T Nation

Training Legs Hard When the Hamstrings Ain't Having It

Hi Coach, I’ve run into a real stumbling block training Legs, and was hoping you’d have some insight/advice. I have a specific question, but will give some background info first if I may. (Apologies in advance for the length of the post.)

I’m 54, and have been working legs (either heavy lifting, long-distance running, or both) for 40+ years. When I was at my biggest (early-mid 20s), I could squat respectably (I recall doing 455x5), and had large thighs–about 27" (in ‘full-house’ condition).

Over the past ~15 years, I have neglected Legs in the gym in favor ‘saving’ them for running. However, in the last year I’ve gotten the itch to take one final run at turning my chicken legs back into turkey legs. (My short/high skinny calves are beyond help, I’m afraid.) Thus, I’ve taken to incorporating a Leg day into my routine. Trouble is, every time I work up to weights heavy enough to limit me to 8-12 reps, I tweak either a hamstring or (less commonly) an adductor, and am forced to lay off for several weeks at least. When I start over, it seems that no matter how careful I am about warming up, not increasing the load too fast, etc, I inevitably strain something. This has happened at least five times since I re-started training Legs.

Here are the leg-related aspects of my current training split:
Day 1: Walk 1-3 hours at 1.5-2 MPH (at my treadmill desk)
Day 2: Jog 30 minutes
Day 3: The Leg day, which goes like this:

  1. Start on the Stepmill with a little HIIT cardio: ~5 min warm-up, 5 30-s sprints with 90-s recovery between; ~5 min cooldown.
  2. A circuit consisting of:
    –x20 BW glute bridges, each held for 5-s;
    –x20 seated leg curls, increasing the weight each set (but never coming close to failure; I’m sure I could eke out another 5 reps or so on the final weight);
    –x20 leg extensions (ditto);
    –x20 calf presses.
    These exercises are repeated nonstop x 5 total circuits.
  3. Squats on the Smith machine. These are done with my feet well out in front and close together in order to hit the quads (and not the hams). They are done nonlock, with a slow (2-3 second) descent, increasing the weight each set, and with fairly high reps (last workout my sets consisted of 23, 17, 13 and 10 reps). So far, the only time I have strained a hammie on this exercise was when I tried to do a heavier weight for a set of 5.
  4. Leg press. Here’s where I got in trouble on my last workout. I want this to be my heavy ‘meat and potatoes’ exercise, so I reverse-pyramid the weight–I do a bunch of ‘feeler’ sets on the way up to my heaviest weight for the first set. (Note that when I say ‘heaviest weight’ I’m talking about something I expect to get about 12 reps with.) Like the Smith squats, I keep my feet close together, use slow negs, and do not lock out. Despite all this, on the 2nd rep of my first set (using a weight I had successfully pressed 12x the week before), I felt that all-too-familiar ‘rip’ in my hamstring, and knew that I had done it yet again.
  5. Heavy standing calves (because hope springs eternal)
    Day 4: Walk 1-3 hours at 1.5-2 MPH
    Day 5: Jog 1 hr
    Day 6: Walk 1-3 hours at 1.5-2 MPH
    Day 7: Steady-state Stepmill x 30 minutes; light Calves
    (Back to Day 1)

Obvious reasons I may be having hamstring issues:
–Chronological age. Even under the best of conditions, 54 y.o. muscles are not as pliable and resilient as, say, 25 y.o. muscles.
–Training age. 40+ years is a lot of wear-and-tear, and it shouldn’t be surprising I have lots of tissue that is vulnerable to damage. This is especially true considering…
–An utterly pathetic history of pre-habbing. All I do is stretch my hamstrings thoroughly after walking, jogging or lifting (and this is only because I discovered many years ago that my lower back would be incredibly tight and uncomfortable the next day if I didn’t). I have never done foam-rolling, etc.

At long last, my question(s). What are your thoughts as to how I can do growth-stimulating leg work without popping my hinky hammies? Should I drop the jogging? (I do it solely to burn calories–I’m a fat-phobic FFB). Should I stick with lighter weights, but adjust my lifting style to make them more effective (eg, even slower descents; pauses at the bottom of each rep; minimal time between sets, etc)? Or should I give up on legs and start wearing jeans to the gym?

For the record, my sole training goal is Hypertrophy.

Thanks again for plowing through all this, as well as for your time and feedback.



I hope Christian is able to get to this now that we’re back from the weekend.

Just a thought on running. The years I spent jogging REALLY tightened my hamstrings up. I wasn’t doing much static stretching during that time, but I was just floored to realize that I could no longer come close to doing the splits. It took me several months of being really patient with stretching hammies to get my ROM back. Anyway, a lot might be dependent on your stride, but I’d think the running might be keeping them tight.

Just an idea here, but do you perform the Smith Squats in flat shoes? I don’t know enough about it, but I wonder if the difference in angle in WLing shoes would help?

Like you, I’ve never really gotten into foam rolling. I developed some sore knees after switching to WLing shoes, and my coach kinda scolded me. 'You’re not injured. You’re just tight and you’re adjusting to the change in position. The muscles through your quads and adductors are pulling, causing anterior knee pain. " He told me to foam roll and it would resolve. It did. I know you have a different situation, but I wonder if the tightness that’s causing strain would be helped significantly by rolling them. Maybe.

Good luck!

1 Like

This is a really interesting topic. I look forward to reading CT’s response. I haven’t jogged regularly for years but, similar to Powerpuff, it has always tightened up my hamstrings and hip flexors when I have.

Looking at your exercise selection, its clearly orientated towards minimising hamstring involvement due to your injuries, but I’m wondering if the opposite approach might be helpful - perhaps an exercise like Romanian Deadlifts might help restore your hamstring functionality. Starting very light and not pushing the ROM too quickly of course.

I wouldnt do this solely on my say so, but I’m more throwing it out there as a suggestion for the more knowledgable posters on here to approve or disapprove. I do know powerlifters who have rehabbed recurring muscle injuries in a similar manner, for example, very light DB flies if they’ve been prone to pec strains.

1 Like

What is a typical leg workout? I’ve noticed when you rehab a muscle and you do everything to not tweak that muscle and it tweaks again it really is not the muscle that is causing the problem its another muscle that is causing the injury. All you do in rehab was get back to where you were at before the injury. It could be glute/lower back issue or you are just too quad dominant from all the running and your hammies are not firing right. Or you could just be too much cardio for you body to handle.

1 Like

Hi coach, just a quick update: Yesterday was Leg day, and with some trepidation, I took to the gym. I did the same workout as described in my OP, except I cut in half most of the variables on the leg-press exercise–half the weight, half the rest time, slow reps (both concentric and eccentric), nonlock, and a 5-s pause at the bottom of the movement. I managed to get through all four sets unscathed, which is of course a good thing. The question is, did I stimulate any growth, or was it largely a waste of time? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.