Your hamstrings have immense capabilities for strength, power, and explosiveness, but when you accidentally miss aspects of their functionality, they can get super cranky.
No one really teaches you how to look after your hamstrings. You hear how they're an important part of your posterior chain and that you definitely shouldn't skip deadlifts, but I want to give you four accessory exercises that don't take a lot of time but give you a better set of hamstrings.
After doing these drills, your hamstrings will be robust enough to take any punishment you throw at them... without needing to take weeks off training because of a strain or injury.
1. Strengthening While Lengthening
Yes, it's important to stretch your hamstrings. But to keep them strong and elastic for heavy lifting, a moving sequence is a more effective approach than just holding a static, passive stretch.
The Runner's Stretch & Deep Split Squat
- First get into a deep split squat position. You'll feel a stretch in the back leg's hip flexor in this position, which is awesome because tight hip flexors influence the position of your pelvis – hindering your hamstrings when setting up for lifts.
- Bend your back knee and sit back on your heel as your front leg straightens. Push your pelvis into an anterior tilt to fully extend the hamstrings. You want to feel a stretch in the middle of the hamstring rather than the back of your knee. If your leg doesn't fully straighten that's okay as long as you're feeling it in the right area.
- Maintain the pelvic tilt and try to drop your chest lower without rounding your upper back.
- Breathe deeply and relax. Hold for around 10 seconds.
- Push your front heel into the ground and actively pull yourself forward into the split squat position. Try and sink deeper than you were before.
- Repeat three times, then change legs. Go back to the first side and do another round.
This sequence is great to do daily – even when you're not training – as a phenomenal way to loosen yourself up in warm-ups and even to chill out in cool downs.
2. Bend the Knee
Not only do the hamstrings help extend your hips, they also bend your knees.
We put a lot of focus on hip extension, but it's extremely important to keep knee flexion strong too. Hamstring sliders are the best way to work on this, plus they're a fantastic way to help you isolate your hamstrings before other exercises if you struggle to feel them.
The Hamstring Slider
- Get two furniture sliders (or a pillow on a smooth surface), lie down, and place your heels on them.
- Engage your glutes and lift your body up so only your shoulders and heels are in contact with the ground.
- Keeping your hips extended, drag your heels backwards towards you until you end up in a finished glute-bridge position.
It's extremely important that your hips stay extended the entire time and that you don't flex at the hip and just bend your legs. If you really struggle to do this, practice negatives. Start in the glute-bridge position and slowly extend your legs, then to really feel it, pause at different points.
Ideally, you should be able to do three sets of 15 reps of the hamstring slider and it shouldn't be that big a deal.
I've met many people over the years who had impressive lifting numbers, but kept having hamstring issues. They could barely do ONE of these properly. Simply working on them helped their issues massively and allowed for more successful training.
3. Variety and Stability
If you want to train hard, you must have a good level of basic athleticism. This includes having good balance, coordination, and the ability to control yourself "out of alignment" – yes, having the most "perfect" form all the time is a surefire way to make yourself feel like a rusty robot.
Strengthening your hamstrings at different hip angles and positions won't necessarily make them bigger or dramatically stronger, but it will help give them a broader range of strength, stability, and control, which is why I love this drill.
The Clockwork Single-Leg Deadlift
- Stand on one leg (imagine you're grabbing the ground with your entire foot) and hover your other foot behind you with a straight leg.
- Picture yourself inside a clock face. We're going to start by reaching forward towards 12 o'clock.
- Reach your hips back and away from the center, dipping your torso forward and lifting your back leg at the same time. Do it as though your entire body is pivoting from the standing leg. Maintain a neutral spine and only hinge back as far as you can feel your hamstring. Don't round your lower back.
- When you've reached your hinging limit, reach your hands forward to the 12 o'clock position.
- Stand back up, tapping your back toes to the ground if needed for balance.
- Rotate your body slightly for your next rep. You'll be reaching toward the 1 o'clock position.
- Repeat again this time reaching toward the 2 o'clock, then 3 o'clock, then go back to 11, 10, and 9 o'clock. You don't need to be too strict with the specific angles, you're just giving yourself targets to reach for and to maintain your balance in.
- Repeat on the other leg.
Improving your single-leg balance, hinging, and hip and ankle stability is always a good thing. They often get left out when lifting with two feet on the ground all the time.
Practice this until you're good at it and then you can reduce the frequency you do it. If you can barely do the drill at all, you're missing a big chunk of foundational strength – so don't avoid it.
4. Elasticity and Explosiveness
You want to generate explosive power from your hamstrings, and one of the best ways to train that is with vertical jumps. But for this we're going to emphasize hinging and a posterior chain-focused loading pattern.
The Posterior Chain Vertical Jump
- Start in an extended position (arms overhead and up on your toes) and slowly lower yourself down, hinging at the hips rather than squatting down at the knees.
- Aim for a good deadlift setup position with your arms behind you, making sure your hamstrings feel "loaded" and ready to be used.
- Jump as high as you can and extend the hips bringing your arms up along for the ride.
- Aim to land in the same deadlift position as your setup and try to get the same active sensation in your hamstrings. Then repeat.
Do these in low-rep sets, no more than sets of 3, so you can attain maximum height, then take a minute break between your next set. These are great as a warm-up and brilliant when used as supersets between lifts.
Get It Into Your Routine
So how do you fit all this madness into your training? Well, if you combine them all they make a great warm-up for a training session. For example:
Do 2-3 rounds:
- Runner's Stretch Deep Lunge: 5 reps per side
- Hamstring Slide (or negatives if you struggle): 10-15 times
- Clockwork Single Leg Deadlift: 30 seconds each side
- Max Height Posterior Chain Vertical Jump: 3 times
Or you can split them up and use each exercise individually too. For example:
- The stretching sequence is great to use in the mornings as part of a daily mobility routine.
- The sliders are such a horrible finisher at the end of a hamstring/leg session. Choose a rep scheme so mean that you can't even complete your last set.
- The clockwork single-leg deadlift is easy to do at home too, but it's also a great warm-up exercise. Aim for 2 minutes each leg reaching to as many numbers on the clock as you can manage. There are bonus foot strength and knee benefits too!
- Try the jumps as a superset. In between either deadlifts or squats you could perform 3 jumps immediately after your set. This is really handy if you don't have a box to jump on.
No matter how you fit them in, doing these exercises regularly will improve your hamstring function and help make you a stronger, more resilient athlete.