BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation
School of Medical and Health Sciences / Exercise Medicine Research Institute
Temporal biomechanical and physiological responses to physical activity vary between individual hamstrings components as well as between exercises, suggesting that hamstring muscles operate differently, and over different lengths, between tasks. Nevertheless, the force-length properties of these muscles have not been thoroughly investigated. The present review examines the factors influencing the hamstrings’ force-length properties and relates them to in vivo function. A search in four databases was performed for studies that examined relations between muscle length and force, torque, activation, or moment arm of hamstring muscles. Evidence was collated in relation to force-length relationships at a sarcomere/fiber level and then moment arm-length, activation-length, and torque-joint angle relations. Five forward simulation models were also used to predict force-length and torque-length relations of hamstring muscles. The results show that, due to architectural differences alone, semitendinosus (ST) produces less peak force and has a flatter active (contractile) fiber force-length relation than both biceps femoris long head (BFlh) and semimembranosus (SM), however BFlh and SM contribute greater forces through much of the hip and knee joint ranges of motion. The hamstrings’ maximum moment arms are greater at the hip than knee, so the muscles tend to act more as force producers at the hip but generate greater joint rotation and angular velocity at the knee for a given muscle shortening length and speed. However, SM moment arm is longer than SM and BFlh, partially alleviating its reduced force capacity but also reducing its otherwise substantial excursion potential. The current evidence, bound by the limitations of electromyography techniques, suggests that joint angle-dependent activation variations have minimal impact on force-length or torque-angle relations. During daily activities such as walking or sitting down, the hamstrings appear to operate on the ascending limbs of their force-length relations while knee flexion exercises performed with hip angles 45 – 90° promote more optimal force generation. Exercises requiring hip flexion at 45 – 120° and knee extension 45 – 0° (e.g. sprint running) may therefore evoke greater muscle forces and, speculatively, provide a more optimum adaptive stimulus. Finally, increases in resistance to stretch during hip flexion beyond 45° result mainly from SM and BFlh muscles.
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