When you work out, what’s your ultimate goal? Is it solely to pack on muscle to look jacked, or do you want to move better, perform at the highest level for sports and life, and fill out your clothes to look your best? We’re guessing if you had your pick, you’d go with the full-body benefits of option two. That’s why your training needs to target more than just your mirror muscle groups (think biceps, abs, and quads) and expand its focus to include exercises to develop other muscles—namely strong, healthy hamstrings.
Training your hamstrings will allow you to run faster, jump higher, and handle more weight on leg day when it comes time to take on some of the bigger compound movements that utilize multiple muscle groups and serve as the bedrock of any balanced strength program. Unfortunately, lots of guys neglect the hammies, preferring instead to focus on the anteriorly located (meaning at the front side of the body) quads.
Sure, you’ll look impressive when you roll up your gym shorts and flex your quads for your reflection, showing off that teardrop-shaped muscle above the knee—but you’ll get better all-around performance if you shift some of that attention to the backside of your body, where your hamstring and glute muscles are located. Don’t get us wrong; you should still give your quads attention, too. They’re essential for a well-rounded lower body, key for hip flexion and knee extension. But if you want to develop power, your hamstrings (along with your glutes) will be your engine.
The Functions of the Hamstrings
This comes down to what the muscle actually does for you.
The hamstrings are a rare and unique lower-body muscle group that actually acts at two joints. Flexing your hamstrings will bend your knee, much as you do during leg curls. Your hamstrings also act on your hip joint too, driving your hips into “extension,” essentially pushing your hips forward directly under your spine.
Both motions are key to your general movement, and they’re even more important for athleticism. Powerful hip extension, in fact, is widely acknowledged as a key trait for sprinting, jumping, bounding, and lunging.
All of that is exactly why you want to make sure to attack your hamstrings with some vigorous training every week. And here’s how you can do that.
A Hamstrings Anatomy Lesson
Your hamstrings actually consist of three main muscles: the semimembranosus, the semitendinosus, and the biceps femoris. The biceps femoris includes two separate heads, a long head and a short head.
Both semis and the long head of the biceps femoris originate at the ischial tuberosity in the pelvis—and that’s important. That means they are involved in hip extension. What’s hip extension? That’s what happens when you stand up straight, and your thigh and torso straighten out. (The short head of the biceps femoris originates at the shaft of the femur, or thigh bone.)
This means that hip extension moves like glute bridges, and even the final act of standing up fully straight and pushing your pelvis forward during a squat, will recruit a lot of hamstring muscle (although these moves won’t recruit the short head of the biceps femoris). Don’t discount such moves when training hamstrings.
Meanwhile, all your hamstring muscles are active during knee flexion, the bending of your knee. Semimembranosus and semitendinosus insert at the tibia, while the biceps femoris insert at the head of the fibula. That placement means your lower leg internally rotates because of the semis, while it externally rotates because of the biceps femoris. This means you can create focus on different muscles by thinking about tibial rotation.
Your Hamstrings’ Opposing Muscle Group
The hamstrings are commonly known as the opposing muscle group to the quadriceps, but that doesn’t mean that when one of these muscles is working, the other group is relaxed. Hamstrings and quads work together; in order to stand, you must exhibit both hip extension and knee extension.
This collaborative effort happens more often than you would think with all lower-body exercises. That means you can isolate your hamstrings, but it’s not the lone way to train them; when you’re doing squats and lunges, your hammies are getting plenty of work, too.
Your Hamstring Exercise Library
If you want to develop your hamstrings into the powerhouses their supposed to be, you need to use a variety of exercises. Here are 16 moves you can mix into your leg day training.
This may be the most well-known lower-body exercise out there, and it’s your hamstrings’ greatest tool for growth. The combination of heavy weight, multi-joint action, and hip extension is a recipe for quality muscular development.
How to: With feet shoulder-width apart and arms just outside of the legs, push the hips back as far as possible then bend the knee far enough to reach the bar. Keeping your core tight and your spine as tall as possible, pull the bar from the ground by standing tall and pulling the hips back to your standing position. Slowly lower the bar back to the ground, pushing your hips back as you do. Do 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps.
Romanian Deadlift is a great hip-hinging pattern that involves the hip extension of the deadlift while eliminating any extra knee action or focus. You maintain a soft bend in the knee, which places the emphasis of the move entirely on your posterior chain.
How to: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a loaded barbell at your hips with an overhand grip. Your knees should be slightly bent. Slowly push your hips all the way back with the weight gliding close to the front of your leg. Lower until you feel slight tension in your hamstrings, or until your torso is parallel to the ground, whichever comes first. Pull your hips forward and stand to return to the start. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps.
The single-leg deadlift has all the advantages of the Romanian deadlift, except it recruits more posterior chain muscles to maintain stability. The gluteus medius jumps into the action to stabilize your femur at the hip joint while you focus your body to remain parallel to the ground.
How to: Stand with feet together and hold the weight in front of your thigh, arm extended and hands pronated. Bend left knee slightly as you bend forward from your hips, extending right leg to hip height behind you as you lower bar toward the floor. Rise up to the starting position and repeat. Switch sides to complete one full repetition. Do 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps.
Hex-Bar/Trap Bar Deadlift
The most translatable lower body move to everyday life that we have. The hex bar relieves the stress on the upper body by placing the hands in a neutral grip by your sides. This allows you to pack on more weight on, challenging your legs that much more.
How to: Lower your body down to grab the high handles of the hex bar with feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping your core tight and your shoulders above your hips, extend your knees and hips to stand up. Your upper body should remain as relaxed as possible while maintaining a firm grip on the bar. Squeeze your glutes at the top. Slowly lower the bar to the ground, pushing your butt back as you do. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 6 to 8.
This is the move we’ve all seen in some fitness video at some point. It’s both simple enough that anyone can do it, and useful enough to pack muscle on anyone of any level.
How to: Lie flat on your back with feet flat on the ground and shoulder-width apart, legs bent to 90 degrees. Drive your heels into the ground, and lift your torso and upper legs into the air, extending your hips until your thighs and torso are in line with each other. Squeeze your glutes. Hold for a 2-second count. Return to the start. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 10.
Barbell Hip Thrust
The barbell hip thrust is similar to the glute bridge, but it challenges hip extension by adding increased load. This will also attack your glutes.
How to: Sit on the ground, with your shoulder blades against a bench, feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart, knees bent. A barbell should be across the front of your hips. Hold the bar with your hands, stabilizing it. Squeeze your glutes to raise your hips off the ground and raise the bar off the floor. (Keep your chin tucked to maintain proper ribcage positioning. Pause when your thighs and torso are in line with each other, then return to the start. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 8 to 10.
Break out of the sagittal plane (front-to-back movement) with this exercise that gets you moving in the frontal plane (side-to-side). That’s key for healthy movement and athleticism—which, as we have already discussed, is driven by your hamstrings.
How to: Start standing, holding a kettlebell or dumbbell at your chest, core tight. Step to the right a few feet with your right leg, taking a relatively large step. Land. Keeping your left leg straight, bend your right knee and push your butt back, lowering slowly. Lower as far as you can comfortably, aiming to get thigh parallel to the ground. Then explosively drive up and to the left, driving back to a standing position. For some extra athletic work, add a high knee drive to the end of the movement. Try 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps per direction.
Think of this exercise as an opportunity to reinforce your hip hinge and core bracing, two important functions on big lifts like deadlifts. Good mornings are similar to Romanian deadlifts—you’re just shifting the load to your back, instead of in front of you. Think low weights for this exercise, and focus on the basics of the movement.
How to: Lift a loaded barbell off the rack, holding the weight on a low position across your shoulders. Grip the bar tightly, and move your shoulders forward into an externally rotated position. Tighten your core and glutes, then push your butt back to hinge at the hips to lower your torso. If you need, you can create a slight arch in your back to avoid rounding. Keep your shins vertical. Lower until you feel tension in your hamstrings, then raise back up. Start with low loads; aim for 3 sets of 8 reps.
This unilateral staple doesn’t isolate your hammies and glutes like some other exercises, but you will build up those lower body muscles if you work the right way. Make sure to focus on setting up properly to get the most out of the movement.
How to: Start from the bottom position, meaning you should begin with one knee on the ground, forming two 90-degree angles with your legs. Lean forward slightly, place your back toes on the ground, and engage your core. Grip weights in both hands tightly, and keep your head in a neutral position by keeping your gaze straight ahead. Squeeze your rear glute to raise up, maintaining your solid torso posture. Lower back down without slamming your back knee to the ground. Do 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps per side.
Bulgarian Split Squat
Level up your standard split squat with some elevation. You’ll get even more unilateral strength work while emphasizing even more mobility and flexibility on the rear leg.
How to: Start from the bottom position again, placing your rear foot on the bench or elevated platform from the ground. Form 90-degree angles with your legs and drive your grounded heel into the floor, aiming to have your front shin vertical. Grip your weights tightly, then squeeze your core and shoulder blades. Stand up, hinging forward slightly to avoid back extension. Now, lower down into the squat, keeping your knee off the floor and working to maintain the vertical front shin. Recruit your glutes and hammies to explode out of the bottom of the movement. Do 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps per side.
Slider/Swiss Ball Leg Curl
This is your traditional weight room machine leg curl, married to glute- and hamstring-challenging instability. The best part: It’ll rock your lower body with only bodyweight and gravity.
How to: Lie flat on your back with your feet flat on the ground and shoulder-width apart. Place the backs of your heels either on two sliders or a Swiss ball (if you use a Swiss ball, you’ll have to lift your thighs and lower back off the ground to get into position). This is the start. Tighten your core. Now pull your heels back as far as possible, bending at the knees primarily to do this. Pause, then push them back out so your legs are now straight. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 10 to 12.
The basic kettlebell swing is one of the best ballistic moves you can add into a routine. It’s a movement that’s actually similar to a bodyweight broad jump, loading your hips and hamstrings, then forcing you to explode your pelvis and hips forward into extension. It’s a power-packed move that your hamstrings will feel for days, and it has multiple uses: It’ll get your metabolism up, and it trains your upper and mid-back more than you may think, too.
How to: Stand with an athletic stance, a kettlebell just in front of you. Grasp the kettlebell with both hands, then lift your hips enough to swing the bell back between your legs. Keep your core tight and aim to keep your back flat as you do this; don’t round your back. From that loaded position, explode your hips forward, squeezing your glutes and propelling your arms straight out in front of you, “swinging” the kettlebell to about eye level. Your torso should stay rigid once the kettlebell is at eye level. Let the kettlebell’s momentum take it back downward, then, as it descends toward you, push your hips back for another swing. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 12 to 15.
Glute Ham Raise
The glute-ham raise machine is a go-to posterior chain move, somewhat mimicking the feel of a Romanian deadlift.
How to: Fix yourself into the glute-ham raise machine with the largest pad just above the knee. From the tall kneeling position, slowly lean forward with a controlled tall posture as far down as possible. From the end point, pull your body back up to the tall kneeling position using the hamstrings to curl you up. That is one rep.
Reverse Sled Pulls
In the same way driving a sled forward will hammer the quadriceps, dragging it backwards will call on the hamstrings. You’re also training the hamstrings in a real way, placing them in the same position they wind up in when they’re decelerating your lower body.
How to: Attach a TRX or strap to the sled and grab the TRX handles with both hands, chest facing the sled. Lean back, creating full tension in the strap while sitting back into an athletic stance. With arms extended in front, slowly drag the sled while walking backwards maintaining that athletic starting position. Do this move for distance; hit 3 sets of 25 to 30 feet.
Machine Leg Curl
The hamstring’s main job is to flex the knee. This machine places you in ideal position to do this.
How to: Set up in a leg curl machine and select a moderate amount of weight. Your calves should be against the leg piece of the machine. Flex at the knees to curl the leg piece back to your hamstrings; pause when it touches your hamstrings. Slowly return to the start. That’s 1 rep; do 3 sets of 12 to 15.
The venerable cardio row does more than get your heart rate up; it’ll fire up your glutes and hamstrings, too. In fact, if you row with explosive power, there’s a good chance you’ll get off the rower with your hamstrings and glutes on fire. The movement of the cardio row, when done correctly, somewhat mimics a deadlift and barbell row, with both moves simply on a different plane.
How to: Set up on a cardio rower, and secure your feet. Bend at the knees and hips and hinge your torso forward slightly to grasp the handle. Holding it tightly with an overhand grip, straighten your knees and hips, hinge backward slightly, and pull the handle to your lower chest. Repeat the motion until you’ve covered the time or distance you want. A good starting point: Do 3 two-minute intervals of rowing, resting two minutes between each set.
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