Getting hamstring pain from squats? Here’s WHY:

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My training has been SLIGHTLY more intermittent than usual for the past month or so as I relocated my home gym. This came shortly after a purple patch of good results when squatting. The product of these two facts? I have had to contend with some SERIOUS soreness in my hamstrings! Here’s why – and what I’ve done about it: 

Getting hamstring pain from squats? Here's WHY:

At a glance…

  • There are THREE main causes of muscle soreness when squatting:
  • Fatigue – your muscle is simply tired our from an effective workout
  • DOMS – you are suffering from delayed onset muscle soreness
  • Injuries – occasionally we can face a genuine injury [out of scope for this article]
  • You can typically manage your soreness with diligent warm ups as well as following an appropriate training program
  • Sudden changes in exercises or routine can trigger the discomfort – give yourself time to ADAPT to your new program before pushing to the limit

3 reasons why your hamstrings hurt after squatting

The first thing to determine what has triggered the discomfort its to establish exactly what said discomfort actually IS! Typically it will be one of – in order of seriousness – general fatigue, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or a genuine injury.

Lets look at each in turn:

Leg fatigue from squatting

If your hamstrings are sore after squatting it could simply be FATIGUE from the exercise. This is not necessarily a bad thing – depending on your training goals.

Hamstrings are comparatively MORE involved in low bar squats as they are brought in to the movement by the bent over torso positioning. If you are low bar squatting you are therefore MORE likely to get fatigued hamstrings.

Conversely if you high bar or front squat then your hamstrings are LESS likely to fatigue first – I tend to find my quads are the first to get sore after those movements.

Where fatigue can become a blocker is if it begins to impede your training frequency – smashing yourself to pieces on a Monday may limit your ability to work on a Tuesday limiting the efficiency of your weekly training cycle. 

You can get around this by simply giving yourself time to adapt and training through the fatigue, changing your program to be something you can better tolerate or adjusting your schedule to allow for sufficient rest.

Of course this assumes it is fatigue that is the issue, and not the other factors here…

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) from squats

Considering how pervasive it is there is surprisingly little consensus on the causes or cures for DOMS. The general theme is that doing something novel – so something we are unaccustomed to – will trigger this soreness. 

You may be thinking “but I squat all the time, why would i get soreness after THIS workout in particular?” and the answer to that lies not just in the MOVEMENT of squatting but also the overall stressor combination – so the rep scheme, sets, weight, rest period, how hot it is and what shorts you’re wearing (OK maybe not that one…)

So the novelty is NOT just limited to the movement but the overall training approach.

A few examples of these non-movement based factors that can apply to squatting and sore hamstrings are:

  • Coming back to training after a layoff – you may be strong enough to lift the weights but after a layoff your muscles are not used to them. A sure fire trigger for DOMS!
  • Using different weights than normal (higher % or RPE) – this works both ways with HEAVIER or LIGHTER weights than usual. Some of my worst DOMS has been from lighter weights (see next point)
  • Changing rep schemes – higher reps than usual often trigger DOMS. My worst case of DOMS after squatting has been an AMRP set of around 12 reps as I was typically training in the 1-5 rep range before. Going up and down the stairs the day after was… interesting!
  • Higher volume or number of sets – even with consistent weight and reps if you add a ton more volume through increasing SETS then your body may get fatigued from the extra work!
  • Different form – currently I low bar and front squat in my training (I find them a good compliment to each other). When I first added the front squats in I got incredible DOMS – albeit more so in my quads rather than hamstrings! The subtle change in focus of the movement triggered the pain!

Dreaded injuries

The “bad” pain. I am not a doctor so am not able to diagnose or advise on medical issues so the scope of this article stops short of offering advice here.

My personal experience of hamstring injuries has – thankfully – been limited to a few occasions where I have subsequently rehabbed the injury using very light weights (or none at all) and lots of repetitions to rebuild or loosen the area off.

For me I have found injuries tend to be in a specific side or area whereas DOMS and general fatigue tends to cover both legs. If this sounds like you then please seek medical advice.

4 ways to minimise fatigue when squatting

There are a few ways to minimise hamstring pain or soreness after your squat sessions:

1. Warm up properly

An easy one to implement is to simply do a few warm up sets on your way up towards your work sets of squats. Personally I do this as part of every squat session anyway as it primes our muscles for the harder sets to come helping mitigate the shock and fatigue in the muscles!

2. Check your form out

As covered above the hamstrings are activated in a squat by the leaning FORWARDS of the torso – this is MORE common in low bar squats.

To minimise the hamstring involvement make sure your forward lean is not excessive for your body mechanics and chosen squat style (front, high bar, low bar etc.)

The best way to do this is to regularly take videos and really critically analyse them and the progress between each session. 

3. Review your training plan

If you’re suffering from DOMS or general fatigue and you don’t want to give your body more time to adapt to the stress then changing the workout layout and timing is another option.

Reducing the volume or moving hamstring-dominant movements so they are not on consecutive days can be a great way to work around the soreness.

Note by loading ALL your hamstring focused moves on the SAME day (so a leg day) you will be MORE likely to have fatigued hamstrings! Conversely spreading it over the week (full body routines) you may have less extreme fatigue, BUT risk getting it a little more often….

4. Sets & reps

Your body adapts to stress over time – doing something novel is MORE likely to trigger pain or soreness as your body is not used to it.

If you’ve moved your squat from low rep work towards higher rep hypertrophy focused training or increased overall training volume that can cause the soreness in your hamstrings.

Here’s how to FIX your sore hamstrings

OK, it’s too late – your legs are already sore and you’re feeling a bit beaten up – what can you do to get rid of it?

  • Rest – probably not what you want to read, but simply resting and giving yourself time to recover is the easiest way to get rid of fatigue
  • Rehabilitation – when I get sore muscles I tend to carry on training and simply take more care warming up. Performing the full ROM with lighter weights is a great way to loosen the muscles up and mitigate the soreness. For squats for example I am often suffering some hamstring fatigue from low bar squatting on day 1 as I go in to front squat on day 2. By the time I’m warmed up it has all slackened off and feels fine.
  • Massage – many will use a sports massage, foam rolling or massage guns to work sore areas of their muscles. I use a massage gun periodically but rarely (if ever) foam roll.
  • Cardio – for hamstrings and glutes they can be worked with low intensity cycling and walking to keep the blood flowing and encourage some active recovery in the area
  • Ice – many athletes ‘enjoy’ an ice bath to help them recover after a session and you can replicate similar on your hamstrings with localised icing. Personally this is not something I tend to do but I know MANY who do it regularly.

Remember a bit of fatigue is NOT necessarily a bad thing, but the above may help you if it feels a bit too much for you from time to time!

Conclusion

My tender hamstrings have since recovered now normal training has resumed, BUT I found rest and rehabilitation were the most effective ways to get me back on my feet. Unweighted body squats through the range of motion are EXCELLENT to really loosen them off – give them a try!

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