Whether you’re the type of guy who hits leg day hard or prefers total-body workouts instead, chances are you still might be neglecting your hamstrings more than you should. We tend to favor exercises that target the quads and glutes, but it’s equally important to strengthen the hamstrings. This muscle group, which consists of three separate muscles — the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris — works with your glutes to propel you forward when you run and walk and upward when you jump (perhaps when you sink three-pointers every Saturday in your pickup games!). Therefore, if you want to run faster, jump higher, squat heavier, or simply develop more sculpted, meaty legs, you definitely want to start incorporating the following hamstring exercises into your workout routine. Ease into it though, especially if you’re a beginner or if it’s been a while since you’ve set foot in the gym — the hamstrings are prone to cramps and strains.
The deadlift is a foundational move in the gym and can be considered the king of posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, spinal extensors, and calves) exercises. Mastering the deadlift will be crucial for strengthening and building your hamstrings. The move is essentially a hip hinge, and as soon as you have mastered the proper technique, you can really load the bar to stimulate muscle growth.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, your arms down at your sides, and a barbell in front of your ankles.
- Sit your hips back as far as possible and bend your knees just enough to reach and grab the bar.
- Engage your core to lift the bar while you raise your body up to the tall standing position. Your back should stay straight and the bar should track up along your shins.
- Slowly lower the bar back to the floor by sitting your hips back. Keep your chin up and gaze forward during the move.
- Perform 6-8 reps per set.
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The advantage of this variation on traditional deadlifts is that the hex bar allows you to use a neutral grip, which relieves stress on your upper body and allows you to lift more weight. Because you’re able to load your muscles with more weight, they are pushed that much harder and the stimulus to get stronger is greater. The result? Even bigger gains.
- Stand inside the loaded hex bar with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Brace your core as you squat down and grab the handles on either side of the hex bar.
- Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings to extend your hips and knees to stand upright, keeping your back straight.
- Slowly lower the hex bar back to the floor by sitting your hips back.
- Repeat 6-8 times.
Single-leg Romanian deadlifts provide all the excellent posterior chain recruitment benefits of standard deadlifts, while improving your single-leg stability, which is critical for injury prevention and functional performance. It can be a tricky move to master, especially if you tend to struggle with balance and coordination, but stick with it — it’s a highly-effective exercise for your entire posterior chain and a functional move that will help push you towards becoming the athlete you want to be. It has also been demonstrated to be one of the top three most effective hamstring exercises, according to a research study conducted by ACE Fitness.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, chest up and proud, arms at your side, and a dumbbell in your right hand.
- Bring your left arm out to your side for balance and engage your core.
- Bend your left knee (the one on your standing/support leg) about 20 degrees to activate your hamstrings and glutes while you lift your right leg off the ground.
- Contract your glutes and hinge from your hips to bring your torso towards the floor, keeping your gaze on the floor to prevent hyperextending your neck. Your right leg should extend behind you as a counterbalance.
- Reach the dumbbell in your right hand down towards your left foot until you feel enough of a stretch in the hamstrings of your supporting leg.
- Engage your core and glutes to come back up, extending your hips until they are fully locked out. If you need to regain your balance, you can touch your right foot back down to the floor; otherwise, keep it lifted and move into your next rep.
- Complete 10 reps per side per set.
Bridges are a classic exercise for developing glute and hamstring strength. Beginners should start with both legs together, but as you get stronger, progress the move to a single-leg bridge by lifting one leg off the mat.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor as if you were going to perform abdominal crunches. Cross your arms over your chest.
- Press through your heels to lift your hips up until your body is in a straight line from your knees to your shoulder blades.
- Hold for a full breath, constructing your glutes and hamstrings.
- Lower back down.
- Repeat 20 reps or 15 reps per leg.
This exercise ups the intensity of glute bridges by requiring additional hip extension and loading your posterior chain with weights.
- Place your shoulder blades on the long side of a bench with your body bridging off the side so that your knees are bent 90 degrees, your feet are shoulder-width apart and flat on the floor, your core and glutes are engaged, and your hips are up in a tabletop position.
- Hold the barbell across your hips.
- Raise and lower your hips towards the floor, reaching the top position where your thighs are parallel to the ground for each rep.
- Complete 10 controlled reps per set.
Split squats are great for strengthening your lower body, core, and spinal extensor muscles, and this variation, which elevates your rear foot, increases the activation of your hamstrings. Because it’s a unilateral exercise, the Bulgarian split squat requires coordination and balance, while also placing a greater demand on your muscles, so it’s a really effective move to add to your lineup on leg day.
- Stand about three feet in front of a bench, facing away, with the top of your rear foot up on the bench behind you.
- Your legs should be shoulder-width apart. Your front foot should be far enough forward that when you drop into a lunge, your front knee does not extend beyond your toes.
- You can load this squat by holding dumbbells in each hand with your arms extended down at your sides.
- Keeping your shoulders back and core engaged, bend your front knee to drop into a split squat/lunge.
- When the thigh of your front leg is parallel to the ground, press through your heel to return to the standing position.
- Complete 8-10 reps per leg per set.
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You’ll need a partner or something to lock your heels under for this exercise, and while the actual movement you perform is minimal, you will definitely feel your hamstrings screaming if you do this exercise correctly.
- Kneel on a mat facing away from a partner who will be holding your feet and ankles secured to the ground (or hook them under something stationary).
- Keep your torso upright with your shoulder blades pulled back and your chest up. Cross your arms across your chest, holding an optional weight plate against your body for additional resistance.
- Keeping your body stiff and straight, lean slightly forward from your knees, ensuring your hips stay locked in the extended position, until you feel a sufficient stretch in your hamstrings.
- Contract your glutes and hamstrings to slowly pull your body back to the starting position.
- Repeat 20 reps per set.
Although squats primarily target the quads and glutes, the sumo variation activates your hamstrings and adductors as well.
- Hold a barbell behind your neck on your shoulders or hold dumbbells at each shoulder as if preparing to do back squats.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing about 45 degrees outward. Your hips should also be externally rotated.
- Inhale, pushing your hips backward as if reaching your butt back to sit in a chair. Make sure your core is engaged, your chest is up, and your back is straight.
- Exhale, pressing through your heels to return to the starting position.
- Repeat 8-10 reps per set.
While this may look like an upper body exercise, all of the power to swing the kettlebell actually comes from your legs. In fact, kettlebell swings have been demonstrated to be one of the three most effective hamstring exercises, according to a research study conducted by ACE Fitness. They also help with metabolic conditioning and develop strength and power in your shoulders, core, back, and glutes.
- Stand upright with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, gripping the handle of a moderately-heavy kettlebell with both hands. Your arms should be long so the kettlebell is hanging down in front on your body.
- Keep your heels planted and engage your core and glutes while you allow your knees to bend.
- Press through your heels and explode through your hips to drive the kettlebell upward until it’s roughly chest height and your arms are fully extended.
- Control the kettlebell as it descends, loading your hamstrings. It should swing backwards behind your legs somewhat.
- At the end of the arc of the swing, snap your hips forward again to drive the kettlebell back up to chest height.
- Complete 12-15 reps.
Read more: Best Kettlebell Workouts
If you have access to a gym, the leg curl machine is a good one to hit up if you want to target your hamstrings. You can use the machine either seated or prone (on your stomach). If you’re working out at home, you can try to replicate the motion by lying on your stomach with heavy ankle weights strapped on.
- Select your desired weight with the pin.
- Lie on your stomach with your feet flush against the footplates and your ankles locked under the rollers.
- Hold on to the handles on either side of the body platform.
- Contract your hamstrings and glutes to bring your heels to your butt. Make sure your hips stay flush with machine and don’t rise up.
- Extend your knees to slowly lower the weight back down.
- Complete 10-12 reps per set.
This exercise also engages your abs, glutes, and hip flexors, and since it has you lying on your back on a mat, it’s an easy move to fit in at the end of your workout before your final stretch.
- Lie on your back with your legs straight and your heels up on a stability ball. Place your arms at your sides with your palms down on the mat.
- Engage your abs and glutes to lift your hips up so that your body is in a straight line from your heels to your head. Your shoulder blades should be down on your mat.
- Engage your hamstrings and press your heels into the ball.
- Bend your knees to bring the ball towards your butt.
- Return to the starting position.
- Complete 15 reps per set.
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