Muscle Back of Leg: Name, Pain and How to Train
As a coach, I often get asked about the name of muscle on the back of the leg, and the biggest reason I get asked is usually that someone is experiencing pain there (often due to improper training or exercise efforts) In this article we're going to cover...
What Is The Muscle On The Back Of Your Leg?
The large muscle back of leg is called your hamstring. It connects from your pelvis to right above your knee.
Although we describe them simply as 'hamstrings' for convenience, they are actually a group of 3 muscles...
Hamstring Muscle Purpose
Your hamstring acts as a knee flexor, which means that it helps to bend your knee, as well as working as a hip extensor, which means that it helps to extend your hips. To some degree, they also assist with rotation at the hip joint as well.
Back of Leg Muscle Diagram
Here's a simplified version of the muscle groups on the back of your leg...
Hamstring Muscle Back of Leg Pain
Pain in the back of your leg typically comes from 1 of 3 causes...
1) Mild Cramping
Mild cramping is due to acute overuse and/or dehydration. typically it will ease off after a few hours of rest.
2) Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
DOMS in the hamstring muscles on the back of your leg can feel like someone has taken a baseball bat and whacked your leg muscles. It sort of feels like a low, dull ache that doesn't go away, and tends to last anything from 1 to 4 days.
It is caused by exercise/training sessions. Some hamstring soreness after training is normal, but incredible levels of soreness that lasts for days is an indicator that you went a bit too hard and did a bit too much during that workout.
3) Strains and Tears
Strains and tears are more serious injuries to the structure of the leg musculature. They can be divided into:
Grade 1 Strains are where your muscle fibres overstretch, but don’t tear. You'll get mild pain and swelling but can still use your leg.
Grade 2 Strains are where one or more of your hamstring muscles is partially torn. You'll have moderate pain, and swelling will likely prevent you from using your leg.
Grade 3 Strains are where your hamstring muscle tissue completely tears away from the tendon or bone. In some cases the tendon even pulls a piece of bone away with it, which is called 'avulsion'. You'll experience severe pain and swelling, as well as being unable to use your leg.
How Do I Know if My Hamstring is Pulled or Torn?
*My best advice is to book in to see a doctor who can conduct a proper assessment.
However, as someone who has had plenty of athletes come to them after hamstring tears, you'll KNOW if you've torn your hamstring.
At the time of the injury, you'll experience a popping sensation and then feel a sudden, sharp pain.
You'll also likely have partial or complete weakness in your leg, and an inability to place weight on your injured leg.
Afterwards, you'll experience severe swelling within the first few hours, followed by heavy bruising within the first few days.
Lower level (Grade 1) Pulls or 'strains' on the other hand are far milder. You will still experience some degree of pain, but it will be far lesser, and you'll still be able to use your leg.
Red Flags (Definitely Contact a Doctor)
Can’t move your leg and pain in your thigh persists.
Experience ongoing difficulty with walking.
Experience numbness in your lower back, hips or legs.
How Do You Heal a Pulled Hamstring?
For the most part, healing pulled or strained muscles is simply a matter of time.
Grade 1 and 2 strains/pulls tend to heal within a few weeks.
Grade 3 strains/pulls tend to take a few months, and may require surgery.
In the few days following injury, you may find occasional ice application useful to reduce swelling, as well as anti-inflammatory medications.
Beyond that, it is mainly advised to avoid overly stressing the muscle, and where prescribed, to follow an agreed programme of rehab or physical therapy.
How to Train Hamstrings to Prevent Injury and Improve Performance
Now, to verify my credentials, I've spent 7+ years delivering strength & conditioning across talent pathways, with national and international athletes under my belt. So I can say with confidence that hamstring training should consist of 3 types of movement...
Hip hinges like RDL's in which the hamstrings are stretched under load and then work as hip extensors. Aim to increase the range of motion over time.
Knee flexion's like hamstring curls in which the muscle's ability to contract is isolated and strengthened.
And then movements in which knee flexion is performed in a hip extended position. For this, I'm also a big fan of nordic curls, especially for sprinters and people who play sports that involve sprinting. This exercise strengthens the eccentric (lengthening) component of the hamstring's muscle action, and has been shown to reduce the likelihood of hamstring injury.
If you're serious about playing a sport that requires high speed run or changes of direction, or you just want to build some healthier, stronger hamstrings, then you need to start making time for gym-based physical preparation sessions.
Conclusion - Key Points
The large muscle on the back of your leg is called your hamstring, it is responsible for knee flexion, hip extension and hip rotation.
Common causes of pain include cramps, DOMS and strains/pulls
Grade 3 strains (tears) are rare, and are more serious than grade 1 or 2 strains.
Healing hamstring strains/pulls is mainly a matter or time, and sometimes physical therapy
Following a well-rounded hamstring strengthening programme can reduce the risk of hamstring injury or re-injury.
Alright, that's enough reading for today, time for action...
1) If you're injured, follow your doctor's recommended rest and rehab suggestions, and once complete, start implementing the gym-based hamstring exercises above.
2) If you found this useful and want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you're looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching to improve your sports performance, you can find more information about my services here.
'Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.