Medio-Lateral Hamstring Muscle Activity in Unilateral vs. Bilateral Strength Exercises in Female Team Handball Players - A Cross-Sectional Study

Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2021 Jun 1;16(3):704-714. doi: 10.26603/001c.24150.


Background: Reduced activation of the hamstring muscles and specifically the medial semitendinosus muscle (ST) has been shown to be a risk factor for non-contact anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. Specific hamstring strength exercises may show high ST activity, however the effect of unilateral vs. bilateral exercise execution on ST activation remains unknown.

Purpose: To investigate selected lower limb strengthening exercises performed either unilaterally or bilaterally to identify 1) which exercise elicited the highest hamstring activation, 2) which exercise elicited the highest ST activation, and 3) to examine if unilateral exercise execution altered the medio-lateral hamstring activation pattern. Furthermore, the kinematic characteristics of each specific exercise and execution modality were determined to reveal possible causes for differences in medio-lateral hamstring activation between the different exercise conditions.

Study design: Cross-sectional study.

Methods: Single-session repeated measures were obtained in a randomized manner. Twenty-three female elite team handball players were recruited. Hamstring electromyographic (EMG) activity and 3D kinematics were obtained during selected lower limb exercises (hip thrust, kettlebell swing, Romanian deadlift). Hamstring EMG activity, normalized to maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) (nEMG), and inter-muscular activation difference between the ST and lateral hamstring biceps femoris (BF) were compared across exercises using two-way repeated measures ANOVA.

Results: Bilateral hip thrust demonstrated highest overall hamstring activity (68.9±16.6 %). Kettlebell swing (Δ13%-point, p<0.01) and Romanian deadlift (Δ20-24%-point, p<0.01) demonstrated greater ST-BF activation differences (Δ=ST-BF) in favor of ST compared to hip thrust (Δ2-7%). Positive correlations were observed between knee joint angle and ST activity in kettlebell swing and deadlift.

Conclusion: Kettlebell swing, deadlift and hip thrust all produced high activation of the hamstring muscles. Kettlebell swing and both deadlift exercises were superior in activating ST over BF, favoring these exercises in the prevention of non-contact ACL injury in female athletes, which should be evaluated in future intervention studies.

Level of evidence: 3.

Keywords: emg; exercise; hamstrings; medio-lateral activation; strength.