As a freshman track athlete in high school, I had aspirations of making my varsity letter.
How cool would that be as a freshman to receive your varsity letter?
I was a skinny sprinter/jumper and my best shot at making varsity was going to be the long jump. I was the fourth jumper at the time, but quickly moved to the third jumper. Hang in there with me, I’m getting to my point.
We were at a relay meet, where there were long jump teams comprised of three jumpers. I was the third jumper for this meet. I was doing build ups with our number two jumper. This kid was built the opposite of me: short, muscular, and had these quads that made him look like quadzilla.
He was doing his build-up in front of me when he lets out a scream like he’d been shot, grasps his hamstring, and he goes down. He is done for the rest of the season because of a pulled hamstring, I move up to #2 jumper, and I made my varsity letter. Yeah me.
A Good Ratio to Prevent Hamstring Pulls
Fast forward some 20+ years and I’m a speed coach training athletes such as my old teammate to be fast. When it comes to strengthening an athlete for speed, the consensus from a lot of speed experts I’ve learned from is that the hamstrings are the weak link.
The majority of your leg exercises and movements strengthen the quadriceps a heck of a lot more than the hamstrings. I myself, thought that just doing squats and lunges one winter, I would really strengthen my legs for intramural softball. I didn’t do any specific hamstring work. My first hit sprinting down first base, I tweaked my hamstring.
Lesson learned. You have to include hamstring specific exercises or activity to strengthen them.
Most athletes I see come in with their hamstrings about 50% as strong as their quadriceps, maybe even worse. To maximize speed development, experts would love to see it at a 1:1 ratio, but believe if you get to 75% – 80% then that still helps improve your speed AND is good for injury prevention.
Yes, I said injury prevention.
Females and ACL Tears
So, as we start working with more athletes on speed, we start seeing a fair share of athletes (mostly female) that have torn their ACL’s. We don’t do the rehab, but as soon as they are cleared from rehab, they come to us to get them back to being the athletes that they were.
I’m sure you have had your fair share of ACL athletes as well.
One of my good buddies was an ATC and he decided to do some research on the subject about what we could do to try and prevent those ACL tears from happening. He basically created a report that to this day I am still selling copies of, discussing the reasons why these incidences keep happening, especially in females.
A few of the highlights of Why Females Get More ACL Tears:
- A lot of females have blown their ACL’s during their menstruation cycle: their period. This, as a professional, I can’t give help for.
- Female’s ACL’s may be smaller in diameter than males, thus not be able to provide as much support to the joint.
- Female athletes tend to have much weaker hamstring strength than male athletes. Thus, they can’t activate them as quickly to provide assistance during rapid movement.
Whoa, wait a minute. Did I just mention hamstring strength again?
Working Your Hamstrings to Prevent ACL Injuries
Yes, I did. A good percentage of ACL injuries are non-contact. They were acquired by landing from a jump, cutting, or pivoting. Because of the weak hamstrings, when they do those movements there is a ton of added strain to the ACL for support. The athlete wants to move rapidly, but the ACL says “nope, not today.”
Now get this. The experts say ideally they would love to have a 1:1 ratio between the hamstring strength and the quads, but because there are only 3 hamstring muscles compared to 4 quadriceps muscles, if they can get the hamstring strength to 75% – 80% of the quads that would be the goal.
Yep, you read that correctly, 75% – 80%, which is the same percentage that you are shooting for when you are trying to develop speed. Consequently, if you are working on speed, then you are also reducing the chances of you tearing your ACL.
When you get that strength up, you will be more balanced and your muscles will be firing correctly. Thus, you can reduce the chances of getting other muscle strains. I haven’t had a muscle pull or strain in my legs since that softball incident and that has been over 14 years. And I still run pretty fast.
Once that strength is up, we can then start really developing your speed and quickness. Your landing on your plyometric jumps will be better because all the muscles will be firing to stabilize and support. When we do agility drills where you are cutting from one direction to the next, the muscles in your legs will be firing better, giving you more stability. Thus, when you start to utilize them in your games, you will be faster, better prepared, and your body hopefully will have less chance of getting injured.
To help improve your hamstring strength, I have provided two videos of exercises I like. One is the glute ham raise and the other is manual hamstring curl (or manual glute ham raise). This is in case you don’t have access to a glute ham raise.
The Best Machine to Improve Speed
If You Don’t Have the Machine Above, A Great Alternative
Obviously, there is more to the process of both speed training and injury prevention. But I think if you start with improving the hamstring strength, then the other facets of those processes will become easier to attain.
Adam Kessler is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and a USAW Sport Performance coach that helps athletes learn how to run faster and improve athletic performance.
He is the president of Fitness Planning Consultants which operates a speed training company in Columbus, Ohio.
Athletes of all levels – professional, collegiate, high school, and younger – have used his Run Faster Method to improve their speed and accomplish the sport goals that they desired. He has a speed blog for speed and sport tips at http://howtorunfasternow.com.
Rick Kaselj, MS