The Flexibility Factor
These four essential dynamic stretches will keep your hamstrings happy, healthy and injury-free.
If you’ve ever played sports, you’ve probably had a hamstring issue at one time or another. According to recent research, hamstring strains are the most common injury in athletes and are the most likely to become chronic. In fact, more than two-thirds of all runners who experience a strain suffer re-injury within a year, according to the lab coats. The long head (biceps femoris) of the four hamstring muscles is the most typically injured because it is under the greatest strain when the leg swings forward and absorbs the most impact during high-velocity sports like sprinting and soccer.
So as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — and months spent couch-surfing while you go through rehab. Here are four dynamic warm-up moves to do pre-activity to get your hammies on board with the program. Practice them religiously to prevent injury and increase mobility over the long term.
Stand with your feet together and extend your arms in front of you at shoulder level, palms down. Take a step forward with your left foot, then kick your right leg up as high as you can, keeping it as straight as possible and trying to kick your hand with your toes. Continue, alternating sides for 20 steps. Do three rounds.
If you’re tight: Begin with your kicking knee slightly bent. As you progress, try to make your leg straighter and straighter.
If you’re flexible: Raise your hands to give yourself a higher target.
Straight Leg Swing
Stand sideways to a wall or stable object such as a bench. Place one hand on the wall or object and shift your weight to the inside leg. Swing your outside leg forward and back, keeping your hip loose and trying to keep your leg straight as you swing as high as you can in both directions. Do 20 swings (10 forward and 10 back) on each leg for three sets.
If you’re tight: Begin with your knee bent and lower swings, and progress to straighter legs and higher swings.
If you’re flexible: Try to kick higher while keeping your lower back and pelvis as level as possible.
Overhead Reach to Toe Touch
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes forward. Inhale and reach up and overhead with both hands, looking up toward the ceiling. Then exhale and roll all the way down and reach your fingers toward the ground. Repeat for 15 reps and a total of three sets. This is not a yoga-style stretch. It is meant to be dynamic, so do it at a pretty good pace.
If you’re tight: Stand with your feet farther apart, moving them inward as you warm up.
If you’re flexible: Stand with your feet closer together and aim to get your palms on the floor and your nose to your knees.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, fingers reaching toward the ground in front of your thighs. Step forward with your left foot and hinge at the hips, reaching your fingers toward the ground and keeping your standing leg straight as you raise your right leg up behind you. Reverse the move and stand up, taking a step forward with your right foot and repeating on the other side. Continue, alternating sides without rushing, for 20 total steps. Do three rounds.
If you’re tight: Allow your standing knee to bend slightly in order to reach the ground.
If you’re flexible: Aim to touch your palms to the floor with each step and raise your rear leg as high as you can.
Optimize Your Hammy Health
A well-rounded workout schedule is the best defense against injury. In addition to this warm-up routine, hit each of these program elements regularly for your hamstrings as well as other bodyparts to stay healthy.
Static stretching. Postworkout, choose two to three static stretches and hold each stretch for one minute, breathing deeply to increase range of motion.
Muscular balance. Train opposing muscle groups (e.g., quads and hamstrings) equally to prevent an imbalance injury.
Cross training. Do different activities to provide novel stimulation to muscles, increasing adaptation, overall coordination and ability.
Negatives. Training the eccentric — or negative — portion of a repetition can increase the overall strength of a muscle, according to recent research.