One of the most memorable classes we had in anatomy was when Weiling asked us to get into prone position, and to flex our knee so that the shin bone was perpendicular to the floor. Next, a partner would use their arm strength to lower your foot to the ground, and you had to use the muscles in your hamstring to resist.
My foot lasted 2 seconds of airtime.
Why are our hamstrings weak?
The hamstring is made up of three muscles in the posterior thigh – the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and the biceps femoris. The primary role is for knee flexion, while some of these muscles are also involved in hip extension. Unfortunately, hamstring tears are one of the commonly sustained sports injuries due to its relative weakness to its antagonistic muscle group, the quadriceps.
Most of our day-to-day activities involve the front half of our body. Walking, running, bending down, sitting down, standing up. We can argue that the hamstrings are used as well in these ranges of motion, but we mostly rely on the larger, stronger quads to get the job done..
Hamstrings are also mostly made up of fast twitch muscle fiber, which are used for sprinting and power work. What this means is that if we fail to put in conscious, mindful effort to train them, they’re not going to gain size or strength and will keep to mostly a supporting role. In order to strengthen the hamstrings, one will need high intensity training. Heavy lifts, speed work such as sprinting, and other high intensity strength, speed or power exercises will develop the hamstrings.
How to apply to asana practice
Unfortunately for yogis, most asanas involve hamstring stretches and not hamstring strengthening.
But here are some asanas that, when done with a range of motion, may just seal the trick:
Modification: Keep arms crossed in front of the body, keep chest on the floor. Lift the right leg up, while making sure that the right hip stays on the ground. Keep both legs straight and pump the right leg upwards 20 times. Repeat on the other leg.
- Sethu Bandha Sarvangasana
Modification: Lift the left leg up into the air. Lower the hips to hover a few inches off of the floor, and then push at the right heel to lift the hips back up. Do 10 cycles, and repeat on the other leg.
Modification: Lift the left heel 1 inch off the ground, and place it back down. Lift the right heel 1 inch off the ground, and place it back down. Complete 10 cycles.
Last tip for hamstring training: to train the biceps femoris, point the toes out during leg curls. To train the semitendinosus and semimembranosus, point the toes in during leg curls.