You don't need a dozen leg machines to build your hamstrings. All of these require minimal equipment, so they're great alternatives for home lifters.
Have access to a well-equipped gym? Then use these to spice up your workouts, add a new challenge, or finish off your hamstrings after your usual compound movements.
1. Nordic Hamstring Eccentrics
This is a variation of the Nordic curl. Most lifters don't have the strength to do a perfect, crisp Nordic curl. Emphasizing the eccentric (lowering) phase of the movement while assisting yourself in the concentric (lifting) phase is an effective yet still brutal alternative.
If you want to progress to a full Nordic curl, attach a resistance band from behind and hold it above your head. This will cancel out the extra resistance of your bodyweight since the band will help pull you back.
How to do it:
- Set a barbell up in a rack with enough weight to hold it down during the exercise. No barbell? Grab a buddy and have him hold your ankles down.
- Place a pad on the bar to cushion your heels. Secure your feet under the bar with your toes against the floor. Place a mat or a yoga pad below your knees to protect them from pressing against the hard surface of the floor.
- Starting from the top position, press your hips into full extension and engage your glutes and hamstrings.
- Lower yourself down to the ground in a slow and controlled manner, catching yourself in a kneeling, press-up position.
- Do an explosive push-up to project yourself off the floor while engaging your hamstrings. Use your hammies to pull yourself back to a fully upright position.
2. Nordic Hip Hinge
Another variation of a Nordic curl, but this time instead of emphasizing the rep's eccentric portion, the emphasis is on increasing hamstring activation through manipulating the leverage.
Extend your hips throughout the movement until you reach a high (but bearable) level of engagement. This will gradually increase the load placed on the hamstrings. The range of movement will either be relatively moderate or large, depending on how advanced you are.
How to do it:
- Set the barbell up and position yourself in the same starting position you'd be in during a Nordic curl.
- Start from the top with your hips hinged back and your torso forward, then extend your hips forward.
- Allow your torso to rise to an upright position while pressing your hips forward, aiming to achieve full extension.
- As your hamstrings are about to give way, retract your hips and drop your torso to decrease the leverage.
3. Bodyweight Leg Curl Variations
You can do this either using a stability ball or a suspension trainer. Unlike the two previous exercises, this leg curl focuses on a full range of motion, with both concentric and eccentric portions being of equal intensity. You'll also get increased core engagement, especially using the ball.
Since this exercise manipulates your own weight, the resistance throughout will vary, and in this instance, create a strong peak contraction.
How to do it:
- Lay on your back with your heels, either inside the straps or on top of a ball.
- Place your arms flat on the floor.
- Lift your hips and engage your core to stop any unwanted swaying to either side.
- Drag your heels toward your hips. Keep those hips fully extended in a bridged position until you can no longer mechanically bring your heels back any further.
- Hold for a moment at the top to show control and promote full engagement of the hamstrings, then slowly control your heels back to the starting position.
4. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
You can do this on one leg, which requires balance and ankle stability. Or you can do it using a staggered stance, in which case your rear leg will assist with the balance by touching the floor lightly behind your front foot.
Staggered Stance RDL
While the hamstrings are the primary muscle involved, the glutes will remain active as an assisting muscle group throughout.
The key to a textbook Romanian deadlift is the hip hinge. Without a good hip hinge, you're unlikely to get as much engagement and may struggle to feel much of a loaded stretch.
How to do it:
- Start in a staggered stance with most of your weight on your front foot and only the toes of your rear foot touching the ground behind.
- Either lift your rear foot off the floor and raise the leg while hinging your hips back or if you opt for the staggered stance, hinge your hips back first while keeping your rear foot in contact with the floor.
- While hinging your hips back, lower the dumbbell(s) toward your front ankle. While maintaining a neutral spine, travel as far down as you can. Allow a slight bend in the knee until you feel a good loaded stretch without any unwanted spinal flexion.
- Engage your glutes from the bottom of the movement and press the hips forward. Keep the dumbbells in one smooth plane as you return to the top position.
5. Suspended Leg Curl
This variation is similar to the bodyweight leg curl. However, the key difference is the direction of travel.
Instead of engaging the hamstrings and dragging the object to you, you're dragging the suspended weight of your whole body toward your feet like an upside-down lying leg curl.
Grip comes into play due to having to hold yourself up with straight arms in an inverted row position for the duration of the set while you move your body like a pendulum.
How to do it:
- Adjust some Olympic rings or a suspension trainer to around chest-height and place a bench around 1.5 meters away from the straps.
- Grab the rings or straps, elevate your feet on the bench, and suspend yourself in the air with your hips fully extended in a bridged position.
- Drag back through your heels, moving closer to the bench using the straps to create a pendulum until you can no longer come any closer to the bench, then control back down.
6. Lying Dumbbell Hamstring Curl
This is best performed on a decline bench for constant tension. It targets the hamstrings in a similar style to a preacher curl for the biceps.
This is an awesome way to work on that biceps (femoris) peak without access to a leg curl machine. It maximally shortens the hamstring at the top of the movement since the ankles remain in full plantar flexion while holding the dumbbell in place. This creates a huge peak contraction.
It'll also light up your adductors from holding the dumbbell between the feet isometrically for the duration of the set.
How to do it:
- Set up a bench on a decline if possible. If not, place a foam roller, pad, or rolled-up towel beneath your hips to create a slight downward slope in the thigh. This will keep you from losing tension at the top of the movement.
- Place a dumbbell between your feet and engage your adductors to keep it there. Situate yourself face-down on the bench with your knees off the edge.
- Place your ankles in full dorsiflexion (point your toes) and curl your legs upward, contracting your hamstrings throughout the movement. Aim for a big squeeze at the top, then lower with control as far down as comfortably possible.