The 8 Best Hamstring Exercises

by Evelyn Valdez

When it comes to building stronger legs you want to make sure you're incorporating exercises that target every major muscle group in your legs – quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Building stronger glutes and quads seem to be the main focus on leg day for a lot of lifters, but hamstrings are equally important and shouldn't be left behind!

The hamstrings are a pretty big muscle group located on the back of your thighs all the way to your knees. They play a role in pretty much every lower-body movement you do, so having weak hamstrings can hold you back from maxing out on your strength for important exercises, like squats and deadlifts! The best part is that since your hamstrings are located in your posterior chain, almost every hamstring exercise also works your glute muscles. So, you'll get to strengthen and grow your glutes at the same time.

Just like we gave you our 10 favorite quad-strengthening exercises, we're going to give you 8 exercises for hamstrings that are a must on leg day! That way you can strengthen your hamstrings, build a stronger lower body, and power up on important lower body compound movements!

Barbell Romanian deadlift

While deadlifts are known for working your quads, Romanian deadlifts are known for working your hamstrings! Romanian deadlifts are probably the best hamstring exercise there is, and everyone should be doing it. Not only does it target your hamstrings, but it also targets your glutes, core, upper back, shoulders, and forearms.

Using a barbell is ideal since it's heavier and will help activate more muscle fibers in your posterior chain. However, if you're new, instead of using a barbell, use a pair of dumbbells – don't worry, you'll still reap all the benefits!

How to do it: 

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, or in a narrower stance, on a shallow platform with feet flat beneath the barbell.
  2. Bend your knees and hinge forward while keeping your lower back straight, and grasp the barbell with a shoulder-width overhand grip to lift the weight to a standing position. This will be your starting position.
  3. To begin, lower the bar by bending your hips until it passes your knees. Bend your knees slightly while you’re going down and keep your waist straight, flexing only slightly at the bottom.
  4. With your knees still bent, lift the bar by extending your hips until you’re standing upright again, and repeat. Make sure to keep your shoulders back during the movement, without rounding them.

Tip: Do not crank your neck up when performing this exercise! Keep a neutral spine to avoid straining your neck by focusing your gaze about two feet in front of you throughout the entire movement. And use a pair of lifting straps and/or a lifting belt during your heavy sets to help fully fatigue your hamstrings before your grip gives out (and so you don't experience lower back pain)!

Single-leg deadlift

This deadlift variation is also great at working the hamstrings one at a time! Aside from working your hamstrings, it challenges your balance and your core.

You can either use a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells for this move.

How to do it:

  1. Grab a dumbbell with an overhand grip in your right hand and let it hang at arm’s length in front of your thigh. Lift your left leg a few inches off the floor behind you. This is the starting position.
  2. Keeping your lower back arched naturally, hinge at your hips, and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel to the floor. Let your left leg stretch out behind you with your toes pointed down to the floor the entire time.
  3. The weight should travel straight down toward the floor in your right hand. Hold your left arm out to the side for balance.
  4. Return to the starting position without letting the toes of your left foot touch the floor.

Bulgarian split squats

Bulgarian split squats are not only a great quad and glutes exercise... by slightly changing your foot placement, you'll be able to target your hamstrings and glutes more so than your quads. So, instead of placing your foot closer to you, place your front leg slightly further out in front of your body. This will help shift the load onto your posterior chain, as opposed to your quads.

How to do it:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms fully extended at your sides and your palms facing each other. Face away from a bench, and place the top of your foot on a bench behind you
  2. Place your front leg a few inches away from the bench so you're able to target your hamstrings.
  3. Lower your hips toward the floor so that your rear knee comes close to the floor.
  4. Pause and drive through your front heel to return to the starting position.

Barbell hip thrusts

Hip thrusts might be known as a glute-focused exercise, but they're also great at working your hamstrings! So, make sure to include this heavy compound movement on your glute/hamstring leg day!

A barbell is ideal for recruiting more muscle fibers, but feel free to start by using a single-dumbbell to help you get adjusted to the movement.

How to do it:

  1. Load your barbell with the appropriate weight in front of a bench,
  2. Place your shoulders and upper back against the bench. Roll the barbell into the crease of your hips, or have a spotter help place it comfortably on your hips.
  3. Plant your feet firmly on the ground a few inches ahead of you and place them shoulder-width apart, making sure your knees are bent.
  4. Engage your core and glutes, maintain a forward gaze with your neck slightly tucked in your chin, and begin to push your hips up towards the ceiling bringing the bar with it.
  5. Stop the movement once you've formed a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Pause for a moment, and then begin to descend slowly back to the starting position.

Tip: The barbell can get very uncomfortable and heavy on your hips which can cause bruises and prevent you from increasing the weight. To avoid this from happening, use a barbell pad! Barbell pads are designed to add cushion between the bar and your hips to prevent discomfort and help you push heavier weights.

Kettlebell swings

Kettlebell swings doubles as a cardio and strength training exercise. So, aside from getting your heart rate up, this movement works mainly your hamstrings, while also targeting your glutes, lats, hips, and shoulders.

How to do it: 

  1. Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart and grasp the kettlebell by the horn using both hands.
  2. Lower your body by hinging at the hips, this will drive the kettlebell down and between your legs.
  3. Keeping your back and arms straight, begin the movement by lifting your torso and thrusting your hips forward explosively to swing the kettlebell upward until it reaches shoulder height. Use the momentum of the hip thrust to lift the kettlebell, not just your arms.
  4. Keeping your hamstrings, glutes, and core engaged, go back to the starting position by bringing the kettlebell down and between your legs, and repeat.

Dumbbell good mornings

Good mornings are similar to Romanian deadlifts, but instead of placing the weight beneath you and in front of you, it places the weight above and behind your neck! This helps to activate your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back all in one movement.

How to do it:

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at shoulder level with your palms facing toward you.
  2. Bend your knees slightly and place your feet hip-width apart. Begin to hinge at your hip lowering your torso until it's almost parallel to the floor.
  3. Pause for a moment, and begin to move back up to the starting position.

Lying leg curls

This is an isolated exercise that isolates your hamstrings so that other muscles don't come in and do most of the work. This makes it so you can effectively work and fatigue your hamstring muscles!

How to do it:

  1. Adjust the machine lever to fit your height and lie face down on the leg curl machine with the pad of the lever on the back of your legs (just a few inches under the calves). 
  2. Keeping the torso flat on the bench, ensure your legs are fully stretched, and grab the side handles of the machine. Position your toes straight. This will be your starting position.
  3. As you exhale, curl your legs up as far as possible without lifting the upper legs from the pad. Once you hit the fully contracted position, hold it for a second.
  4. As you inhale, bring the legs back to the initial position.

Stability ball leg curls

This move is similar to the lying leg curl, except it will further challenge your lower body strength while adding a challenge of stability. This helps work your hamstrings, but also your entire body is engaged throughout the movement, including your core, glutes, calves, and quads!

How to do it: 

  1. Lie faceup with your calves on top of a stability ball, arms by your sides, and palms down.
  2. Squeeze your glutes and raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from shoulders to heels. Bend your knees to roll the ball toward you until your feet are flat on the ball.
  3. Straighten your legs to roll the ball back, then lower your body to the floor.

Add these to your next leg day to strengthen your hamstrings!

Incorporate these exercises on your leg day to strengthen your hamstrings and pretty much entire the posterior chain! To get the most out of hamstring exercises, complete 10-20 weekly sets and increase the weights or reps to continue making progress.

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