this might be your first introduction to hamstring eccentric training and the increased demand it places on the muscle group, it’s prudent to be methodical. Therefore, there are six progressions you can follow to slowly advance the move.

  1. With your butt down on the floor, both feet slide simultaneously out and back.
  2. With your butt down, one foot slides out and back. After 10 reps, repeat on the other leg.
  3. With your butt up in the air, creating a straight line from your shoulders to knees, both feet slide out. Then bring the butt down for the feet to slide back to starting position.
  4. With your butt up, one foot slides out. Then bring the butt down to slide it back to the starting position. Repeat on the other leg.
  5. With your butt up, both feet slide out, then back to the starting position.
  6. With your butt up, one foot slides out and back to starting position for 10 reps. Repeat on the other leg.

2. Intermediate: Dumbbell romanian deadlift

This classic strength-training move lowers a barbell to the floor by bending at the hips with a flat back and slightly bent knees, while keeping the bar close to your shins. Take five seconds for a controlled descent (bar traveling down) and then do a quick ascent (bar traveling up).

There are three progressions for this exercise:

  1. Use the bar without any weights.
  2. Add five-pound weights on each side of the bar.
  3. Adding more weight in five-pound increments, progress to 25 pounds on each side.

3. Advanced: Nordic hamstring curl

Standing on your knees with your calves wedged under something stable (the video below uses a Smith machine, but the same thing can be accomplished with a standalone barbell loaded with 45 pounds on each side), extend at the knees to lower your body toward the ground. Catch yourself with your hands and push back up to the starting position.

There are three progressions here as well:

  1. Take three seconds to descend to the floor.
  2. Take five seconds to descend to the floor.
  3. Take as long as possible to descend to the floor (provided it’s greater than five seconds, or course).

Once you’re able to complete the final progression, maintaining it as a regular part of your maintenance routine is a great way to keep up and build on all the progress you’ve made. Your hamstrings, your body, and your movement will thank you!

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