Gluteus_maximus_muscle

Hamstrings – The most overrated muscle group for the squat

After the huge response I got to my article on the infamous Good Morning Squat, I realized that most peoples’ whole conceptual schema for proper squatting is out of whack.  So, I wanted to keep building upon the same concept – a huge squat depends on strong quads, and as a corollary, the hamstrings are vastly overrated as a contributor to a huge squat.

Since there’s research on the subject, I think it’s best to start there.  Chris Beardsley has reviewed some relevant research on hamstring activation in the squat, and I’d suggest you take the time to check it out.  The basic conclusion is that the hamstrings aren’t activated very well during the squat and that, in fact, the lowly seated hamstring curl achieves about 3x as much hamstring activation as the squat with equally challenging loads.

So, what are we to do with this knowledge?

Some people would say that, naturally, you should try to make the squat more hamstring dominant.  The hamstrings are powerful hip extensors, hip extension is important for the squat, and the more musculature you’re activating to a high degree, the more weight you’ll move.

Nope.

I see where that point of view is coming from – advocating the low bar squat with considerable forward-lean to engage the hamstrings more in the squat.  But I think its proponents fail to remember one important fact about the hamstrings…

The hamstrings are two-joint muscles.

Originating on the ischial tuberosity and inserting near the top of the tibia, the hamstrings are effective at both knee flexion (i.e. hamstring curls) and hip extension (i.e. RDLs or good mornings).  Furthermore, when you flex the muscles, it’s not like it can pick and choose which end it pulls on – without other muscles activating to stabilize the joints, hamstring activation means both hip extension and knee flexion torque.

Hamstrings:  both for extending the hips AND flexing the knees

Hamstrings: both for extending the hips AND flexing the knees

So, what does that mean for the squat?  Referring back to my article write-up about characteristics of elite squatters:

“The three group A lifters (the best squatters in the study) exhibited the largest extensor-dominant (i.e. quadriceps producing more torque at the knee than the hamstrings and gastrocnemius) thigh torques.  This is not to be confused with merely having the strongest quads.  It means that throughout the movement, the group A lifters’ quads were producing more torque relative to their hamstrings and gastrocnemii, resulting in a higher NET extensor torque.”

In layman’s terms, what all that means is that excessive hamstring activation is actually detrimental to optimum squatting performance (click to tweet this!).  The harder your hamstrings are pulling you toward knee flexion, the harder your quads have to contract to produce the SAME amount of net knee extension torque.  That’s the exact opposite of what you should be shooting for!

Context:

As a powerlifter, I’m primarily concerned about lifting the most weight possible.  I’m assuming that applies to many of you also.  If so, purposefully aiming for high hamstrings involvement in the squat is counterproductive.  Plain and simple.

I can somewhat understand the inclination to teach a more posterior-dominant squat to new lifters, especially if they’re using one of the many typical beginner routines which include high frequency, fairly high volume squatting with very little deadlifting or hamstring accessory work.

However, if that describes you, be warned:  you are forming a bad habit you’ll have to break later!  I personally think you should instead squat in a more efficient manner (either high or low bar, trying to maintain a more upright torso and prioritizing quad involvement), while also doing some accessory work for your hamstrings such as GHRs, hamstring curls, or RDLs since, like we’ve already established, the squat is NOT a good hamstring builder anyways!

Now, just to preempt a question I know will pop up – I am NOT saying you shouldn’t train your hamstrings.  Strong hamstrings mean a big deadlift, healthy knees, and a potentially lower risk of hamstring tears.  Just don’t use the squat to train your hamstrings.  Use hamstrings exercises to train your hamstrings.

Also, just so we’re clear, I’m not saying hip extension isn’t also important for the squat.  It’s just that it doesn’t need to be coming from your hamstrings.  Prioritizing glute activation is a much better route, since the gluteus maximus is a one joint muscle – only producing hip extension without accompanying knee flexion torque as with the hamstrings.  The good news:  (based on my understanding, at least) range of motion is the primary determinant of glute activation during the squat, so as long as you’re squatting deep, your bases are covered there!

Putting it all together:

If you want to get a massive squat you should train your quads, try to minimize forward lean, and not concern yourself with hamstrings involvement when squatting.  Squat for a huge squat, and pull or do direct hamstring work to turn you hamstrings into pork cords.  Purposefully trying to increase hamstring involvement in the squat is an exercise in futility if your goal is to move more weight and get stronger.

Share this article with your misguided friends who preach “posterior chain” and then wonder why their squat is stalled.  When they see the light, they’ll love you for it.

30 comments

  1. Your post proves that when you start with a shitty asssumption, you reach a shitty conclusion. A 1974 study of PL’s means that a certain form and depth was used and that would have meant far more upright and far deeper than most current PL feds.

    This has no relevance to modern PL competition where gear, depth changes, etc allow you and require you to sit back more. If you want to lift the most weights, you don’t do it high bar upright. You do it power style and that means more hamstrings.

    Hell, just compare top numbers to a fed like USAPL or IPF that requires depth (and hence a certain style of squat) and where the lifters stay more upright to any fed that doesn’t. The second group moves more weight. And they sit back more and use more posterior chain.

    Your entire argument fails the reality check just looking at the records alone.

    1. That’s a straw man and we both know it.

      I said from the start (multiple times) that this wasn’t a high bar vs. low bar issue.

      Also, I’m trying to compare apples to apples. I’m assuming people are trying to squat to proper depth, and I figure since I’m a raw lifter, people know I’m talking about raw squatting.

      Also, you talk about the “reality test,” but I don’t think you use a representative example. What you’re saying is that hip-dominant 3/4 squats in federations that allow knee wraps and don’t drug test, tend to be higher than below parallel squats in a federation that doesn’t allow wraps for raw and that does drug test.

      That doesn’t exactly sound like a reasonable comparison to me

      1. Can you install a down-vote application, so we can show our disapproval of stupid comments by anonymously reducing the otherwise-meaningless score associated with it? You know…like reddit.

    2. >Hell, just compare top numbers to a fed like USAPL or IPF that requires depth (and hence a certain style of squat) and where the lifters stay more upright to any fed that doesn’t. The second group moves more weight.

      Wow, following this logic through, if we half-squat, we’ll be able to lift more than we do squatting to below parallel! I bet if we just unrack the weight and set it back on the pins, we’ll be lifting even more, and it will require different contributions of muscle groups altogether!

      This must be the one weird trick I’ve been hearing about.

      /sarcasm

    3. I don’t understand what the ‘shitty assupmtion’ is.

      Beardsley’s review clearly shows that the back squat is a poor activator of the hamstrings so why would strengthening hamstrings improve back squat performance? (Geared squatting notwithstanding, as Beardsley indicates in the limitations)

    4. lyle, adults are talking. adults with more than 315 deadlifts. adults with adult brains. this was a conversation on squatting to depth. for a raw lifter hamstrings are massively overrated. its only westside turds and you that would argue differently

  2. Not to get too off-topic, but given this view of the hamstrings, what role do you see the adductors playing in a raw squat? Is their contribution to hip extension significant in comparison with the glutes?

    1. Good question. Since the adductor magnus aids in hip extension without also causing knee flexion, it’s a good guy. however, how much it’ll help is largely dependent on how mobile your hips are, and how much hip abduction you naturally have when squatting.

      1. Just to make sure I’m understanding you correctly: If you have a wider stance with toes pointing out, that would require greater recruitment of the adductors in hip extension and thusly, would require stronger adductors?

        And if you had a narrower stance with toes more forward, it would recruit the adductors less?

        Do you think a wider stance squat would take a significant amount of activation away from the glutes and apply it to the adductors? Or are the glutes still going to be a much more powerful hip extensor than the adductors even in a wider stance squat?

  3. Not to get too off-topic, but given this view of the hamstrings what role do you see the adductors play in the raw squat? How significant is their contribution to hip extension compared with the glutes?

  4. Wouldn’t the most efficient manner to squat, regardless of high bar/low bar or back angle be one which the bar path is a straight vertical line over mid foot the entire lift? With no effort wasted horizontally by forcing yourself to have too upright or flat of a back angle?

    1. externally, yes. If you’re talking about sheer amount of net work done by the system. When you start talking about how that movement is produced by the system, it gets a little more complicated, though.

        1. Sure thing.

          I’ll explain with the bench press though, since there are fewer variables, but it’s the same general concept.

          2 possible vertical bar baths.

          1). Starting right over the shoulders, and touching around the nipple line. To do this, however, you’d need to do one of two things. Either tucks your elbows and let them drift in front of the bar, or flare your elbows a ton and bench like a bodybuilder.

          2). Touch low, but to maintain a vertical bar path, the bar has to start and end low too. This means the bar’s not directly over the shoulders at the start of the lift, and you have to produce flexion torque at the shoulders to hold the bar statically.

          Obviously neither of those routes are optimal. The best biomechanical position is a combination of the two – starting with the bar over your shoulders, but touching a little lower. Not the shortest or most geometrically efficient bar path, but the one that is the most efficient due to the realities of human motion and the levers you’re dealing with.

          Does that make sense, by analogy? Explaining it directly with squats would be a much bigger can of worms since individual anthropometry influences the lift so much

  5. The study linked is just asinine to a degree I find difficult to express, i mean
    >It is likely that training the squat alone will not increase performance in the deadlift, as the deadlift involves a very marked contribution from the hamstrings.

    kind of goes against years and years of real world experience

    1. I agree that may be an over-generalization.

      However, it may be fair to say that it’s unlikely that training the squat would increase the deadlift *IF* your hamstrings are currently your limiting factor for the deadlift.

  6. The quads are a two joint muscle as well, knee extension and hip flexion, mirroring hamstring function, so your argument can be used that direction as well.

    The most efficient movement consists of a combination of first knee extension by the quads, against the resistance of various groups opposing its action as a hip flexor, followed by posterior chain activation and hip extension against a mechanically advantageous more extended knee (which requires less quad to maintain relative to the posterior chain) allowing the posterior chain to exert its action preferentially as a hip extensor

    A more nuanced interaction between these groups is responsible for a biomechanically advantageous squat.

    1. This activation progression is more obvious in the deadlift (knee extension followed by hip extension), and is augmented to accommodate the added complexity of having the bar connected to the lifter in the squat (as opposed to hanging off of her in the deadlift) but is fundamentally the same.

      1. I see what you’re saying, but an important distinction to keep in mind here is the relative torque each muscle is capable of producing at each joint.

        The hamstrings can product far more knee flexion torque relative to the quads’ knee extension torque than the rectum femoris can produce hip flexion torque relative to the glutes/hamstrings’ hip extension torque.

        And I reject the comparison to the deadlift. If that was the case, and a squat should have a similar activation pattern to the deadlift, then ones half squat should be very similar to ones deadlift. However, such is obviously not the case, due to the fact that without the bar restricting forward knee tracking, a half squat can take advantage of minimizing forward lean and maximizing quad involvement.

        The deadlift takes the pattern it does due to the constraints of having a bar in front of you. Were it actually the most efficient pattern, straight bar an d trap bar deadlifts would look the same, and result in the same weights lifted. However, the trap bar allows you to lift more weight because the knees can track forward, making it a more efficient movement. Having the bar in front of you makes a barbell deadlift an inherently inefficient movement, and the most you can hope for is to maximize efficiency within the context of the necessary constraints.

  7. Dear Gary
    Thanks for your article on hamstrings and your web site, which I just found. Can you tell me something on the relation of knee movement beyond the toes for just a body weight squad and/or a weighted squat. I am still very confused on the research involving how far the knee should travel. I am assuming you are not in the ‘stop your squad at parallel and do not go below parallel’ camp. I hear many trainers trying to have people sit back more to make their squat hamstrings dominate and so their knees do not travel pass their toes.

    1. I think you’re over-thinking it. Just try to do 2 things:

      1. Stay as upright as possible with your heels still on the ground

      2. squat as deep as possible.

      That’s really all there is to it!

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