The One-Paragraph Anatomy Lesson
The hamstrings are comprised of the lateral and medial hamstrings. The lateral hamstrings include the long and short head of the biceps femoris while the medial hamstrings are composed of the semitendinosus and semimembranosus.
The hamstrings have two primary roles in strength training: knee flexion (think leg curl) and hip extension (think deadlift).
Got it? Good.
Are You Training Them The Right Way?
Most bodybuilders stick to three different types of leg curls (lying, seated, and standing) along with straight-leg deadlifts, while the powerlifters hit the hamstrings hard with good mornings, glute ham raises, back extensions, and reverse hypers. Athletes often perform slide board leg curls or SHELCs (Supine Hip-Extension Leg Curl) on a physioball.
So who's got it right?
Despite my love for causing a ruckus, I just can't pit everyone against each other here. They've all got it right; it's just a matter of combining the techniques.
The hamstrings are referred to as a "fast-twitch" muscle group and respond best to heavy, explosive movements.
However, many bodybuilders have built impressive hamstrings from high-rep isolation movements. In my opinion, if you're aiming for maximum hamstring hypertrophy, both strategies should be employed.
In other words, pick a movement (usually a hip extension movement) and go heavy for low reps, then pick a movement and go lighter for high reps, focusing on squeezing and maintaining constant-tension.
The heavier movements will maximize sarcomeric hypertrophy, high-threshold motor unit stimulation, neural drive, and muscular density while the lighter movements will maximize sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, hypoxia, fascial stretching, and muscular volume.
But Which Exercises Should I Do?
Before we get to specific exercises, I want to point out that some exercises are more difficult for the hamstrings in the stretched-position, while others are more difficult in the contracted-position.
Both stretched-position and contracted-position exercises should be chosen from time to time, as certain contracted-position exercises maximize muscle activation according to EMG, which is important for muscle growth and force production as well as creating the pump and stretching the fascia.
Some stretched-position exercises maximize muscular tension while being maximally stretched, which is also very important for muscle growth and force production, as well as providing micro-trauma to the muscles.
Hamstring movements can be categorized as follows:
Stretched-position hip extension movements
Contracted-position hip hyperextension movements
Stretched-position hip extension/knee flexion movements
Manual Glute-Ham Raises
Kneeling Hip Extensions
Rolling Leg Curls
Sliding Leg Curls
Gliding Leg Curls
Contracted-position knee flexion movements
Lying Leg Curls
Seated Leg Curls
Standing Leg Curls
Most of these exercises can be performed unilaterally or bilaterally. My EMG research indicates that contracted-position hip hyperextension movements have the highest mean and peak hamstring activation, followed by stretched-position hip extension/knee flexion movements.
Stretched-position hip extension movements produce the most soreness due to increased DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) from maximum muscular tension in the deep-stretch position. Contracted-position knee flexion movements produce the most "cramping," but the drawback is that the EMG activation of these movements are not very high, even when performed with heavy weight.
It appears that when the glutes have to come into play, hamstring activation tends to be much higher, as evidenced by the fact that the first three categories show much higher EMG activity than the fourth category, which is the only category to isolate the hamstrings and take the glutes out of the movement.
My Favorite Hamstring Exercises
1 – Dumbbell Back Extension
The dumbbell back extension is the King of hamstring exercises, activating more mean and peak hamstring muscle than any other exercise.
To do it, hold a dumbbell under your chin or at chest level. The higher up you hold the dumbbell, the longer the lever arm and more difficult the movement will be.
Bend at the hips and get a deep stretch in your hamstrings at the bottom of the movement. Release the hamstrings for a brief moment, and then fire them explosively. Envision your hamstrings pulling the torso upward. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement and rise into hip hyperextension. If your gym's heaviest dumbbells eventually become unchallenging for you, combine band and dumbbell resistance to create an ultra-effective variation.
2 – Bodyweight Single-Leg Prisoner Back Extension
By placing your hands behind the head in the "prisoner" position, the lever arm is increased which is equivalent to holding onto 20-30 pound dumbbell. Perform the exercise in the same manner as the dumbbell back extension (except do it one leg at a time).
3 – Barbell Straight-Leg Deadlift
The barbell straight-leg deadlift is a favorite among bodybuilders. It's a full body hip-hinge movement that allows for heavy weight and maximum muscular tension in the stretch position.
While proper form on this exercise is debated, make sure to bend at your hips and keep an arch in your lower back. Rounding the low back is not safe and will lead to injury. (It'll also take the tension off the hamstrings and shift more of the workload to the erector spinae.)
Get a deep stretch in the hamstrings and reverse the movement (go back to the start position) when hamstring flexibility "runs out." Squeeze your glutes upon lockout. Push through your heels, keep your chest up, and sit back. Let your knees bend as you sit back and make sure the bar stays close to your body at all times.
4 – Dumbbell Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
The single-leg RDL is very popular in sport-specific training. It's a safer movement since the hamstrings get targeted while the lumbar erectors are spared. Initially you can perform the exercise by holding onto a dumbbell in the contralateral hand (the hand opposite of the leg you're working).
Eventually you'll get so strong that you'll need to hold onto a dumbbell in each hand. This is an unstable movement that requires a high degree of balance and coordination and takes some getting used to. Initially you may not feel like you get a lot out of the movement, but after a while your stability will improve and you'll be able to work the hamstrings very hard during this movement.
5 – Barbell Good Morning
The barbell good morning is a favorite among powerlifters. It's also a hip-hinge movement that allows for heavy weight and maximum muscular tension in the stretch position. It's very similar to the straight leg deadlift except the bar is placed on the shoulders rather than held in the hands. Perform this movement in the same manner as the straight leg deadlift. Push through your heels, sit back, and keep your chest up.
6 – Bodyweight Hanging Single-Leg Straight Leg Bridge
This exercise is a great hamstring movement and excellent alternative to reverse hypers or back extensions. Hold onto a barbell placed in a rack and put one heel onto a bench positioned in front of the power rack. Sink down low then thrust your hip upward with straight legs into hip hyperextension. By hanging onto the barbell, you increase the range of motion, thereby making it much more effective.
7 – Dumbbell Glute-Ham Raise
While manual or "natural" glute-ham raises are a great hamstring exercise, the leverage system known as the glute-ham developer allows this exercise to be much more effective if you learn how to perform the exercise properly.
Since the knees can sink down during the movement, it makes the exercise easier. For example, someone might not be able to perform a single natural glute-ham raise but may be able to perform ten glute-ham raises off the glute-ham developer.
The settings on the apparatus can be adjusted to make the movement easier or more difficult. However, since more reps can now be performed, it's possible to use a band for extra resistance or a dumbbell. This movement incorporates the glutes to a much greater degree than the natural version. Simply straighten the body out in a horizontal position, then fire the glutes and hamstrings, curling the body upward by flexing the knees.
8 – Band Sliding Leg Curl
The sliding leg curl is an advanced exercise that is very difficult for most guys when they first learn it. A slide board works best, but all you really need is a slick surface such as a wooden floor (aerobics room) or a tiled floor. Just put a small towel on the ground, lay supine, place your heels on the towel, and thrust your hips upward while sliding the feet toward your butt. When you get good at this movement, you can load it by placing a dumbbell in your lap or using band resistance to make the movement more challenging.
9 – Single-Leg Gliding Leg Curl
The gliding leg curl really lets you feel the "squeeze." To perform this exercise, hold on to a racked barbell, place your feet on top of a bench situated a few feet away from the rack, extend the hips upward, and then curl the body forward by flexing the knees and squeezing the hamstrings. When you master the double leg version, you can try the single-leg version, which is unbelievably effective!
10 – Pendulum Reverse Hyper
The reverse hyper is very popular in powerlifting but it's also important for all ground-based sports as it mimics sprinting. To run fast you need strong hamstrings that propel the body forward into hip hyperextension, and the reverse hyper is the perfect movement to train this motion.
Place your legs inside the strap, hop up onto the table, hold onto the handles, and extend the hips upward. Do not abuse the use of momentum, do not round your lower back, and do not allow your legs to flex too far forward underneath the unit. Try to work hard eccentrically as well as concentrically on this movement.
11 – Kneeling Hip Extension
This movement is surprisingly effective and looks like a natural glute-ham raise gone bad. Have someone hold onto your feet or place your heels underneath something sturdy (like a barbell inside a rack). Make sure there's a mat underneath you to protect your knees.
Lean forward slightly, then bend over at the hips. Touch your nose to the floor and rise back up. This is a hip extension movement with bent legs but the hamstrings have to work very hard to hold the knee flexion position isometrically and to extend the hips.
12 – Band 45-Degree Hyper
This movement is a cross between a good morning and a back extension. Place a band (or two or three) around your neck and prepare for a serious burn in the hammies!
The Proper Way to Program
If you're looking to build your hamstrings, you must perform both straight leg movements and movements that flex the knee.
You can alternate between straight leg stretched-position movements like RDL's and good mornings and straight leg contracted-position movements like back extensions and reverse hypers. You can also alternate between knee flexion isolation movements like lying leg curls and seated leg curls and hip extension/knee flexion movements like glute ham raises and sliding leg curls.
Here's an example:
Straight leg deadlifts 5 x 3
Lying leg curls 3 x 10
Weighted back extensions 3 x 5
Band sliding leg curls 3 x 8
Strong, muscular hamstrings may not get you any more attention from the ladies and they're sure not as fun to train as chest, but they're an incredibly important body part that will make your physique look more complete and muscular and allow you to pack on more size and strength over your entire body.