A well-developed back and visibly defined hamstrings. These are two signs that someone REALLY trains. They don’t skip leg day, they can knock out more than a few pull ups, and they’re probably crazy fast. I, for one, know a ton of female rugby players who can carry four people on their back in a full sprint due to the power in their legs. And they are not lacking in the hamstring department. Whether your goals are athletic prowess, sculpted legs, or a well-balanced, injury-free existence, you need to do a hamstring workout. The majority of you will be weaker and tighter than you are in the quads. It’s time to change that.
As you probably know, the hamstrings are a group of muscles on the back of your thigh. Everyone’s constantly grouping them together as one, but in reality, each setion of the hamstrings serves a slightly different purpose. Here’s what they are and what they do:
Semitendinosus: helps to extend (straighten) the hip joint, flex (bend) the knee joint, and medially rotate the knee
Semimembranosus : a flatter, wider muscle underneath the semitendinosus that extends the hip, flexes the knee and internally rotates the tibia
Note: These two are often called the “medial hamstrings”, two guys working together to balance out the biceps femoris or “lateral hamstrings”
Biceps femoris: has a short head and a long head, both which flex the knee. The long head originates on the pelvis so also extends the hip, but is limited in doing so by knee flexion due to active insufficiency. It also slightly rotates the knee outward.
Yes, this description sort of seems like they all do the same thing. Which isn’t… not true. All of them flex the knee somehow, and three out of the four extend the hip. Keeping them strong, flexible, and adaptive through various ranges of motion/instability can be critical to knee and hip health.
Everyone, everyone, everyone is quad dominant. Athletes, elderly trainees, desk jockeys, me, teenagers… about the only people who are balanced anymore are kids under the age of five. Quads are cool. They look good. They make you strong, powerful and confident in the gym. They make it annoyingly hard to find jeans that fit around your legs. But hamstrings, my friend, are the real secret to #gainz. They’re like the special ops team that does all the dirty work but doesn’t usually get the credit.
Ignoring your hamstring training will not only make your legs look weird, but it’ll make it harder for you to squat/deadlift/run/train properly and increase your chance of injury. And I can’t stress this enough – you can have all the coaching, equipment, time, motivation and knowledge in the world, but you can’t train if you’re injured. Consistency is the biggest key to progress, and any injury is a major setback.
Also – just look how freakin’ impressive a stacked set of hamstrings are
So which exercise is the best? And how do you program them to make your hammies look and perform like they should? Let’s take a look.
For Strength/Size – Rack Pull and Good Morning
The rack pull is a shorter range, barbell hip hinge that starts from a dead pull in a squat rack. You’ll want to load up a bar off of the pins at just above knee height. Set your feet and scapula, grip the heck out of the bar, take the slack out and drive the floor away from you, extending the hips fully. Take a look below for how it’s done.
If you look at the muscular activity of the hamstrings in the rack pull as compared to other exercises, the numbers are off the charts. The shorter range of motion keeps the focus in the hammies and away from the back, and also lets you pull the hell out of some weight. With a smaller joint angle, heavier loads can be applied with less risk. As the hamstrings are comprised of mostly fast-twitch fibers, they’ll respond better to heavier loads at low reps for hypertrophy. Which, consequently, makes you incredibly strong as well.
If you’re a strongman competitor or powerlifter, adding in well-programmed rack pulls can crank up your raw numbers.
Olympic lifters, on the other hand, might want to get more technical by progressing to Cleans from the Rack or Pause Snatch Pulls outside of a rack. And well-seasoned competitors know these are additions not replacements for the deadlift, clean or snatch. But if you’re looking to just train your hamstrings to pull as much weight as possible – the rack pull is your guy.
Good mornings begin in a biomechanically advantageous position – standing up. The human body is structurally built to withstand a vertical load, as that’s how we’re able to walk upright. Beginning with an eccentric movement emphasizes the mechanical stress as forward lean increases. The most difficult part of the movement is actually at the bottom where the weight (barbell) is significantly in front of the mid-foot and the hamstrings/glutes are having to work incredibly hard to keep you from falling over.
A lot of people will feel these in the lower back first – so go slow and with lighter weight until you’re confident you can execute them. Maintain a neutral spine and generate force through the hips. These can be used in a compound set with heavy rack pulls to add extra stress on the hamstrings. The lighter load and eccentric contraction following a heavy concentric load allows the hamstrings to keep working even after initial fatigue. Or they can be used for pre-exhaustion and activation before rack pulls, especially if you have difficulty keeping a neutral spine under fatigue.
For Athletes – Glute Ham Raise and Nordics
Glute Ham Raise
The glute ham raise is the daddy of all hamstring exercises. The machine was literally named to develop your glutes and hamstrings. First of all, it involves both hip extension and knee flexion, which is hard to accomplish with other exercises. If you were to turn a sprinter sideways, the mechanics at the hip and knee are almost the exact same as a glute ham raise. The EMG activity found in the glute ham raise surpasses most other exercises as well, meaning you’re getting a ton of muscle fiber recruitment. Be sure to squeeze the heck out of your glutes the entire time so it doesn’t become a back extension plus leg curl. The goal is to use your glutes to PULL your body through that full range of motion. If you bend at the hips, it shortens the lever and makes the exercise “easier”, but you’re doing it wrong.
While a forward lean helps in acceleration, it’s never good to have just the torso bent over with the legs pumping straight up and down. To sprint as fast as possible, athletes need to elongate the spine and core to transfer that power from the ground, cycle the leg through the full range of motion, and explode forward into each step. You’d never see an Olympic sprinter running all hunched over. Train your body like you’re going to compete.
I’d argue that nordic hamstring curls are even tougher. Even though it’s just a bodyweight movement, using just your hamstrings to slow your descent to the floor proves exhausting as gravity presses down against you. However, they are a fantastic exercise to eccentrically load the hamstring and posterior chain with the knees bent. Nordics are unique in that they demand time under tension. Otherwise, you’d fall flat on your face. They’re also one of the only ways to eccentrically load the hamstrings starting with flexion at the knee. During a sprint, the hamstring not only propels us forward by pulling the ground underneath us, but it also slows and reverses knee extension. Eccentric training with nordics has therefore been shown to reduce the risk of hamstring strains in sports with lots of high speed running.
Most trainees lack the hamstring strength to do these properly at the start. They run the risk of arching the back, placing the stress on the low back or even over-flexing the calves. Have a friend hold your heels while you’re on your knees, facing away. Add a band to a high anchor and let it guide you down to the floor, then kick in your heels and pull yourself back up. Keep your hips extended, glutes engaged and back flat the whole time. The band provides extra assistance through the tougher parts of the descent, and helps you keep the focus on the hamstrings.
The one drawback of these exercises – they’re tough to do alone. If you have access to a glute-ham developer, you can do them off of those. But otherwise, you need a friend – or to get creative – to lock your feet in place.
For Single Leg Training – Split leg RDL
While I’m a big fan of the single leg RDL for people who have the body control and stability to perform them, a lot of us lack the balance to perform them correctly. Therefore, the stress falls on our adductor, calf, lower back or oblique somehow as we over-rotate and try to keep balance
On the other hand, unilateral training should be a staple of any well-designed program. By all means, add SL RDLs into your warm up until you can consistently accomplish them unloaded. But until then, load one leg primarily with a split stance. It’s easier to keep balance and still target unilateral deficiencies.
Romanian Deadlifts place the hamstrings on a stretch while strengthening them – the toughest part of the movement is at the bottom. The body adapts to this, and becomes strong when it’s placed on a stretch as well as the easier parts of the movement. Offset your feet a so one foot is in front of the other and go through the hip hinge pattern. Rather than reaching towards the ground, think of sitting the hips back. These can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, or even a band. Whatever you’re holding, be sure to grip it tight to create tension, keep the shoulder packed and back flat.
For Novices – Physio Ball Iso Holds
New trainees are notoriously anteriorly dominant. The good news is – you’ve come to the right place for posterior chain strengthening. However, since the backside of your body has been sitting in a chair for most of your life, we’re going to have to spend some time training your hamstrings to work again.
Isometric holds generate greater activation of the muscle. By keeping the knees bent in one position on an unstable surface, your reflex response engages the muscle fibers. You give yourself time to correct any faults and really feel the hamstring activation.
Lay flat on your back with a physioball underneath your heels at hip width. Keeping the toes flexed and knees at 90 degrees, bridge up off of the floor. Your glutes should now be squeezing and helping your core stabilize the spine, while your hamstrings are keeping that ball from rolling away from you. Hold this position for 30-60 seconds, or until you start to break form.
Quick note – I’m partial to these over lying or seated hamstring curls as it’s often hard to new trainees to actually use their hamstrings during those exercises. People tend to use the calf or bend at the waist and limit hip extension. Physioball holds make it really easy to see if you’re in hip extension, and you’re actively resisting the knee from straightening due to the instability. If you’re a step ahead of the game, go ahead and add some bridge and curls, but only if you can keep your back from bending and get to full hip extension.
I got bored during filming these exercises, so naturally I started dancing. If you read this far, you’re the lucky winner of this outtake.