I like to call the hamstrings the “triceps” of the upper leg.
The reason why is they’re located on the posterior side of the thigh, and are a significant player in a full, rounded out development of the leg.
Without them, the leg will just never look as developed.
Knowing the way the body works, combined with a look into anecdote, I’ll provide my favorite exercises to blast the hams. But first, it’s important I bring you all up to speed.
The Hamstrings: A Biomechanics Lesson
The hamstrings are made up of 3 muscles on the back of the thigh – not just 1. They contract downwards (towards the floor) and are involved in a few major movements, including:
- Hip extension: They assist the “hinge pattern”
- Medial (inward) rotation: They rotate the thigh inward when the knee is bent
- Knee Flexion: They help the knee bend.
Knowing this can be the X factor for choosing the movements to hit them the hardest. Without further ado, here are my hamstring choices:
Exercise 1: Romanian Deadlift
It’s no surprise that the RDL landed a spot on this list. It’s probably the most direct hip extension movement that isolates the hamstrings through an aggressive lengthening phase, and torches the muscles in the process.
The RDL is performed with basically the same cues as the conventional deadlift, the only difference being the legs are held slightly straighter (NOTE: This is not the same as a stiff-legged deadlift, which I don’t recommend performing due to joint stress and hypermobility contraindications at the knee).
For a visual, check out the video below:
Moreover, you may have noticed a couple of things by watching this. First of all, my back position approaching rep number 1 may not have appeared “perfect”. Second, I was performing the RDL using a full range of motion, rather than applying the often used “knee level” cue.
The reason to sum up both of these issues is the use of a loaded stretch. Using it to your advantage can be a game changer for your RDL both in its function, and in your performance.
Allow me to explain in this video:
Exercise 2: Straight Leg Hip Thrust
When this exercise is done properly, it’s one of the most brutal hamstring developers ever made. The problem is, most people perform them poorly, and even more coaches cue them poorly. To do them well, follow these instructions:
- Set up a bench, box, or other sturdy surface at a height that works for your strength (the higher you go, the harder it’ll get).
- Lie on your back, with one heel on that surface. Make sure the other leg is free to move and won’t catch the bench or box.
- Place the hands and arms by your sides and drive the heel into the box. It’s okay to tuck the free knee into your chest as you do this.
- Be sure to keep the working leg straight. It’s easy to bend at the knee and avoid a full hip extension. Squeeze the glute on the working side to ensure a full extension.
- Enforce a slow lowering phase, hinging at the hips to do it.
For a visual, see below:
Exercise 3: Eccentric Glute Hamstring Raise
The thing about knee flexion is that it’s less important to look at from a functional perspective compared to hip extension when considering the hamstrings and their roles. With that said, one smart move regarding them is to train that capacity through negative reps.
Eccentric training targets the strongest fast-twitch muscle fibers in the body, and thanks to their roles of leg deceleration for athletes (think of sprinting), many benefits are derived from training this capacity to become stronger and more efficient.
Doing an eccentric version of the glute hamstring raise has a few benefits. Not only is it harder, but it also requires no specific machine to get the job done – which is good news since in most gyms, the GHR apparatus is hard to come by. Secure your heels under any stable object, and make sure your knees have a soft cushion underneath.
Next, stay tall and resist the “falling” phase until you reach the floor. Set your hands up in a push up position for every rep, and assist the concentric rep by pushing yourself up to the top.
This movement usually fatigues quickly, so using sets of no more than 8 reps has been a good directive, in my experience.
You Can Still Curl
Just to reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with hamstring curls. Especially as an isolated bodybuilding exercise, they’re fine to incorporate into your program. I prefer to use them as a finisher.
As far as balance, closed-chain exercise, and muscle co-contractions go, however, there are better options that make sense to prioritize.
Don’t be a guy who only works his “mirror muscles” like the biceps, chest, abs, and quads. Hitting up the posterior chain won’t only do wonders for your development, it’ll also make you a much stronger individual at significantly lower risk for injury.
Think about day-to-day living: Muscles that pull already get much less attention in general life compared to those that push, and for that reason, imbalances begin in the first place.
Having strong hamstrings can solve chronic pain in areas like the hips and back, and be a physique saver. Do the right thing, and soon you’ll fill out your jeans without shopping for them at Baby Gap.