Grow Your Hamstrings like Napoleon Bonaparte

What does siege warfare and effectively training your hamstrings have in common?

Knowing that your energy and resources are finite and you need to train SMART.

Duh.

You have to pay homage to the economy. Whether that’s a baggage train to supply troops and nourishment for your artillerymen or fueling your body right to tackle your hamstrings, the economy of exertion needs to always be respected.

Napoleon
The Siege of Burgos 1812

Much like you, I too have been victim to not really paying attention to muscles. Like any fitness cliche, what you hate doing is what you very likely need to be doing more of.

And here, that is paying respect to training economy and working smarter as well as harder.

That’s why our friend, Napoleon Bonaparte also paid respect to. It’s no wonder a foreign alien, of average height went on to create the French Empire and become emperor of France.

You have to images in Napoleon’s era. Fire power technology is at an all-time high. Guns are more vicious. Revolution is the saliva that’s dripping from peoples’ mouths.

Resources seem abundant: Napoleon is quoted as saying that he could raise thousands of men per month for the thousand he’d lose in his gargantuan wars.

But like the stupid 20-something bro who boasts at work about how little sleep he gets, effort is nothing without results.

What good is lots of manpower and cutting edge technology if it means we don’t know how to use it?

Its wasted.

It can lead to wasted energy and wasted time.

In fact, you could waste your body as well.

How often do you hear in sports news of hamstring injuries? Especially in dynamic sports with lots of twisting and turning?

Transverse plane — ‘where the magic happens’ — Dr. Perry Nickelston. Or the frame that cuts our bodies from top to bottom. Linked is a great article on planes of movement by BreakingMuscle.com

Quite a bit right?

It makes sense that building a robust backside, like many things in life, is an important goal for long term strength and stability.

It’s your platform for violent action.

Creating balance between your quadriceps muscles and hamstrings is important.

But before we can go ham on hamstring curls, we have to understand the hamstrings.

napoleon-siege-ottoman-hamstrings

Hamstring curls are just tools. They are not the strategy.

So what strategy do we use when trying to strengthen the hamstrings?

cannon-hamstrings-fleet
The impact of the supercannon on the Britsh Fleet: Admiral Sir John Duckworth Forcing Pass through the Dardanelles, 1807 by Philip James de Loutherbourg. © Government Art Collection. When used with teh right strategy, the right tool can be devastating.

What do we know about the hamstring?

Anatomy

The Hamstring group is made up of three muscles: biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus.

Still there?

Now, we’re not going to get too complicated with the specific origins and where the insertions of these muscles are. Just keep in just keep it in mind that the hamstring muscles attach to both the hip as well as the knee.

But…..

In the long haul of training, it might benefit you to learn. It’s how you beat the odds like our Italian friend, Napoleon who not only rose among the prejudiced ranks of the French army, became a ballsy artillery commander, then army general, then french emperor.

hamstrings-anatomy-napoleon-siege
If you put in the work now to learn more than you need to about training (because think about it, is this going to be the LAST training article you think you’ll read?). Who knows where you’ll be five, ten, twenty years down the line.

He looked for an edge anywhere he could find. (Here’s an article going more in detail).

napoleon-hamstrings
Maybe a coronation by the Pope is in your future? And all you need to do is read a little anatomy here and there.

Training both higher reps and heavier loads

Asides from the anatomy of the hamstrings, looking at fiber type is important too.

In the hamstrings, you’ve got both fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers. Ones that are capable of great endurance but also ones that improve with powerful, explosive training. But does that mean that’s the only way you should train them?

Most muscles benefit from training both high intensity and low intensity loading. Finding the quantity that’s best for you, as Alexander Cortes says, is about personal experimnetation.

Even though its been found that the hamstrings are a predominantly *(70%) fast twitch fiber, training them both rep ranges is beneficial. You maximize strength, hypertrophy, and endurance: the entire range of the force output spectrum.

And at the end of the day, it’s all muscle building.

Some of the leading hybrid coaches, like Alex Viada of Complete Human Performance, who train multidisciplinary athletes like the military even say that going on a bike for a couple of hours is just really long-session hypertrophy.

Yes, there’s obviously truth to the ‘ideal’ rep ranges (medium reps being optimal for muscle growth) but you don’t know what YOU’RE lacking unless you train a variety of rep ranges.

Remember strategy: leave no stone un-turned in strengthening the hamstrings.

Yet, rep ranges are only one part of the equation.

Understanding both Hip extension and Knee flexion

At the same time, we have to understand how the hamstrings function.

  • Medially rotate the knee when knee is bent

Not really going to focus here.

  • Hip extension

Stand up.

Nice and tall.

Like you’re about to get fired out of a cannon for insubordination.

Pretend there’s a penny between your butt cheeks. Squeeze the life out of that penny like it’s the only thing keeping you fire blowing up by that cannon.

And don’t bend your back please. Just the glutes.

Hips = extended.

  • Knee flexion

Stand.

Use the heel of your foot to kick your buttocks.

Boom. Knee flexion.

In both these functions, your hamstrings shorten and lengthen through the movement action, going extension to flexion and flexion to extension.

What do these words mean? Moving towards the mid-line or moving away from (generally speaking).

Cool fact, when you’re squatting, the hamstrings are usually both lengthening at one end while flexing at the other. In that way, usually, you don’t really work a hamstring through its full range of motion because you usually don’t’ get a lengthening happening through the full range of motion .

We say usually because in some stances of the squat, you can actually try and use MORE hamstrings through minimizing one action (either knee flexion or hip extension to emphasis the other. And that is the basis of what really hamstring training is; reducing the emphasis of one part of the musculo-skeletal chain for emphasis in another).

Now that you know the functions of the hamstring you have the means to strategize with any number of tools.

But before we get into the tools, we need to look at something else that plays a role in our strategy:

Understanding the Posterior Chain….Its a chain

Those pesky calves and glutes and tight lower back aren’t just going to stand around and let your hamstrings take all the glory.

There’s been proof since the 1920s that muscles work in systems or chains or “trains” or SLINGS. It’s not until the works of Thomas Myers when people actually used it to explain movement.

Think of the posterior chain as a mix of trains and stations that delegate movement individually but at the same time as a system. Myers book Anatomy Trains is a must read on this.

Nothing says boom like well-trained force across the railroad that is our muscles and connective tissue.

For the sake of this article, we’ll leave it as this: you’re going to still use other muscles in the kinetic chain of the hamstrings when training them but there are ways to emphasize hamstring recruitment.

Like we said earlier, reducing the impact of one function for the other can be a way to emphasize hamstring training. Look at the lying leg curl. Your hip is extended but you’re lengthening and shortening at the knee joint.

Now consider the opposite:

A stiff-legged deadlift: you aim to minimize bending at the knee to maximize a wide range of motion at the hip for extension.

Want something more challenging?

What about instead of artificially maintaining hip extension while moving through knee flexion, you actively use your glutes and hamstrings to control an extended hip while you move through motion at the knee?

Jump on a glute ham developer and try your luck.

Don’t have the tools? Just remember strategy

So leg curl machine and deadlifts and Glute ham raises is all I need? “But I don’t have a GHD!”

I don’t have a back extension machine

“Some sweaty dude is hogging the leg curl machine!”

“There aren’t any available bars to deadlift”

“I’m not allowed to deadlift!”

When you go anywhere only equipped with the tools of success but not the strategy, you’re making yourself fragile to chaos.

And chaos is everywhere: no gym, gym too busy, dude hogging my machine, etc.

Fall back on the strategy. To train the hamstrings you need to train hip extension as well as knee flexion.

So what does that leave us with? What’s inside our armory of exercises that we can utilize to create awesome gains?

Knee Flexion:

Glute ham raise variations, lying leg curl, standing leg curl, banded leg curl, banded glute ham raise, Russian leg curl, eccentric focused Nordic curl, supine slider leg curl, yoga ball supine curls,

Note: when you do these, focus on minimizing hip extension while you bend the knee

Hip Extension:

Dumbbell leg curl, deadlift variations, kettlebell swings, back extension, reverse hypers, , bands, chains, bodyweight hip hinge, single leg deadlift, landmine deadlift, cable pull through, glute bridge

Note: when you do these, focus on minimizing knee flexion, while you extend the hip.

Remember the strategy and the only real limit to the tools you need will be your creativity.

Go Lay Siege on Your Hamstrings With All your Guns

Now you’ve seen the variety of weapons you can bring to effective hamstring development. Don’t be the ignorant artilleryman when laying siege to the fortress of gains. Keep those hamstrings strong and muscular, attacking both functions and paying homage to the training economy. Use a variety of rep ranges, make sure you training both functions of the hamstring, use progressive overload, and create that strength and metabolic fatigue.

Your performance, knees, and hamstrings will thank you.

For more, check out this youtube video by Jeff Nippard:

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