ABC (Ask Bret Contreras) – Hamstring Cramping

Here’s a question I just received from one of my female readers. This question crops up quite often so I believe it’s best to address it in a blogpost.

Question:

Dear Wonderful Glute God (Okay I made that part up),

May I ask you a question? Whenever I do glute bridges or supine hip thrusts, my hamstrings cramp up and ache like hell! I mean, I can feel my glutes working, but it seems like my hammies are working overtime, like they are firing a lot more than the glutes. Is this right? If not, do you have any suggestions on how to stop it – should I be doing other exercises to get my glutes stronger first (so that my hammies don’t hog all the hip extension work) before doing these particular exercises? Or should I just harden the f*ck up LOL and keep hip thrusting!

Thanks so much,

Nadine

Answer:

Nadine, this is very common. One of the reasons why this happens is because your hamstrings are relatively strong in comparison to your glutes. When you shorten a muscle (as in keeping the knees bent in bridging which shortens the hamstrings) you interfere with the length-tension relationship of the muscle (it can’t contract as hard because fewer sarcomeres are in proper alignment). If your hamstrings are your dominant hip extensor, then they will still try to take the brunt of the load during hip thrusts, whereas the glutes should fulfil this role. This will cause them to cramp. Over time you can ameliorate this problem but here’s what you need to do:

1. Regress to bodyweight glute bridges and focus on “feeling the glutes.” Think of your posterior chain as a river with three waterfalls; one goes to the erector spinae, one goes to the glutes, and one goes to the hamstrings. Right now you might have 30% of the water going to the erectors, 20% going to the glutes, and 50% going to the hamstrings. You want around 33% going to each. Research indicates that it is possible to increase and/or decrease the relative contribution of various prime movers and synergists through proper training. In fact, there was a terrific article in February of this year’s Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy entitled, Strengthening and Neuromuscular Reeducation of the Gluteus Maximus in a Triathlete With Exercise-Associated Cramping of the Hamstrings, which addressed bilateral differences and hamstring-cramping during running but showed that through sound training hamstring contribution can decrease while glute activation increases during movement and new and more efficient motor programs can be created. However, I like my methodology better than the researchers for your scenario.

2. Also focus on “feeling the glutes” during back extensions (remember you want all hip motion and no lumbar motion) and Romanian deadlifts, and make sure you utilize hip-dominant strategies and not just quad-dominant strategies (share the loading between the knee joint and hip joint) when you squat and lunge. You need to develop what bodybuilders call a “mind-muscle connection” with the glutes and learn how to better-activate the musculature.

3. In addition to bridging for glute activation, also add in exercises such as side lying clams, side lying abductions, x-band walks, quadruped hip extensions, and bird dogs. Make sure you keep the lumbar spine in neutral and move solely at the hips.

4. Once you feel your glutes working very well with bodyweight bilateral glute bridges, you’ll start progressing to more difficult variations. Here’s a good progression scheme for those:

bodyweight glute bridges
shoulder-elevated bodyweight glute bridges (hip thrusts)
barbell glute bridges
single leg glute bridges
barbell hip thrusts
single leg hip thrusts

Different trainers might progress in a different order but I’ve found that this progression-scheme works very well for most people.

5. Right before you work on glute activation, I want you to stretch your hip flexors (to make sure you decrease any reciprocal inhibition that you might have in the glutes), and I also want you to stretch your hamstrings (to slightly lengthen/weaken them so the glutes might do more of the work). When you do your bridges, rather than dorsiflex your ankles and push through your heels (which is the preferred method with most trainers which I find perfectly acceptable), instead I want you to keep your feet flat and push through your forefeet. Although this may increase quad activity, it will slightly decrease hamstring activity so you can hopefully get the glutes to contribute more to the movement.

6. Take your time and give yourself a couple of months to work your way into barbell hip thrusts. Remember, you didn’t become a champion squatter or deadlifter overnight, nor will you be a champion hip thruster overnight either.

Hip Thruster barbell band

The Hip Thruster is the best way to do the hip thrust – stable and versatile!

When your glutes are really kicking in you can stop doing so much glute-activation prior to your workouts and you can focus more on pure strength training. Getting your glutes to work more during various movements is very wise as rarely do individuals “pull” their glutes. Conversely, often individuals strain the synergists (helpers) of the glutes – the low back, the hammies, the adductors, etc. Strong glutes spare the spine and the knees so I’m glad you’re taking this seriously.

Last thing – make sure you’ve watched these videos! Best of luck!

Squat Technique

Deadlift Technique

Hip Thrust Technique

8 Comments

  • Ben says:

    Great post Bret. In your opinion, is there any similar issues with calf or plantar exercise-induced cramping?

  • Thy. says:

    Hi Bret,
    Amazing detalization and explanation in this article – very helpful!

    I have an unrelated question if you don’t mind (posting here to be sure that you see it):

    When you tested BB upright rows for your EMG articles, what technique did you use? Did you use a medium grip and pulled to lower chest or higher? I find that this exercise isn’t bad for the shoulders if you pull as high as lower chest and use a medium-wide grip, do you agree?

    Interestingly, the top Ukrainian powerlifting coach recommends this exercise (upright row to lower chest with medium-wide grip) for mid-range bench press strength, specifically to strengthen the lateral delts. I’m not sure why he thinks that particularly lateral delts are so important for mid-range strength. Ironically, most Eastern European coaches develop tremendous world-class athletes, but are not very good with all the science behind it.

  • Paula Puffer says:

    AAAAAH after getting hamstring cramps tonight while doing my rehad work, my brain flashed back to your article and now I know why the exercises were prescribed in the order they were in. The first two exercises warm up the hammies before I start doing bridges. Thanks for the flash of insight Bret.

  • My understanding of cramping in general is that chronically shortened muscles are more prone to cramping, and therefore a regular stretching program to elongate them is helpful. I would suggest stretching any affected muscles several times during the day, even twice an hour.

    For the hamstrings, this means elevating one leg and bending forward at the hips with the back straight. Keep the feet pointed forward to include the hip abductors and ITB(ilio-tibial band.) This can be done almost anywhere, and doesn’t require lying on the ground. You can even keep looking at your computer or talk on the phone while doing it.

  • john says:

    Love your site and I agree that glutes are very important especially for athletes-

    I was trying to increase my vertical for basketball and was trying to see what you thought of a “standing glute squeeze/hip thrust” – the starting position is basically standing up but the knees are just slightly bent, feet shoulder width apart (it’s similar to the ending part of a squat but really emphasizing the hip thrust / squeeze of the glutes of the end of the movement- a pretty simple excercise- it seems to activate more of the glutes than the bridge one that I do on the floor- (kind of like a standing bridge but not as wide of a range of motion)- i hope i explained that ok-

    what do you think of this?

    also do you have any ideas on hip flexor ex.’s? i think these are very overlooked for speed and jumping.

    thanks

  • Jaap says:

    Great post bret.
    My Hammies and back working to Much with the hip briges. I am now working on it whit your regime. It is very hard for my to relax my Hammies while i doing the hip briges. Hyper extensie is also hard because my quats are thight.
    To activate my glutes i doing (band)hip drives and Side planks and Side plank with clams combinated.

    Must i stop doing heavy deadlift variation till my gluteus working?
    Do you have à advise for à training regime for the glutes (sets, reps, frequentcy)
    I heard you need 1000 reps to let your glutes working correctly.

    Best Regards Jaap (from Holland)
    Love your site, Great information

  • Bryan says:

    I’m really late to this party, but info like this is somewhat timeless. Thanks Brett for the detailed info. I’ll be trying to use it to put together some sort of rehab plan to get myself in order. It’s clear now how my symptoms and ailments are all tied together.

  • Bryan says:

    Let me not forget to ask this though…
    How would very tight hamstrings play a role in the hammies cramping when flexed?

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