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Want bigger, stronger hamstrings? You're in the right place.
Often neglected within training programmes for more quad-dominant exercises such as the squat or leg press, the hamstrings play a key role when it comes to overall strength, power and size. Making sure you have the right hamstring exercises in your workout programme will help target this huge muscle group on the back of your thigh.
Having weak hamstrings can lead to muscular imbalances, where the quadriceps overpower the hamstrings resulting in injuries or lack of strength, this is especially common with soccer players, runners and other sporting athletes.
Implementing the correct type of hamstring exercises into your workout routine is a great way to build hamstring strength and muscular resilience. It's also a great idea to supplement your workouts with mobility and flexibility exercises, to help prevent your hamstrings from shortening and reduce the chance of injury.
What are the hamstrings?
The hamstrings are a group of muscles located on the back of the thigh, providing a countermovement to the quadriceps, bending the knees.
What are the muscles in the hamstrings called?
- Biceps femoris, long head
- Biceps femoris, short head
These muscles work together, giving you the ability to flex your knee, a movement often replicated in most machine-based hamstring exercises, such as the lying hamstring curl.
Best Exercises for the hamstrings
Scroll down to read more about each hamstring exercise, including visual examples.
- Romanian Deadlift
- Split Squat
- Hamstring Curls
- Kettlebell Swings
- Back Squat
Hitting your hamstrings from all different angles, weights and reps is essential for unlocking muscle growth in this area, and that rule goes for all muscle groups in the body. By applying the simple notion of progressive overload, you will create small microscopic tears in the muscles, resulting in the hamstrings rebuilding bigger and stronger.
Implementing a variation of hamstring exercises in your leg training programme will help target the muscle in unique ways, challenging the hamstrings and promoting development.
These hamstring exercises below can be used within your normal training split, or if you feel this is an area of weakness, combine them for a hamstring focused workout.
General session planning keeps compound lifts at the beginning of your workout, which we recommend 80% of the time, however; remember to switch up repetitions and the order you put your exercises to keep challenging your body.
Romanian deadlifts (or stiff leg deadlifts) are great for working your hamstrings. Unlike regular deadlifts which put a lot of the workload onto the lower back, Romanian deadlifts place the majority of the workload onto your hamstrings.
What muscles do Romanian Deadlifts work?
- Gluteus Maximus
How to do a Romanian Deadlift:
- Start with your feet hip-width apart and the barbell at thigh level, with soft knees.
- Keep a neutral spine and bend at your waist, tilting your hips and pushing your glutes back.
- Sit into your heels and, while keeping the bar close to your legs, lower as far as you can go without bending your back.
- When you are as low as your hamstrings will allow, use your hips to drive the weight back upwards to your upper thigh.
TIP: Keep your shoulders retracted the entire time, while squeezing your hamstrings and glutes throughout the movement.
Progression: The Romanian deadlift can be progressed by increasing the weight. If you're flexible, performing a deficit deadlift with your foot stood on a small raised section can also be a great progression to this glute and hamstring exercise.
What are split squats?
So you're probably looking at the split squats thinking 'that's a quad exercise', am I right?
These bad boys are a great hamstring exercise, too. Building strength and size in your quadriceps AND your hamstrings and glutes; making the split squat one of the best all-round leg exercises to include in your workout.
They're also a unilateral exercise, which basically means single-leg (or-arm) movements - perfect for ironing out any strength differences if you favour one side of the body more than the other.
What muscles do split squats work?
The main muscles worked when performing the split squat exercise are:
- Gluteus Maximus
How to do split squats:
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, place your feet in a split squat stance.
- Once stable, lower your hips towards the ground (don't lean forward), keeping the majority of your weight through the front foot.
- Once you have lowered down, push off of the ground with your front foot.
TIP: Focus on engaging your glutes and hamstrings during both the eccentric and concentric part of the exercise.
Progression: Progressions include raising your back leg on a bench or box (known as a Bulgarian split squat). You can also increase the dumbbell weight or perform the exercise with a barbell resting on the top of your back.
Seated or lying hamstring curls? Whichever your preference, the leg curl is a great exercise for hamstrings, building strength and adding volume to your leg workout.
Hamstring curls are an 'isolation' exercise, specifically targeting the hamstrings alone in a strict isolated movement, perfect for higher rep training or working to fatigue at the end of your hamstring workout.
What muscles do leg curls work?
How to do leg curls:
- Set the weight to one that challenges you but does not require you to lift your hips of butt during the exercise – your hamstrings should be taking the load with a tight torso and back flat against the back support.
- Curl your legs, as if you were bringing your heels all the way to touch your butt. (try to keep your feet and ankles loose, focusing on the contraction of the hamstring).
- Keep the movement slow and controlled, stop just before your legs are straight before completing the next rep - this helps maintain constant tension on your hamstrings throughout the set.
Kettlebell swings are a more functional hamstring exercise, combining strength and power with an element of coordination and timing.
The kettlebell swing predominantly targets the hamstrings and glutes, and creates a great foundation for more advanced hip thrust movements such as glute bridges, deadlifts and olympic lifts.
What muscles do kettlebell swings work?
- Gluteus Maximus
How to do a kettlebell swing?
- Start with your feet shoulder width apart, loosely holding a kettlebell between your legs.
- Keeping your knees slightly bent, shift your hips backwards, bringing your chest towards the ground, letting the kettlebell swing through your legs.
- As the kettlebell is behind your legs, squeeze your hamstrings and glutes to power your hips forward.
- Extend your torso and allow the momentum of the hip thrust to carry the kettlebell up to shoulder height, before performing your next rep.
TIP: Keep the movement controlled and make sure you’re driving from your lower body and not pulling from your upper body.
Not just for your quads. Back squats are infamous for being one of the best compound exercises for building strong, muscular legs.
A great squat technique can build the foundation for strength and size gains that most exercises can'y. So, be sure to nail this one as it's not only great for quadriceps development, but squatting a little lower increases the use of our hamstrings and glutes, too!
If you want bigger hamstrings, heavy squats is still up there with the best hamstring exercises. Squat regularly and challnege yourself to progress in weight and reps.
What muscles do back squats work?
- Gluteus Maximus
How to do a back squat:
- Carefully un-rack the bar and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Engage your core and squat down, pushing your hips backwards whilst keeping a neutral spine.
- Once at the bottom of the squat, drive back up to the start position, squeezing your hamstrings and glutes.
TIP: Your hamstrings really begin to engage when you break parallel, meaning when your hips are lower than your knees.
Which is your favourite hamstring exercise?
Let us know in the comments below.