When I first started lifting regularly, I can recall waking up saying:
"damn...leg day already?!"
I hated lifting legs with a passion.
Take a look around you're gym and you'll see a lot of other leg haters as well.
Jacked upper body, no legs. Yeah, that's the guy. He currently hates legs just as much as I used to.
And so, as I'm sure you can imagine, I skipped a lot of leg days because of that.
When I say "a lot" I mean I maybe dedicated 2 or 3 training days out of the month to legs alone. I was much more concerned with getting bigger arms, a bigger chest, a six pack, and just being generally ripped.
Over my years of training, however, I finally came to the realization that:
- Your legs make up about half the muscle mass of your body.
- Your legs serve as the foundation for almost every other exercise.
- They don't just grow by themselves. You have to work at it.
Hindsight is 20/20 though, right?
At the time, I had no idea how important it was to train legs.
To make matters worse, when I did train legs, I tended to focus most of my energy on my quads.
This wasn't necessarily intentional, but it makes sense when you consider the fact that your quads are what you see when you flex your leg muscles.
You don't see bodybuilders showing off their hamstrings (except in bodybuilding competition), nor do girls say things like
"wow, that guy has some well developed hamstrings!"
So doing hamstring exercises just wasn't even on my mind when I first started lifting.
Needless to say, this neglect for such an essential muscle group is what lead me to develop
- Disproportionately strong quads
- Lower back problems
- An extreme lack of flexibility
Finally, around my 5 or 6th year of lifting (I was 16 when I first started hitting the weights), I realized the importance of proper leg training.
It wasn't until I was around 23 that I finally starting taking hamstrings seriously.
In an attempt to balance out my horribly disproportionate legs, I began constructing training routines that emphasized hamstring exercises...
And it worked!
I can now honestly say that my legs are not only proportionate to the rest of my body in terms of size and strength, but my quads and hamstrings are pretty proportionate as well (thanks to the exercises we'll talk about in this article).
For me, this means:
No more lower back pain. No more chicken legs. And my flexibility has increased dramatically so I can now complete the full range of motion on exercises like squats and deadlifts.
If this story sounds all too familiar, don't worry!
I'm about to spare you the pain and irritation of having weak, under-developed hamstrings by showing you:
- A basic overview of hamstring anatomy
- What hamstring exercises are actually worth doing
- How to workout your hamstrings for maximum gains
By the end of this article, you'll be equipped with every last bit of knowledge you need to develop the powerful, strong hamstrings, guaranteed.
So if you're ready to kiss those chicken legs of yours goodbye and build bigger, stronger hamstrings that actually support the rest of your physique and muscular health--rather than hold you back--then read on...
The Anatomy Of Your Hamstrings
The hamstring, though often referred to as one muscle group, is actually comprised of 3 major muscles:
- Biceps femoris
If those names sound too complicated to remember, don't worry about it.
Just know they exist and that you need to train all of them if you want fully developed hamstrings.
Here's a visual representation to help you out:
If you're a personal trainer or studying to become one, you may want to brush up on your latin and remember those names...
If you're just a regular guy or girl looking to build up your hamstrings, you don't need to worry.
Most of the exercises we'll discuss in this article hit them all to some degree, but some may be more concentrated on specific muscles than others.
If you really want to build the best hamstrings you can possibly build, you'll want to make sure you're hitting all 3 components of the muscle.
Sound simple enough? Let's move on...
How To Effectively (And Efficiently) Workout Your Hamstrings
If you take a look around your gym, you'll likely see a lot of different people doing a lot of different hamstring exercises.
This is simply because there is no consensus about what constitutes the "most effective" way to train them.
Just a lot of theories...
If you ask around, you'll hear things like:
- "light weight, heavy reps"
- "heavy weights only"
- "isolation exercises are best"
- "compound exercises only"
- "don't train hamstrings and quads on the same day"
And a whole bunch of other pseudo-scientific myths that get passed around enough to the extent that people start to believe them.
While there may be a grain of truth in each of these statements, none of them accurately explains "the secret" to getting building bigger, stronger hamstrings.
Because there is no secret!
Sure, compound exercises are great for building up your hamstring strength, but that doesn't mean there's no place for isolation exercises in a well-designed hamstring routine.
The same goes for whether or not you should train quads and hamstrings on the same day. That depends entirely on you!
We'll actually discuss all that in just a minute, but the point is this:
There is no consensus. Different people train differently and what works for some may not work for others.
It's no an exact science.
That said, there are some guiding principles which you should ideally apply to your hamstring training...
Focus On Progressive Overload (Adding Weight Over Time)
The term "progressive overload" is simply a scientific way of saying:
Adding more and more weight to the bar over time.
Week after week, month after month, you should be progressing. That means more weight and more reps at a given weight.
You literally CANNOT get stronger without abiding by the principle of progressive overload.
Hence, it has become known as the number one most important factor when it comes to getting stronger and building muscle.
It doesn't just apply to your hamstrings. It should serve as the foundation for every workout you do (something I outlined in my article on shoulder workouts as well).
Train Your Hamstrings Frequently But Not Too Frequently
This one is a little less obvious...
A lot of people will tell you need to train your legs very frequently if you want them to get bigger and stronger.
While it's true that you must work them regularly--just as you would any muscle you want to grow--there's really no need to do more than 1 or 2 hamstring-focused workouts per week.
In fact, doing too many hamstring exercises too frequently is a great way to get injured and experience the misery that is over-training.
This is particularly true if your hamstrings are lacking and you've just started to whip them into shape.
You don't want to over-do it. Once a week is fine. Twice a week--depending on how your workouts are split up--may be fine as well.
Anymore than that probably isn't a good idea at first.
What's far more important is what kind of exercises you're doing...
Emphasize Heavy, Compound Exercises
Most people stick with hamstring exercises like:
- hamstring curls
- glute-ham raises
- kettlebell swings
Like I said earlier, these types of exercises definitely have their place, but you need to do a lot more if you really want to build solid, powerful hamstrings.
So let's talk about what those exercises are...
The Absolute Best Hamstring Exercises
For all intents and purposes, you can think of your hamstrings as the biceps of the legs.
If that sounds even remotely confusing, let me explain...
There are SO MANY different exercises you can do to work on your hamstrings but, like your biceps, you only need to utilize a few powerful lifts to make some serious gains.
It's true that as you progress in your training and become more of an expert, the importance of variation increases.
But if you're reading this article, you're probably not an expert.
You don't need to get fancy if you're just trying to get you're just trying to develop your hamstrings. A few simple, well-executed exercises will get the job done just fine...
The Romanian Deadlift was an exercise originally made popular by the Romanian powerlifter, Nicu Vlad.
That's why we call it the "Romanian" deadlift, as opposed to some other name like "slight bent, but still pretty straight-legged deadlift".
Romanian deadlift also just has a nicer ring to it.
Deadlifting is essential to hamstring and leg development, just as the military press is essential to shoulder development and the bench press is essential to chest development.
If there was one exercise you could do for hamstrings, the romanian deadlift would be a good choice.
Mechanistically, it's a cross between the stiff-legged deadlift (where the legs are basically complete straight) and an ordinary deadlift (where the legs are much more bent).
Here's what it looks like:
The Romanian Deadlift is quite possibly the most critical exercise for those looking to build bigger, stronger hamstrings which in turn support the entire posterior chain (the muscles running down the back of the body).
As with all compound exercises, there are seemingly endless amount of potential variations, but the basic steps go something like this:
- Start with the barbell on the ground
- Grip the barbell slightly outside shoulder-width
- Slightly bend your knees so that the tension is concentrated in the hamstrings
- Keep your back straight (not necessarily arched)
- Lift the bar by thrusting your hips forward and dragging it up the front of the body
- End the exercise in an upright position, flexing your glutes
- Place the bar back down in a controlled manner (in reverse)
The truth is, most people have no idea how to correctly perform a Romanian Deadlift, and incorrectly performing such a crucial compound exercise can easily result in injury.
As with any heavy compound exercise, you'll want to use a light weight until you get the form down.
Once you have achieved proper form, you can begin to increase the weight until you approach your limits.
If you're goal is to get bigger, stronger, more developed hamstrings, you should shoot for
3 sets of 4-6 reps at roughly 80% of your 1 Rep Max (1RM).
How do you know what your 1RM is? Good question...
Just go with whatever weight you can safely (with proper form) complete 4-6 reps. Once you know what you can lift for 4-6 reps, you can try increasing the weight until you can only get, say, 3-4 reps.
Then you simply do that weight until you can get it for, say, 5-6 reps.
Now you're making progress! Again, progressive overload is key.
Barbell (Back) Squat
The barbell back squat is perhaps the most well known leg exercise there is.
In fact, there plenty of people who literally just do squats and deadlifts for legs and they're able to make incredible gains over time.
Well, as far as compound exercises go, squats reign supreme. They literally work every muscle in your leg, not to mention your back and your core as well.
Of course, as with any compound exercise, there are a ton of variations, including:
- Front squat
- Bulgarian split squat
- Overhead squat
And so on...
If it's hamstring development you're after though, the traditional back squat is the way to go.
It looks like this:
Since the illustration above is from more a front-view angle, you don't see the hamstrings highlighted in red, but trust me...
If you perform this exercise correctly, your hamstrings are taking a beating.
No doubt about it.
- Start with the barbell resting on your traps
- Stand with your feet angled slightly outward, about shoulder width apart
- Keep your back straight (not arched
- Lower the weight by bending your knees until you're at 90 degrees (or more if you can)
- Concentrating on your hamstrings, raise the weight back up by extending your legs
In addition to working your hamstrings, the back squat also hits your quads and glutes, making it the most versatile leg exercise there is.
Hence, why some people rely almost solely on backs squats for total leg development.
The best part about squatting is that you can alter things like:
- foot positioning
To place the emphasis on whichever muscle you want to target the most.
If hamstrings are the target, spread your legs a little wider, angle your feet so that they're pointing slightly outward, and go as deep as possible (without getting injured, of course).
3 sets of 4-6 reps at roughly 80% of your 1 Rep Max (1RM).
Same as deadlifts.
Lying Leg Curl
A lot of power lifters will tell you to "ditch the machines" and just "focus on free weights".
While that's probably a good idea MOST of the time, it's not the case when it comes to hamstring exercises.
In fact, when it comes to targeting the hamstrings specifically, forcing them to contract with the most tension, nothing beats the lying leg (hamstring) curl.
It's one of those machine exercises that simply can't be left out of a quality hamstring workout and, by doing so, you're missing out on some serious gains.
Here's what it looks like:
As you can see by the diagram above, the tension is entirely focused on the hamstrings. This is probably the ONLY hamstring exercise that actually only works the hamstrings.
In other words, it's an isolation exercise, as opposed to the compound exercises we've discussed so far.
Provided your gym has one of these machines, it's very simple to do:
- Lay flat on your stomach
- Place the back of your ankles against the pad
- Curl your legs, much like a bicep curl, as far as you can go
It really doesn't get easier than that, but man...
This is one exercise that, if done correctly, will absolutely obliterate your hamstrings.
Okay, now this is the part where all the powerlifters and bodybuilders pop out and say:
"cable kickbacks are for girls, bro!"
And my response to that statement would be something along the lines of:
"No, cable kickbacks are very anyone who wants well-developed, functional hamstrings (and glutes)...bro!"
It's true that you mostly see girls women doing this particular exercise, but saying that a particular exercise is "only for girls" or "only for guys" is about as ignorant as it gets.
The reality is, cable kickbacks are a great exercise for building functional strength, particularly the hamstrings and glutes.
It has a place in any well-designed hamstring-focused workout. Guy or girl. It doesn't matter...
It looks like this:
The reason I'm such a proponent of the cable kickback is that it's one of the few exercises that places the emphasis on the hamstring-glute connection without the wear and tear of traditional compound exercises.
It's also extremely simple, once you get the hang of it...
- Attach the cable to your ankle, facing the machine
- Lean forward and hold machine for support
- Kick your leg back until you're at roughly 45 degrees
You should feel it almost exclusively in your hamstring and glute. If you feel it anywhere else, it's probably because you're:
A) Not doing it right - take another look at the illustration above
B) Not flexible - you need to go stretch and maybe do some yoga
When it comes to hamstring exercises, it doesn't get much simpler than cable kickbacks, yet they're one of the most effective for building stability and functional strength throughout the targeted muscles (hams and glutes).
Hyper Extensions (Done Correctly)
Most people think hyper extensions are a lower back exercise.
In fact, if you search "lower back exercises", you'll probably come across a few articles detailing this exact exercise, just with a different target area highlighted in red (the lower back).
While it's true that hyper extensions can help tremendously with lower back stability and functional strength, doing them correctly actually targets the hamstrings and glutes much more than the lower back.
In fact, if you feel it mostly in your lower back, that's a sure sign that you have a weak posterior chain and therefore stand to benefit immensely from doing this type of movement.
Here's what a proper hyper extension looks like:
Just about every gym I've ever been to has this machine...
Even Planet Fitness!
So, there's really no excuse for leaving them out of the equation, especially if you want to build defined, functional hamstrings and improve the stability of your entire posterior chain.
In fact, I used to suffer from a weak posterior chain which caused basically all my other heavy leg lifts (squats and deadlifts) to cause lower back pain when I increased the weight too much.
It wasn't until a personal trainer, who also happens to be a close friend of mine, explained that my problem was probably that the entire muscular structure of my back (the posterior chain) was under-developed.
So, I began experimenting with exercises like hyper extensions.
What a lot of people don't realize is that your hamstrings support the entire muscular structure of your back.
If they're under-developed, you will almost certainly experience some sort of lower back pain, injury, or plateau in other areas.
That's why hyper extensions, while not a major muscle-building exercise like squats or deadlifts, are an extremely important part of proper hamstring training.
Here's how to do them properly:
- Lay face forward on the machine
- Ankles locked in against the lower pad, upper pad holding your thighs in place
- Slowly extend downward, keeping the tension in the hamstrings and glutes
- Stop when your face is looking directly at the ground
- Lift yourself back up, using your hamstrings for leverage
You may find this exercise to be particularly easy, in which case you can hold a weight close to your chest to increase the difficulty.
This isn't supposed to be a 4-6 rep, maximum intensity exercise.
Shoot for 3 sets of 8-12 reps with whatever amount of weight works for you.
Remember, you're building stability here...
The point of these types of exercises is not so much to build strength, but to prime your body for more physically demanding exercises like deadlifts and squats.
Incorporating this exercise into your hamstring routine can dramatically improve your ability to perform other hamstring exercises.
Creating The Ultimate Hamstring Workout
Now that we've identified the most important, functional hamstring exercises for building:
It's time to put it all together.
Here's an example of a hamstring workout using the exercises we discussed which is guaranteed to get you results if you stick to it.
The Best Hamstring Workout
Do your Hamstrings Deserve Their Own Day?
That's a good question, and one that can't easily be answered with research.
It's definitely true that many people neglect their hamstrings on leg day compared to their quads, but does that mean you should split them up?
In other words...
One leg day that is quad-centric and one leg day that is hamstring-centric?
Plenty of people develop powerful, functional legs without splitting them up, but you do have to be diligent about it.
If you realize, through things like:
- lower back pain
- lack of flexibility
- inability to due certain exercises
That your hamstrings are lacking, then it may be a good idea to focus on hamstrings specifically and worry about your quads later.
After all, most people are quad-centric when they lift legs.
They tend to lean forward when they squat, have trouble going past 90 degrees or so, and usually can't deadlift correctly.
If that's you, you need to work on your hamstrings more and leave your quads alone until they even out.
What do I do?
I like to alternate between quad-centric leg days and hamstring-centric leg days.
One week I'll start off with deadlifts and back squats.
The next week I'll start off with front squats and leg presses (or something along those lines).
Try deadlifting at maximum intensity and then front squatting at maximum intensity...
Then you'll understand what I'm talking about.
It's not like lifting arms, where you're doing biceps and triceps in the same day and neither one detracts from your ability to do the other.
The reality is, most leg exercises require activation of both you your quads and hamstrings, so it makes sense to split them up if you detect an imbalance.
But that's just me.
If your legs are proportionate, there's no need to split them up into separate days.
The Bottom Line On Hamstring Exercises
If you want to build strong legs that serve as the foundation for an epic physique, then you need train your hamstrings.
Most people neglect legs entirely, let alone take the time to detect weaknesses and correct them.
Do yourself a favor...
Take a moment to step back and evaluate your progress (or lack thereof) in the gym.
If you realize your legs are holding you back, it may very well be because you're not giving your hamstrings the time and effort they deserve.
Hopefully, the hamstring exercises we discussed in this article will help you make the necessary corrections or, if you're just starting out, avoid developing disproportionate legs.
Next leg day, ask yourself:
"Are my hamstrings really up to par?"
If the answer to that question is "yes" (and you're not lying to yourself) then keep training like you've been training. I applaud you for doing what it took me years to figure out.
If the answer is "no"--sadly, this is going to be the case for the majority of people--then toss these hamstring exercises into the mix.
You'll be amazed at the positive impact that having strong, well-developed hamstrings will make, not just in terms of leg strength, but on virtually all your lifts.
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Matt Theis is the Co-Founder and CEO of Momentum Nutrition. Among other things, he is chiefly responsible for product formulation and has spent years researching, testing, and developing supplements.