I make it a point to avoid commercial gyms as much as possible. For my sanity’s sake.
That said, on those extremely rare occasions when I find myself in one of those black holes of fitness and conditioning, I’m always blown away by the amount of shoddy leg training I see.
Leg curls, leg extensions, leg presses, and maybe the occasional squat, usually performed nowhere near parallel, dominate the scene. This may be okay if you aspire to look like the fellow douchebag checking his spray tan beside you, but if you hope to develop a little power to go with that cool blowout haircut, you need to hammer the hamstrings and glutes!
Strong hamstrings, glutes, and lower back are key to both being fast and lifting heavy weights in the deadlift and the squat, and guess what? A few sets of ten on the leg curl machine won’t cut it! The hamstrings and glutes must be worked with both intelligent programming and animalistic ferocity.
Here are a few key pointers to keep in mind when setting up an intelligent posterior chain program:
- The hamstring group is made up of the biceps femoris, the semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles. All must be worked hard for maximum strength and speed.
- The hamstrings have two functions: bending the knee and the hip extension. Both motions must be trained.
- The hams are made up of a high percentage of fast twitch muscle fibers and therefore must be trained with heavy loads. Think lower reps – even as low as singles!
- Because of the high amount of fast twitch fibers, the hamstrings respond well to eccentric work.
- If they’ve been neglected, the hamstrings will have to be worked more often until they catch up to the powerful quads.
12 Step Program
Each of the 12 exercises described below will hit the hams and glutes hard in a big way. Choose one to three of them and add them after your main leg exercise of the day (i.e. deadlifts or squats).
Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs)
RDLs are similar to straight-leg deadlifts (SLDL), except that instead of simply bending at the waist and pulling up on the bar, you have the hips travel backwards when bending over. That’s an important point that bears repeating: For many, the SLDL neglects the hamstrings while overworking the lower back. This is especially true for short-leg, long-torso lifters.
The RDL will probably do more for your hamstrings and glutes than any other exercise, except for traditional deadlifts. It really is an incredibly underrated movement, both for athletic performance and for developing an ass that doesn’t disappear when you turn sideways.
Be sure to keep a flat back; you can use both clean and snatch grips for variation. This is a movement where you definitely want to keep the reps low.
Four sets of 6 is a good starting set-rep scheme.
You’ll need a glute-ham bench for this exercise. The movement looks somewhat like a back hyperextension, except that your legs are bent at the knee and you pull yourself up using your hamstrings, glutes, and calves by pressing your feet into the toe board and flexing the hamstrings hard.
The glute-ham raise can be done after every session if using only bodyweight, but as you get stronger you can play with adding additional weight for multiple sets of low reps.
Snatch Grip Deadlifts
While I firmly believe that all variations of deadlifting should be performed, I do prefer the SGDLs for several reasons. The primary reason is that they force you into a lower position, thus forcing the hamstrings and glutes to work even harder than the traditional deadlift. In addition, there’s the benefit of the work the entire back gets!
I would use straps on a SGDL because of the wide grip; but don’t go crazy wide. I know you’ve probably seen Olympic lifters use the collar-to-collar grip, but that’s simply not necessary.
This exercise really teaches you to sit back when pulling from the ground; an invaluable lesson for anyone wanting to improve his or her deadlift.
Snatch Grip Deadlifts from a 4-inch Box
Let’s take a brutally effective exercise and make it even harder by performing it on a 4″ box (or block of wood). This movement will absolutely destroy the hamstrings and glutes, with an added bonus of hitting the upper back and traps.
That’s one thing you’re sure to notice with RDLs and SGDLs: The upper back and traps are usually quite sore the day after. Anytime you have to hold a heavy bar and then do multiple reps in a pulling movement, the traps and upper back have to work hard to stabilize the load.
The 4″ box will create a greater range of motion, but isn’t so high as to alter body mechanics significantly. If you find your form breaking down too much at 4″, try using a shorter box or simply an aerobics step.
Focus on sitting back and letting the hams and glutes do all the work. If there’s one mistake I see repeatedly on this movement, it’s that when the weights start getting heavy, lifters start using their arms – this is a recipe for disaster. If you find that you’re arm pulling, lower the weight a bit and build back up.
This exercise can be used as either a max effort (very heavy) movement or as an accessory lift for reps.
I picked this little gem up from Pavel Tsatsouline. Please ignore the circus trainer quality of this exercise – it kicks ass! It can be performed with two dumbbells or kettlebells.
Place the dumbbells on the other side of the foot of the leg you’re working. With a slight bend in the knee, bend forward at the waist and grasp the dumbbells. The non-working leg should be well behind you and off the ground.
Go as high as you feel comfortable. Now, with straight arms, pull the dumbbells up to waist height while dragging the back foot forward until you are standing erect on two feet, with the DBs at waist height.
Band Leg Curls
For those familiar with the Westside system of Maximum Effort/ Dynamic Effort, this is a great movement to train the hams in a dynamic way. The bands will train the hams to stay strong through the entire range of motion since the exercise will get harder as you get closer to the finish.
Choke a band around the uprights of the rack, sit on a bench, and place the band around the back of your ankles. The band should have some tension while your legs are extended. Now contract the hamstrings hard and do a fast, explosive leg curl.
Band leg curls can also be done one leg at a time, as shown in the video on the right.
Three sets of 8 is sufficient.
Lunges have gotten a bad rap because most dimwits in the gym use a 3-inch stride and pink dumbbells. However, when done with moderately heavy weights and in a dynamic (explosive) fashion, the lunge can be a tremendous tool in your strength training toolbox.
The lunge should be a fairly long stride, and instead of simply stepping forward and then back, once your foot hits the ground on the forward stride, explode back up to the starting position.
Lunges performed in this manner are effective because the athlete actually opens and closes the kinetic chain while performing the movement, which also helps the athlete become strong in supporting a high percentage of his bodyweight on one leg (similar to running).
So they’re functional and help build an ass of granite — Nothing wrong with that!
Don’t be afraid to go heavy on the lunge. No one said you must do them for sets of fifteen!
Three to four sets of 8 to 10 will hit the hamstrings and glutes thoroughly.
Dynamic Effort Medicine Ball Leg Curl
This exercise works great as a finisher and helps develop lower body explosiveness. Plus its kind of fun, especially if you’re the type who gets bored of the same old, same old.
Begin by lying face down on the ground with your legs together. Have a partner roll the medicine ball down the back of your legs. When you feel the ball get to your ankles or the backs of your shoes, explode the ball back up to your partner with a leg curl-type motion.
It may take a few reps to get it perfect, but when you do, the ball will fly up, toward your head, and your partner should catch the ball at about waist height. This is a great movement to train the hamstrings in an explosive, curling manner.
If you’re prone to strained or pulled hamstrings, give these a shot. You can up the reps on this exercise; sets of 8 to 10 would be advisable.
Please make sure to get a partner who can catch the ball!
Towel Leg Curl
You can probably tell by now that I’m not a huge fan of regular leg curls. The machines are just so limited in their movement patterns and resistance.
However, you may also have noticed that I included three leg curl variations in this article. Why? Well, as I said in the beginning, both hip extension and knee flexion must be worked; it’s just that the machine leg curl is for lazy-asses.
Both the band leg curl and the medicine ball leg curl are great for training the hams in a dynamic fashion, but the resistance is limited. Enter the towel leg curl.
Lie face down on a bench with your legs hanging off the edge. Have a partner wrap a towel around the backs of your ankles, and do a leg curl.
This method is superior to run of the mill leg curls for several reasons:
- Variable resistance. You can have your partner increase or decrease the load as needed
- Increased resistance during the eccentric phase. Simply have your partner pull harder during the lowering portion of the lift and you fight against the resistance.
- Variable paths. You can go wide or narrow, or one leg or two during the exercise. Switching up the path of the movement will do wonders for complete development.
The towel leg curl can be done for medium (4 to 8) reps. 3 to 4 sets can be done toward the end of the session.
Swings are one of the best, yet most misused exercises to train the posterior chain. The swing is performed by most as a squatting-type movement. This style was popularized by those using it as a fat loss tool, which, when done for high reps, is quite effective.
However, considering we’re after hamstring growth here, that’s not the style we’ll be using. The true kettlebell swing, one that’s done for speed, strength, and muscle development, is a much longer range of motion with a definitive “snap” at the bottom of the movement.
When the kettlebell is all the way back, snap it forward. It’s that reversal of momentum that’s of the utmost importance! If you’re doing a slow swing, you’re doing a worthless swing. Make sure you pop the hips on the way up to involve the glutes as well.
Don’t be afraid to go heavy on these. They now make kettlebells up to 106 lbs, so that should keep even the strongest among us working hard. A dumbbell can be used if no kettlebells are available.
I’ve found this movement to be great with athletes when performed as a warm-up to a Max Effort (heavy) leg exercise. It’s great for waking up the hams and glutes and letting them know there’s work to be done!
Swings can also be used after a heavy movement, on speed day, or at the end of a session as a finisher. You should shoot for 3 to 4 sets of 4 to 6 reps.
Upright Sled Walks
Pulling sleds and pushing prowlers is a great way to condition, but as anyone who has watched Testosterone’s Christian Thibaudeau thrash Darryl Gee and company can see, it can also be used as an alternative way to develop the legs.
When most pull or push a sled, they do so at an angle. In order to target the hamstrings, you must pull from a very upright position.
This is best achieved by wearing a harness, but can also be done by attaching the strap to a lifting belt. When you begin pulling, keep your body as upright as possible and rather than just walk, use your feet to “pull” the ground toward you.
To see this in action, next time you walk your dog, get behind him and notice how dogs step and pull the ground towards them. You’ll know if you’re doing this correctly because when you do, you’ll feel an intense tightening in your hams.
Sled walks can be done in place of any of the other hamstring/glute exercises listed above. Start with 3 trips of 30-yards, and try to work up to 6. At that point, add weight.
If there’s one thing that makes the cardio crowd gasp in horror more than hearing that cardio is a waste of time, it’s when they hear that instead of jogging on some Godforsaken treadmill, they should go out and sprint !
Sprints are the long lost training tool that can improve your conditioning, torch bodyfat, and develop a killer set of hamstrings. Even if you’re not an athlete, sprinting is still a great idea.
The very act of sprinting places a tremendous stress on the hams, glutes, and hips. Just take a look at the legs of any sprinter or NFL cornerback, and you’ll get a good idea of what sprinting can do for your legs.
Remember, for the purposes of hamstring development, we’ll keep our sprints short; we’re not after conditioning here — that’s another article. If you haven’t sprinted in a while, start slow; you may not feel much while you’re out there running, but sprinting can cause big time soreness.
Treat sprints like the upright sled walks: They can be done as an alternative to any of the other hamstring exercises or they can be given their own day.
I’ve found that most athletes like to knock the sprints out right after their dynamic (speed) lower day. Some like to do them at the end of a heavy leg session. Experiment and see what works best for you.
Start with 4 to 5 sprints of 30 yards. Build up to 8. Then, you can start playing with distances; try 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and even some backpedal sprints.
The End Game
Okay fellas, this is your final warning. If I see any of you at 24 Hour Fatness and you’re still sporting the posterior chain development of a tube of toothpaste, I’m going to staple this article to your droopy ass!
Building a kick-ass backside doesn’t have to be complicated; just pick two or three of these movements, put them in your program, and watch your hamstrings grow.