The Top 3 Hamstring Exercises You Can’t Afford to Skip

May 2, 2022 | Exercise guides, Strength & Conditioning

Your hamstrings can be easy to ignore since they’re just “back there”, but strong hamstrings are the foundation for a meaty and symmetrical posterior chain. Neglect them to your peril. Aja Campbell is a CSCS/CrossFit Coach with a decade of fitness experience. She’s the founder of ATTAGIRL, a coaching and lifestyle brand committed to empowering women+. She also oversees the S&C program at a high school in Queens with over 240 student-athletes. She knows a thing or two about hamstring strength. In this piece she outlines your anatomy and her top three go-to hamstring exercises: Romanian deadlifts, glute-ham raises, and hamstring box curls. That last one is a real burner.  

Aja Campbell

Set Your Hammies on Fire for Serious Gains

Did you know 2022 was just named Year of the Hamstring? No? Well, that’s because I made it up.

But now that I have your attention, do you know why healthy hamstrings are so important? I work closely with athletes and clients to mitigate injury and become as physically resilient and strong as possible. But one of the most common injuries to the lower extremities is… a hamstring injury. 

Hamstring injuries can be incredibly debilitating for two reasons:

  1. They can happen relatively easily.
  2. The hamstring muscles typically carry a long recovery period.

This results in missed workout sessions, stunted progress in the gym, and obvious setbacks for competitive athletes. The good news is that we can reduce the risk of injury by properly and consistently training the muscles of the hamstrings. 

Build strong, resilient hammies at home or at the gym with my top three hamstring exercises. 

Hamstring anatomy refresher

hamstring exercises - hamstring anatomy

There are three muscles that make up the hamstrings group: biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. These three muscles run down the posterior (back) of your leg originating from different points along your pelvis and inserting into points of your knee. 

These muscles are responsible for knee flexion, as well as helping with hip extension and rotation of the thigh and leg. The noticeable “pull” or “stretch” you feel in the upper back of your leg as you send your hips back to take a bow are your hamstrings lengthening (eccentric contraction), and the tension you feel when you bring your heel towards your butt are your hamstrings concentrically contracting.

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Top 3 hamstring exercises for strength

Romanian Deadlift or 1 leg RDL

One of the most popular hamstring exercises is the Romanian Deadlift. The RDL places higher demand on the hamstring group compared to other deadlift variations due to the fixed position of the knee and the primary hip-hinging motion. 

I like using both the bilateral (double-leg) and unilateral (single-leg) versions of this exercise in training—unilateral exercises can recruit more muscles for stabilization and challenge the working leg to balance.

Perfect Your RDL

  • Keep the weight close to the body.
  • Stand up tall, but don’t lean back at the top of the lift or hyperextend your back.
  • Push “through” the floor, keeping your big toe, little toe, and heel connected to the ground. 
  • Look to feel a deep stretch in the hamstrings and only go as low as you are able to maintain a flat back with good form. 
  • Read this in-depth blog on single-leg RDLs.

Coach’s Tip: If you’re a beginner, consider starting with free weights (dumbbells) and graduate to the barbell variation once you’re completely competent in the movement. 

Glute ham raise

The glute-ham raise is another one of my favorite hamstring exercises. This is a more intermediate/advanced hamstring exercise but can be easily modified to meet an athlete where they’re at. 

The GHR is so effective at targeting the hamstrings because of the large range of motion required for the movement. GHRs allow you to load your hamstring muscles at both their shortest contraction and longest extension.

Evidence supports that training through full (or as close to full) range of motion plays a key role in reducing injury risk. 

Perfect Your GHR

  • On a glute-ham developer machine, be sure to fully extend your hips at the top and squeeze those buns, hun. 
  • Lower down slowly and with control. If you can’t hold your form, grab a band to help take some of the resistance away.
  • Be sure to push the ball of the foot against the footplate and make sure the back of the foot is secure against the foam pad. This will make sure the knee flexors in the calves are helping throughout the movement. 
  • Try Nordic Curls as a modified version of this movement. 
box hamstring curl

Box hamstring curls are a killer alternative to the curl machine at the gym since you can do them almost anywhere. You can make these more challenging by adding a tempo, weight, or performing the single-leg version. 

I like to program these with a slow tempo first, then progress to weighted, and then single-leg. Remember the effectiveness of unilateral exercises! 

The fact that your core works harder with the BHC than with a hamstring curl machine is a nice double-whammy for strength gains.

Perfect Your BHR

  • Use a box or surface that puts your feet in line with your knees and your knees above your hips.
  • Use the back of your feet to push ‘through” the box, squeeze the butt to extend the hips as much as you can.
  • SLOWLY lower your hips back down, ride that eccentric wave. 

Coach’s Tip: Don’t sleep on the single leg version of these for extra glute recruitment and one of the best hamstring exercises out there!

Watch your movement patterns!

Before I leave you to go out and build the strongest posterior chain of your life, I want to touch on one of the greatest limiting factors for strength: hasty movement mechanics. 

Poor movement quality will almost always lead to injury. 

Read that again.

When you work on your hamstrings (or any muscle group for that matter), aim to start working at a tempo with a longer eccentric phase and faster concentric phase. The rule of thumb I use with athletes while resistance training is “slower down, faster up”.

This will make sure the movement is executed with proper mechanics, stability, and control, but it also places a higher demand on the working muscles by forcing you to slow down and be intentional with your movement.

Consider yourself well-equipped with a small arsenal of hamstring builders to help you perform better in the gym, reduce injury, and promote longevity! 

Go you! 👊

See you on the training floor. 

 

 

Sources:

  1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21904-hamstring-muscles#:~:text=How%20are%20the%20hamstring%20muscles,when%20your%20knee%20is%20bent.
  2. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2014/06000/Muscle_Activation_During_Various_Hamstring.11.aspx

 

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