Confession: I have weak hamstrings. Very weak hamstrings. As such, I’ve needed to ensure that my training includes exercises that will bring up the strength of those stubborn muscles on the back of my legs. In the process of solving this dilemma, I came up with an exercise that will also help athletes improve their performance via stronger hamstrings. Now, one of the last exercises we would have one of our (healthy) athletes perform to increase their hamstring strength is the leg curl.
For most, they’re a terrible waste of time (yes, they certainly have a place in rehab settings and with older/deconditioned individuals, and bodybuilders could make an argument for them). While the majority of people understand that hamstrings function to flex the knee - which is what the leg curl trains - they often neglect that the hamstrings play a CRITICAL role in hip extension. The hamstrings are the body’s second most powerful hip extensor – just behind the glute max! (pun fully intended) For athletes, strong hamstrings can be invaluable as they play crucial role: resisting (eccentrically) knee flexion during sprinting. Take home point: stronger hamstrings make you faster!
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Enter the Band-Assisted Sissy Ham (or “Russian Leg Curl”). I came up with this exercise as I was helping some of our athletes perform pullups with band assistance. I had an “ah-ha” moment and decided to find a way to give myself (and others) band assistance during the sissy ham. In the video below, the first half will show me performing the sissy ham without the band. Then, I perform it with the aid of a band (attached above me). Notice there is now no arm push needed to help on the concentric (the “up”) portion of the lift.
(Note: Yes, upon looking at this video in retrospect, my pelvis is slightly tilted anteriorly and there's a bit of excessive low back arch. If I could travel back in time a year I'd go kick my own arse. Comon' Stevo! Get it right. Geez....)
This is such a fantastic exercise as it trains, simultaneously, both functions of the hamstrings: knee flexion and hip extension (which is how our hamstrings are utilized in athletics, anyway). It also makes for a more tangible progression than the regular sissy ham/russian leg curl. As you get stronger, you can lessen the band tension (as opposed to subjectively measuring "how fast you fall" during the regular sissy ham).
If you don't have a power rack that makes it easy to set up something like this, you could either just have someone manually hold your ankles, or latch your ankles under the pads of a lat pulldown apparatus (your knees would be resting where your butt normally goes). Then all you need is a sturdy 1/2" or 1/4" resistance band, which can be purchased through companies like Iron Woody, Perform Better, or EliteFTS.
As strength coaches, our mission (behind keeping people healthy) is to improve movement quality, performance, and strength and power. We also have only, roughly, 150 minutes a week to do this. This being the case, you won't find us filling 10 of those 150 minutes wasting time on an isolated leg curl. I could think of a million things athletes would be better off spending their time doing (placing their hand on a heated frying pan being one of them). Even if you're not an athlete, this exercise will still be wayy more beneficial for developing your hamstrings than the leg curl. It will also work well for the long-distance runners in the crowd!
This exercise isn't appropriate for everyone, as it's EXTREMELY difficult, even though it may not appear so if you haven't tried it. I definitely recommend a healthy dose of glute walks, slider hamstring curl eccentrics, and hip thrusts before attempting something like this.