Want to know what separates the men from the boys? Or the big girls from the cardio bunnies?
A strong, well-developed backside.
Whether you’re looking to dominate on the athletic field or court, hit PR’s in the gym or platform, or simply look great in (and out of) your clothes, you need to make training your backside a serious focus.
But here’s the problem – most people never train their backside with the same level of intensity that they do their front. Guys and gals will crush their quads, blast their pecs, and pump up those biceps like there’s no tomorrow.
But when it comes to training the backside in a hard and heavy fashion, well, they’ll opt out of the hard work and hit a few sets on the leg curl machine instead!
Before you hit the jackpot and I give you my Top 5 Hamstring Exercises, let’s look really briefly at what your hamstrings actually do, and then we’ll outline the exercises from there.
Quick and Dirty Hamstring Anatomy
Your hamstrings have a handful of functions that we need to mention:
- They extend your hips (push them forward).
- They flex (bend) your knees.
- They posteriorly tilt your pelvis (rolling it back).
Of course your hamstrings also control and help stabilize your body during the opposing motions, but I promised to keep this quick and dirty! When you think about it in this fashion, there are essentially two ways to effectively train the hamstrings:
- Exercises that take the hip from a flexed to extended position, and
- Exercises that take the knee from an extended to flexed position.
If you’re serious about taking your strength, physique and athleticism to the next level, these five exercises will help you cover all the bases.
1 – The Romanian Deadlift
I’m not sure any exercise hits the hamstrings quite as effectively as the Romanian deadlift (RDL) does.
Even with baby weights on the bar, three to four sets of well-executed RDL’s can leave even the most bad-ass gym savage limping for days to come.
If you reference my Maximal Leg Development article featured previously at T Nation, you’ll remember that I have a continuum I use when determining if an exercise is quad dominant or hip dominant.
When you take an exercise that keeps the shin as vertical as possible, combine it with maximal hip flexion and a very inclined trunk, you have a recipe for a kick-ass hamstring exercise. But it’s not as easy as simply loading the bar up and going heavy. In fact, I think most trainees will actually benefit from less weight and stricter attention to detail.
I remember reading a Jim Wendler article years ago where he talked about his shift away from heavy good mornings, and instead opted for a lighter, more technically sound version of the lift. The result was a stronger backside and less potential risk for injury.
RDL’s are very similar. When most trainees get to heavy weights, you’ll see a few things happen:
- They start to excessively arch their back.
- They start to excessively round their back.
- They have too much knee bend, or
- They go too far down, taking stress off the hamstrings.
Opting for a slightly lighter weight will do wonders for improving technique and making sure to hit the hamstrings hard. Here are a few quick and dirty cues you can use to really dial in your RDL’s:
- Think about keeping a long spine throughout the lift.
- Use the lats to actively “pull” the bar back into your body.
- Don’t focus on range, or how far the bar travels. Instead, thinking about shifting your hips back as far as possible and looking for that “stretch” in the hamstrings.
2 – Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
While RDL’s should be a staple in any serious hamstring-building program, their single-leg brethren shouldn’t be too far behind. The single-leg version is ideal if you’ve had a history of back pain, or are simply looking to minimize total spinal loading in either the short or long term.
The real reason single-leg RDL’s are so damn effective is because they force you to control and stabilize your body in all three planes of movement.
Most muscles in the body work in all three planes of movement to some degree. While the hamstrings work in unison to extend the hip or flex the knee, what’s interesting is that they should effectively cancel each other out when it comes to the transverse plane.
|External Rotation||Internal Rotation|
|Adductor Magnus (ischiocondylar attachment)|
As you can see from the above table, when you move from a bilateral to unilateral exercise, you’re not only hitting the sagittal plane function of the hamstrings, but the transverse plane as well!
Last but not least, moving to a unilateral variation is going to develop the adductor magnus to a large degree as well. Many strength coaches consider the adductor magnus the 4th hamstring, so if you’re serious about maximizing development, you’ll want to hit this muscle group in some form or fashion.
When performing single-leg RDL’s, here are a few cues to focus on:
- Maintain a long, neutral spine throughout.
- Keep the knee soft on the front leg; you don’t want it to be straight, or too bent.
- Own the movement. I prefer three to four second eccentrics, sometimes including a one or two second pause in the bottom as well. The name of the game here is stability and control.
- Just like the standard RDL, the focus here isn’t so much on load, but rather effectively loading the hamstrings.
3 – Kettlebell Swings
The first time I really performed kettlebell swings correctly was sometime in early 2008.
I was set to take the RKC, and realizing that I had no clue what I was doing (or how to pass the snatch test), I brought Brett Jones in for a seminar at IFAST. Needless to say, after a day of Brett hammering home the finer points of kettlebell swing technique, I “found” my hamstrings.
But what was really surprising here was that it wasn’t just my hamstrings, but again, my adductors getting crushed as well.
Kettlebell swings will absolutely roast your hamstrings because of the rapid eccentric/lengthening that occurs when pulling the weight towards the bottom position.
Helping someone achieve a nice, tight kettlebell swing goes deeper than one single article, but here are some of the key points that many miss the boat on:
- Keep the lats tight and engaged throughout, but especially in the bottom. Doing this will allow you to maximally displace the weight back behind you, versus allowing it to drift downward.
- Much like the RDL and SLRDL, make it a focus to keep the knees soft in the bottom, but not locked or bent. Too locked and you’re going to hinge around your lower back. Too soft and it will end up turning into a squat.
- If you have a tendency to squat your swings, try out this tip from IFAST coach Zach Moore. Stack a handful of boxes underneath you when swinging. If you end up “squatting” the weight up, you’re going to hit the boxes. This will immediately force you to hinge at the hips versus squatting the weight.
4 – Glute Ham Raises
The first three exercises we discussed have focused on the hip extension component of the hamstrings. Now it’s time to focus our efforts on the knee flexion component instead. Here’s where most people go wrong with this.
When most perform a glute-ham raise for the first time (myself included,) they’ll arch their back to the max, and then start cranking out reps like it’s their job.
They’re in a ridiculous anterior pelvic tilt, they’re crushing their spine and lumbar discs with a ridiculous lordosis, and they’re trying to effectively train their hamstrings while they’re in a long and weak position.
I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound optimal to me! Instead of throwing in the towel and resorting to the leg curl machine for the rest of your life, let’s instead focus on optimizing your performance on this amazing hamstring exercise.
Here are a few written tips that should improve your performance as well:
- Exhale hard, brace your core, and try to “tuck” your pelvis underneath you to get to a more neutral pelvic alignment.
- Do NOT let the hips shift back! Instead try and keep them in line with your knees and shoulders throughout.
- If you can’t do a standard repetition, start with isometric holds (working from the top-down), or use a band and work on eccentrics until you can start to perform a full range of motion repetition while maintaining a neutral pelvis/lower back position.
Lastly, before I get 1,001 questions about what to do if you don’t have a glute-ham raise, here are a few alternatives (none of which are as awesome, but better than leg curling for the rest of your life):
- Perform ball leg curls. Focus on maintaining pelvic/lumbar neutral, and slowly lower the ball on the eccentric to make it more challenging.
- Too easy? Perform 2/1 ball leg curls; both legs pull in, lower on one leg.
- Still too easy? Perform single-leg ball leg curls.
- And if those are still too easy, find a real gym that has a glute-ham raise. Or better yet, buy your own and train at home!
5 – Olympic Pulls
Even if you’re using all of the above four exercises, chances are this is one exercise you probably aren’t including in your current programming (unless you’re a competitive Olympic lifter).
During my time at Ball State, we went through a training phase where we focused on the Olympic lifts to improve speed and power development. We had a kid on our football team who was a stud Olympic lifter, and I conned him into helping me one day in the gym.
All I knew at the time was deadlifting. Stand over the bar, get psyched up, and pick it up however you can.
When training for an Olympic pull, though, I clearly remember him cueing me to get my butt down, set my back, and then “push my knees back” to initiate the movement of the bar off the floor. Doing this would absolutely destroy my lower hamstrings for days to come.
While an RDL works to stretch the hamstrings in a top-down movement, I feel as though this exercise stretches the hamstrings from the bottom-up. When you push the knees back, you’re stretching those hammies right behind the knees.
I’m not an Olympic lifter by trade, but I have coached a handful in my career. If you’re going to add Olympic pulls into your program, here are a few tips to help:
- Get the hips lower than you would on a traditional deadlift. You may need a bit of extra hip mobility work before adding these into the mix.
- Get the lats tight and “pull” the bar back into your shins before initiating the pull.
- The first move should be pushing the knees back. There’s a natural amount of dorsiflexion at the ankle when you get your hips this low, but pushing the knees back (versus simply standing up) is a sure-fire way to target and blast your hamstrings.
- You don’t have to perform complete reps. If you want to stand all the way up (or even actually perform a pull), that’s great. Another option would be to simply work the bottom position. Set-up and pull to knee level, drop the bar to the platform, and then repeat for the requisite number of repetitions.
Lastly, you don’t have to be a professional caliber Olympic lifter to get some benefits from this exercise.
The big distinction is how you initiate that movement. Pushing the knees back versus simply standing up is the recipe for success.
If you’re serious about building your athleticism, physique, or your maximal strength levels, smart hamstring training is the way to go.
Give one (or all!) of these exercises a shot next time you’re in the gym. I guarantee you’ll be on your way to some newfound personal bests in the future!