Unless you are among the most dedicated of the lifters in your particular gym, leg day isn’t a popular day because of how challenging it can be.
Nonetheless it does happen and the workouts get done. But there is still an issue that isn’t being addressed nearly enough.
The more “fun” leg exercises are those for the quads like hack squats, leg presses, and squats. More often than not, the hamstrings are neglected at best and ignored completely at worst.
The result is a workout that isn’t effective, and a potential that isn’t being fulfilled.
What You Should Know About Hamstrings
The hamstrings run from the hip to the back of the knee. So they are a long muscle group. To make a long story short, they have two primary functions; knee flexion and hip extension. So it should make sense that the best way to train them is to base your training around these two tasks. Unfortunately, many lifters neglect this thought process and throw in leg curls because it’s easier, or do deadlifts because they think that would be enough.
The hamstrings aren’t popular because you can’t see them and you can’t load up a lot of weight to work them. What you need to know is that if you’re not training them to the best of your ability, you’re missing out on a lot of strength and your body won’t look as great as it could.
So, what follows are seven ways you can make up for lost time, and work to make the back of the thighs both bigger and stronger. If you’re new to training and reading this as a beginner, that’s great because you can benefit from doing these now and avoid the mistakes a lot of iron veterans have made.
1. Pre-Exhaust by Doing One Side at a Time
This is one that can also apply to arms but it’s crucial for the hamstrings. Since you can’t see them working, you have to feel them and you want to know that both legs are doing their fair share of the work.
So by pre-exhausting them by doing an exercise like single leg curls, you’re accomplishing several tasks. First, you’re warming them up for the work to come. Second, you’re feeling them working properly so that connection between the mind and muscle is being established. Third, you’re training them while bending the knee which is one of their two primary functions. All of this means you can do more work without committing a lot of time to them.
2. Do a Version of the Deadlift Every Workout
There are several versions of this basic exercise. There is the traditional barbell deadlift, the stiff-legged deadlift which can also be done with dumbbells. There are cable versions, the Romanian deadlift, and versions with other equipment like the trap bar. If you need more, check out the M&S Exercise page which is a great resource.
The main point here is that there should be some version of the deadlift in every hamstring workout you do. They work the muscles very effectively and are a basic movement which you should be working on anyway.
You can alternate exercises each week or perform one for 4-6 weeks and then change. If you want to get stronger, then use one exercise for a few weeks. If you want to create hypertrophy, change them every workout.
3. Train Hamstrings on Their Own Day
I know that asking for two leg days a week is asking a lot but think about how often those hamstrings were neglected over the course of your training life. You need to make up for lost time and if the hamstrings are weaker, then they need the extra attention.
If you choose to do this then make sure you space the quad and hamstring workouts so you have at least three days in between them with at least one of those days being a complete day off from training.
Now if you prefer to stick to only one leg day per training cycle, then you should save quads for after hamstrings and make sure at least 60% of your workout is focused on the hamstrings. After you feel they have improved and you have more balance in the legs, you can make necessary adjustments going forward.
4. Alternate between Pyramiding and Reverse Pyramiding
For those of you that aren’t familiar with what these terms mean, pyramiding weight means you add weight each progressive set and reduce the reps accordingly. So if someone uses 60 reps and performs 10 reps, he or she might move the weight up to 80 pounds and perform only 8 reps.
Reverse pyramiding is the exact opposite. You start with the heaviest weight for the least reps. Each set after is lighter but the rep ranges increase. So you’re going from the top down to the bottom.
The hamstrings will reap major benefits from this. When pyramiding up, they are being challenged with heavier weight which is crucial. The emphasis here will be on the Type 2a and 2b muscle fibers. This will help when you focus on strength moves like good mornings or deadlifts.
The reverse pyramiding strategy after means the Type 1 (slow twitch) muscle fibers will have to do more work on their own since the type 2 fibers are already taxed and exhausted. The result is a more complete workout that will help develop more complete hamstring muscles.
5. Pause on the Negative Portion of the Rep
When you’re performing any version of the leg curl, you should try this trick to really blast them hard. When you’re lowering the weight, or doing the negative, stop halfway down and hold it for a count of three.
You’re feeling the hamstring contract and are fighting the resistance of lowering the weight so by the time you reach the end of the set, you’re going to feel a real intense burn but you’ll be very connected to those hamstrings.
I don’t recommend going super-heavy with this one. If you have trouble controlling the weight, then you should have no problem going lower. There is no lying leg curl powerlifting contest. The weight you use here is not that important. Quality contractions of the muscle is.
6. Stretch and Flex Between Sets
You squeeze the pecs and flex the biceps to see the pump, right? You stretch the lats out when training back, right? You need to be doing the same with your hamstrings too.
Alternate flexing and stretching between each set. Stretch the muscles after the first set. Try to flex and contract them after the second. This is further breaking down the muscle fibers and sending that nutrient-rich blood to the area which is going to be a big factor in the way you recover.
7. Do Cardio That Emphasizes the Hamstrings
You don’t have to do this one on the day you train hamstrings but on the days you do your normal cardio, change it up to either walking uphill or on a treadmill with a high incline. The walking up will work the hamstrings a little more than traditional walking.
You can also do sprints on a track which is a version of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). Have you ever seen sprinters on a track? If so, you will notice they usually have great hamstring development. Sprinting works the hamstrings too which is why track athletes have such well-developed legs.
You don’t have to become a full-time sprinter but doing this will help you bring the back of the legs up. You’ll burn some calories too which can help you get leaner and see more definition back there.
Sample Hamstring Hacks Workout
|Standing Leg Curl||3||20, 15, 10|
|Stiff-Legged Deadlift||3||10, 8, 6|
|Lying Leg Curl*||3||10, 15, 20|
*Perform a pause on the negative of each rep.
**Alternate stretching and flex the hamstrings between each set. Stretch after one set and flex after the next.