How to Train the Hamstrings for Explosive Speed
When it comes to speed, conditioning protocols must be finely tuned to influence the body physiologically and biomechanically. Considerations must include working in a variety of planes, structuring adequate set and repetition ranges, and mastering recovery. Recovery is often underrated, but an athlete must understand that a tired body is a slow body.
This article will help you become a more powerful, explosive athlete through correctly strengthening the hamstrings.
How Much Should You Train?
Metrics are everything. If we train too often, we will destroy our potential to become faster athletes. If we don’t train enough, we will not reach our truest potential.
It is well-known that any less than three weight room sessions per week is inadequate for great strength gains. With the demands of sprint training and considering the importance of mobility work, the program in this article will be based on a structure of three sessions per week. This will give you time to go about other areas in your training without substantial fatigue.
The next metric regards the session length. Usain Bolt reportedly performs about three 90-minute sessions per week. So at a lower level, we can argue that anywhere over an hour would be overkill. Within that hour, it is practical to utilize five different exercises to maximum effect, and with the best recovery periods.
Assigning Sets and Reps
The set and repetition range of each exercise will depend on the purpose and nature of the exercise itself.
Full-body compound movements are a critical aspect in an athlete’s program, as they mimic various sporting actions. These lifts include the clean, snatch and push press. They are exercises that involve the legs and the upper body in the same movement.
I’m a strong believer in Dan John’s rule of 10. This suggests that exceeding 10 repetitions on a full-body movement can become problematic, as technique may falter. This also assumes a heavy load of 80% or more of an athlete’s 1-rep max.
With the knowledge that we are limiting ourselves to 10 repetitions, we can divide these reps into structured sets. The goal of full-body movements is to increase power. Power is the combination of force and speed. To ensure that we lift a heavy resistance at a high velocity, we must keep the repetitions low. To keep within our one-hour time frame, we should also attempt to keep the sets relatively low. I would argue that 3 sets of 3 repetitions would be a great start to practicing full body movements. If the repetition range decreases, the load may need to go up and therefore, speed will be compromised.
For compound movements that don’t involve both the upper and lower body in the same movements, we can increase toward 25 repetitions. This is because working on the lower body or the upper body alone will not compromise our energy as much as full-body lifts. For power development, I would recommend five sets of five repetitions. However, in cases where an athlete needs to develop more muscle mass, I often prescribe four sets of six repetitions.
The stabilizers, such as the abdominal region, can require a higher repetition range to stimulate growth. I often design a program with 3 sets of 12 repetitions.
Pick Your Movements
Each exercise must be purposeful. Understand that purposeful does not mean that every exercise needs to mimic a sporting action; but each exercise should be relevant to the goals that an athlete wishes to achieve.
A full-body compound is an exercise that involves the clear majority of the skeletal muscle fibers within an athlete’s body. These include the clean and the snatch. Full-body compound exercises are fantastic for developing coordination, and for coaching an athlete’s body to cope with ground reaction force, a crucial factor in speed development. An athlete should only perform 10 repetitions of a full-body compound exercise.
Half-body compounds involve either the lower body or the upper body. These specific exercises include squats, rowing actions, and bench presses. Half-body compound exercises are superb for ridding the athlete of biomechanical imbalances. These include posterior chain weaknesses, one leg being weaker than its opposite, and overcompensation patterns. An athlete should strive to achieve a maximum of 25 repetitions of any given half-body compound exercise.
The biceps femoris is the strongest muscle out of the three that make up the hamstring. This muscle aids in hip extension, knee flexion, and rotating the thigh bone outwards. When we run, we need knee flexion and hip extension, but outward movement of the thigh bone can result in poor landing mechanics that can cause various issues such as shin splints, repetitive stress fractures, poor hip alignment, and stress on the back.
This is where unilateral movements like the single-leg Romanian deadlift (RDL) become so useful. Single-leg RDLs are capable of developing immense stability around the hips, and also coordinate the hamstrings to perfect running gait. They teach the body to be able to flex the knee and extend the hip, but prevent outward movement of the thigh bone. This is done by ensuring that the foot which leads away from the floor does not point outward as you lift it up.
Based on several years of experience working with high-performing youngsters in rugby and soccer, I have found that isolating the hamstring can hinder performance. This is because many athletes struggle to activate their gluteus muscles. When the hamstrings are isolated over many weeks, sometimes an imbalance occurs where the ratio between glute strength and hamstring strength has been upset. This can result in overuse of the hamstrings, and therefore injury. The injury may be related to the hamstring or the surrounding tissue.
I have found one amazing exception. Nordic curls have helped my athletes to lengthen their hamstrings, which has resulted in less injury. Furthermore, my athletes have also benefited from the eccentric contraction of the Nordic curl as it relates to the recovery phase of a running cycle. An eccentric muscle contraction happens when a muscle tenses as it lengthens.
Flip to Get Faster
Tire flips are an essential exercise for athletes wishing to improve their acceleration. This specific hinging movement requires athletes to push the load forward as opposed to only upward, as in a standard deadlift. My athletes start many of their sessions with tire flips as a form of muscular.
When we accelerate, our shoulders are positioned in the direction that we need to run. As we transition from acceleration to maximum speed, we pull forward from the hips and assume regular running mechanics. The tire flip is a key exercise for mimicking these mechanics.
There is only one issue with tire flips, and that is progression. There is equipment that allows an athlete to gradually increase the weight he or she is flipping. However, these pieces of kit are highly expensive. This results in most athletes being unable to go about regular progression in regards to the load that is being lifted. On the flip side, to fully mimic acceleration, maybe it is crucial that we keep speed high, and therefore we don’t need a substantial load for tire flipping.
A Sample Hamstring Program for Faster Sprints
After taking a full consideration to the above factors, we can establish a weight room session that improves the hamstrings’ ability to perform during sprinting. Below is an example routine:
- Tire Flips: Perform 2 sets of 5 repetitions as explosively as possible. Allow for a 2-minute rest between sets.
- Sumo Deadlift: Perform 3 sets in a pyramid format. Try 1 set of 5 at 75% of your 1-rep max. After a 2-minute break, try a second set of 3 repetitions at 80% of your 1 repetition max. Finally, take at least 5 minutes of recovery before attempting 85-90% of your 1-rep max for 2 repetitions.
- Step Ups: Perform 3 sets of 8 repetitions of step ups to improve the depth at which your hamstrings can perform.
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts: Perform 3 sets of 8 repetitions of this special deadlift variation to improve biceps femoris coordination.
- Nordic Curls: Perform 2 sets of 5 Nordic curls. This is an ideal repetition range to lengthen the hamstrings, improve eccentric strength, but avoid glute-to-hamstring imbalances.
Do you do your sprinting on two wheels?