It’s the last quarter and your team’s neck and neck. The receiver gets the ball, he breaks out in a sprint, the crowd grows crazy until… he collapses to the ground flopping like a fish.
Like a thousand players before him, our guy just blew out his hamstring. But what exactly are the hamstrings, why are they such a common sports injury, and what is the best exercise for hamstrings?
What are hamstrings and why should you train them?
Hamstrings are a group of posterior thigh muscles running between the hip and the knee, three to a leg.
Hamstrings connect the hip and the knee and are involved in complex motions like extending the hip, flexing the knee, and rotating the lower legs.
Bizarrely, it’s still common to neglect the legs when working to increase muscle mass. But working in concert with muscles like the glutes, the hamstrings enable basic motions like walking, running, and standing up.
In short, they’re crucial for day to day life and nearly every type of sport or exercise.
Correspondingly, they’re the most common sports injury. Hamstring injuries range from mild strains that heal with a couple of week’s rest to complete muscle tears.
Needless to say, the effects of the worst injuries can be devastating and have ended many an elite athlete’s careers.
These muscles also play an important role in stabilizing the knee and ensuring proper positioning of the hip and torso, so hamstring issues are a major risk factor in developing other sports injuries.
So the short answer: you should train your hamstrings because they’re critical for success in nearly every sport, for maintaining proper motion as you get older, and because “skipped leg day” is never a good look.
How to strengthen your hamstrings
As with any muscle group, different hamstring exercises will target different muscles and different parts of each muscle. So it’s necessary to incorporate a range of hamstring exercises in your workouts.
It’s common for inexperienced lifters to smash the leg curl machine, destroy their hamstrings, and wonder why their big lifts aren’t improving. That’s why it’s important to incorporate big compound movements like Romanian deadlifts which hit the whole posterior chain.
On the other hand, you’ll find plenty of authors out there saying to avoid knee flexion exercises like hamstring curls altogether, rattling off anecdotes about injuries or justifications like “it’s an unnatural movement”.
The truth is that neglecting one aspect of hamstring training may make it more likely to get injured; So, try to work in a mix of hip extensions and knee flexion movements.
Keep reading for our top 7 favorite hamstring exercises.
7 best hamstring exercises
Romanian Deadlift (or single leg variant)
The Romanian Deadlift is one of the most powerful lifts if you’re looking to develop the posterior chain and grow thighs like tree trunks.
As well as the hamstrings, this explosive exercise targets the hip extensors, glutes, torso, and back. And for the ladies, this one’s great if you’re trying to get a big butt.
Some solid research proves that the Romanian Deadlift targets the hamstrings like no other, and scientists recommend that athletes focus on this lift alongside the Glute-Ham Raise.
This deadlift variation starts holding a bar from a waist-high hang position. Maintaining a proper back curvature, you’ll slowly “sit” or hinge backward with the hips, pushing the hip and butt back and moving the barbell down the thighs.
The goal here isn’t to get the bar as low as possible, but to stretch and load-up the hamstrings. When you get there, you’ll know it. The return movement reverses the motion but is performed quickly and explosively.
If you’re looking to really punish yourself, the single-leg variant of this exercise is unrivaled when it comes to developing strength, mass, and explosive power in the hamstrings.
Leg curl aka hamstring curl
The leg or hamstring curl is an isolation exercise that directly targets the hamstrings.
It’s typically performed lying on the front using a leg curl machine, which uses a flexing movement of the hamstrings to pull the weight toward the butt.
This one generates some controversy in online discussions but the truth is that it’s amazing for building mass in the hamstring.
In particular, this exercise targets the short head of the biceps femoris, a muscle that’s largely neglected in deadlifts and other popular hamstring big lifts.
So this exercise is a very effective prehab for athletes who do sports involving motions like running, jumping, and kicking (so basically, all of them).
Another big hip extension movement which hits the glutes and the abs but also targets the hamstrings (see Swedish study lunges hamstrings).
The lunging motion makes this a powerful exercise for people who train martial arts and sports like tennis or squash.
The classic weighted lunge is the barbell lunge, but you can use nearly any weight, whether it’s dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, or whatever you have around the house. The type of weight isn’t half as important as the technique.
It’s crucial to avoid a jerky “stepping” motion. Instead, aim to lunge forward with a long, striding motion (as long as possible while maintaining good form), maintaining a natural arch in the back, and a straight torso.
Make sure to distribute weight evenly across the middle of the front foot before pushing back through, followed by lowering your weight down into the lunge and pushing back up through the toes.
If balance is a problem, you may find that doing this one barefoot helps a lot (as well as any other exercise needing strong balance).
This is a challenging exercise but a great one for ironing out issues that your other lifts don’t quite hit.
If you get it right, it’s more than worth it. As well as targeting the hamstrings, it’s awesome for building mass on the hip extensors and improving your form on exercises like squats and all kinds of deadlift variations.
More than most lifts, it’s important to do this exercise with perfect form due to a high potential for back injuries.
Start with just the bar and ask a trainer or experienced lifter to critique your form before you even think about going heavy.
No equipment? Try these hamstring exercises at home
Nordic Ham Curl
The king of bodyweight hamstring strengthening exercises, this one will also contribute to strong glutes and spinal erectors.
And this one isn’t just for when you can’t get to the gym – research has shown that injury prevention programs for athletes incorporating this exercise can reduce hamstring injury rates by up to 51%.
The movement starts from a kneeling position on padding (a towel or something will work) with the ankles held in place by a partner or SECURELY fixed object.
By keeping the torso straight and leaning forward, lowering with the hamstrings, the body transforms into a lever that can load up the hamstrings with hundreds of pounds of resistance, so stay away from bookshelves or anything else which might fall.
Glute bridge curl
An amazing alternative if you need an at-home hamstring workout but don’t have a safe anchor or partner to do Nordic curls.
First, you’ll need a slide for your feet, but you can use nearly anything, like a paper plate, flip flops, or a Tupperware lid.
Starting in a glute bridge position, you’ll slide the feet forward to load up the hamstrings before you slide back and repeat for as many reps as needed.
A barbell or other heavy weight can be positioned above the hips to increase resistance, or this can be made more challenging with resistance bands, an exercise ball, etc.
Necessity is the mother of invention – get on it.
Hamstring hip thrusts
This exercise is typically done with a bench, but a sofa or chair can work just fine at home.
Placing the ankles on the sofa and the butt underneath the knees – which should be at a 45-degree angle, you’ll push down with the heels toward the hamstrings, activating the hamstrings and thrusting upwards until torso and thighs are in a straight plank position before lowering to the ground.
What is the best exercise for hamstrings?
Romanian Deadlift is the undisputed champion of hamstring workouts.
This full posterior chain exercise will build incredible strength, mass, and explosive power in the hamstrings while improving all your other lifts too.
But if quarantine still has your gym closed or you just don’t want to pay, then the Nordic Ham Curl is a fine replacement capable of placing hundreds of pounds of load on the hamstrings and producing respectable results.
The hamstrings are one of the most important muscle groups for everyday function, success in sports, and building big thighs.
Neglecting hamstring training is one of the biggest risk factors for career-ending sports injuries. By training the hamstrings, you can stabilize your knees, correct posture problems with the hip, ensure proper posture, and reduce the risk of other injuries.
Focusing on one type of hamstring exercises won’t do – it’s critical to incorporate a range of hamstring movements of both the hip extension and knee flexion types.
In particular, if you play sports you should make sure to incorporate movements like hamstring curls and walking lunges. But if you don’t have equipment available, bodyweight hamstring workouts like Nordic Ham Curls and Glute Bridge Curls are great alternatives.