Aug. 28 To Your Health column: You dont need a gym to work your hamstrings
Using techniques such as the leg bridge, people can strengthen weak muscles
Dear Colin: My doctor diagnosed me with chondromalacia of my knees and urged me to strengthen my hamstring muscles by using the leg curl machine at a health club. Im 42 and eager to get back to hiking and biking with my family, but I dont have a health club membership anymore, so neither my doctor nor I know of an exercise to strengthen my hamstrings at home. Any ideas? Tanya, Vancouver
Chondromalacia (softened bone) is a commonly used medical term to describe chronic knee pain associated with the front part of your knees, usually made worse with certain activities (negotiating stairs, kneeling, prolonged walking).
Interestingly, the emphasis in physical therapy when treating people with chronic knee pain is strengthening the thigh muscles as opposed to the hamstring muscles, although your doctor might believe you have exceptionally weak hamstring muscles. Having your patella taped by a trained professional may help decrease pain with exercise therapy but is not a stand-alone treatment. And passive treatments (ultrasound, acupuncture, massage, pain medication) have been shown to be ineffective in treating chronic knee pain.
Probably the most common exercise for strengthening the hamstring muscles is the leg curl machine, which most people dont have access to without a health club membership. For those who use the leg curl for strengthening your hamstrings: Make sure you keep your belly drawn inward (away from your belt line) and avoid arching your lower back during this exercise. Otherwise, you risk serious injury to your back.
An exercise you can do at home that requires only a floor and motivation is the one-legged bridge. Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent. Then, slowly lift your pelvis off the floor, being sure to keep your knees close together. Once you feel secure in your positioning, slowly extend one knee without allowing your pelvis to move. In doing so, the hamstring and hip muscles on the side of the down foot must contract to maintain the position.
Check with your physical therapist regarding the number of sets and repetitions, as well as intensity and frequency; just remember that to enhance strength, you must work to an intensity of 6 to 7 on a 0-10 scale. In other words, you should perceive the exercise as difficult as it relates to using your hamstrings and hip muscles.
One drawback of this exercise is muscle cramping that occurs in people who are really deconditioned. If this happens, try not raising your pelvis so high, which will immediately decrease demand on your hamstrings. The cramping will eventually dissipate as your hamstrings get stronger.
In addition to chronic knee pain, strengthening the hamstrings and hips via the one-legged bridge can also be effective in helping manage symptoms associated with low back pain, sacroiliac dysfunction and osteoarthritis of the hip and knee. However, for any exercise to be safely effective, it must be done appropriately. Take your time when learning strengthening exercises to improve the probability of success.
You dont need a health club membership to enjoy the medicinal benefits of exercise to treat disease and/or injury. Most people have no interest in joining a health club. The key is a positive attitude coupled with a little ingenuity, and the results can be amazing.
Colin Hoobler is a licensed physical therapist, hosts a live health segment on KGW Channel 8 and has written two books on exercise as treatment for disease and injury