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19 Apr 2009

“Don’t Forget about the Hamstrings”

           Lauren Downes MSPT

Figure skaters typically have stronger leg muscles than athletes in the majority of sports.  Skating gets a ‘bad rap’ for being more artistic than athletic, but people making that comment have no idea how much strength our sport requires.  I can recall an incident in one of my ‘Sports Physical Therapy’ classes at Boston University.  Mike Boyle, a nationally renowned strength and conditioning coach, was educating us about his training programs with college and professional athletes.  As we were trying different exercises, I was the only one in a class of forty students who could do a full one-legged squat!  His response was “Of course, you’re the figure skater.”

As a skater becomes stronger, his or her gluteal (buttocks) and quadriceps (thigh) muscles build strength quicker than other muscles in the lower extremity.  This occurs because of the movement patterns associated with stroking and crossovers, landings and takeoffs of jump, and holding spin positions.  These muscles are the largest in the body, and generate a great amount of force.  You would think the logical strength and conditioning program would include exercises that target these areas the most.  The quadriceps and gluteals are very important to strengthen, but other muscle groups such as the hamstrings should not be forgotten.

The hamstring muscle group consists of three muscles that work together to flex (bend) the knee, and extend (move back) the hip.  The hamstring also works to eccentrically slow down a straightening movement of the knee of a flexed movement of the hip, and helps to prevent excessive hyperextension (over-straightening) of the knee.  Generally, there is a 2:1 ratio of quad to hamstring strength, more common in females than males.  In figure skaters, that ratio may be even bigger, due to the reliance on the quad muscles.  This phenomenon may make a skater more susceptible to a hamstring strain or tear, anterior knee pain, or hip problem.  The muscles on either side of the hip and knee should have an equal balance of strength to promote normal movement patterns at these joints.  If the hamstring is not strong in comparison to the quad, the previously mentioned injuries may occur.

The hamstrings are not primarily active with the majority of skating moves, yet they work synergistically with many muscles to complete the majority of skating moves.  With the development of the International Judging System and the numerous spin variations, the hamstrings are directly involved in certain spins such as the donut and the catch-foot camel spins.  It takes a decent amount of hamstring strength to resist the centrifugal force of the spin while trying to grab the blade.  I remember the first time I tried that spin: my hamstring immediately cramped up!  Hamstring strength is also a key ingredient to achieving an effortless looking catch-foot spiral.

Off-ice training should include exercises that target all muscle groups in the lower extremity, with an emphasis placed on the quads, gluteals, hip abductors, and hamstrings.  There are several excellent ways to target the hamstrings functionally.  The standard leg curl machine at the gym won’t cut it, as it does not fully mimic movement patterns that you use in everyday life and sports.  Exercises that will strengthen the hamstrings include single leg dead lifts, single leg bridge progressions, and eccentric single and double leg hamstring curls using sliding discs.  If you incorporate functional hamstring strengthening into your off-ice program, you will greatly reduce your risk of injury and improve your lower extremity flexibility