Typically, hamstrings could easily host “The Most Neglected Muscle Group” meetings. Most trainees throw in a leg curl at the end of their leg workout and call it a day – others do not perform any specific hamstring exercise at all. The reason behind this negligence is mostly that hamstrings are not easy to show off and do not draw as much attention as a set of bulging biceps or chiselled abs.
Nevertheless, poor hamstrings development and imbalanced quadriceps-to-hamstrings strength ratio increases risk of quads and knee injuries. Therefore, even if you are not that bothered about “hammies” from the aesthetical standpoint, you should pay them your full attention from the functional perspective.
Read on to find out how to master five of the hardest hamstring exercises and turn your weakness into a strength!
The Anatomy of Hamstrings
Hamstrings are composed of three muscles:
✓ Biceps femoris – laying outside of the thigh
✓ Semitendinosus – laying inside of the thigh
✓ Semimembranosus – laying underneath semitendinosus.
The major function of the hamstrings is both knee flexion, where knee bends (e.g. leg curls) and hip extension, where hips travel backward (e.g. stiff-legged deadlift). Therefore, in order to maximally stimulate this muscle group both types of movement need to be incorporated into your training programme.
It should also be noted, that muscles making up the hamstrings can be specifically targeted by varying your feet position in exercises:
✓ Feet turned inward will focus on the internal part of the hamstrings (semis),
✓ Feet turned outward will focus on the external part of the hamstring (biceps femoris).
You can also work your hamstrings at different lengths and angles. These will be covered in the review of five hardest hamstring exercises below.
Time to ham it up!
1) Stiff-Leg Deadlift
The old school compound movement for hamstrings, glutes and back mass. This exercise is all about the stretch – heavy load combined with slow negatives will make your hamstring scream for mercy.
The drawback is that after a while stiff-leg deadlift will take its toll on your spinal erectors, making it difficult to keep the back flat. This may lead to injuries; hence perfect form is a must. Do not get fixated on going as heavy as you can until you nail the form down and learn to engage more hamstrings than back.
✓ Stand facing the barbell with your feet shoulder width apart.
✓ Contract your abdominals, push your chest up keeping your back straight and bend your knees until you can reach the bar.
✓ Grab the bar with a pronated grip (thumbs facing each other), make sure that your grip is slightly wider than shoulder width – use the rings on the bar as a point of reference, to ensure that your grip is even.
✓ Make sure that your grip is tight, your abdominals and lower back contracted, chest lifted up and back straight. Fix your eyes on a point in front of you, inhale and hold your breath.
a) Start lifting the bar by extending your hips – the motion resembles a hip thrust. Your legs should be slightly bent but remain rigid throughout the movement.
b) Once your hips are fully extended contract your glutes and stop the movement before extending your back – exhale and hold for 2 seconds, squeezing your glutes and hamstrings.
c) In a controlled manner, lower the barbell down by flexing your hips. While doing so maintain correct posture – keeping head up, back straight, chest pushed up and abdominals contracted.
d) Just before the bar touches the floor pause for 2 seconds, allowing your hamstrings to stretch, before inhaling and slowly returning to starting position – remember to keep your legs rigid.
Sets and Reps: 3-4 sets, with weight pyramid up for 12, 10, 8-6 reps
2) Back Extensions
Depending on how you perform this exercise, it can engage mostly your hamstrings or spinal erectors. Getting to know this fine line may be somewhat hard but you won’t regret the effort spent learning.
Back extensions can be a very effective hip flexion movement, which won’t beat up your central nervous system as easily as deadlifts. It also allow to rep out some large numbers, stimulating the slow twitch muscle fibres and causing a great deal of metabolic stress.
✓ Set up the pad of the back extension bench to be roughly 2-4 inches below the hips.
✓ Lay down on the bench, tucking your heels under the footpads.
✓ Cross your arms over your chest and push your chest up so that your back is flat.
a) Keeping your legs fairly rigid, slowly lower yourself down by pushing your hips back and focusing on the hamstring stretch.
b) Go as low as possible without feeling any pain (slight discomfort is okay) and hold the stretch for 2 seconds.
c) Shove your heels back into the footpads and contract your glutes to bring your torso back up.
d) Stop the movement before your back aligns with your hips – you want to be slightly bent forward, keeping tension on the hamstrings and glutes – hold the contraction for 2 seconds before returning to starting position.
Sets and Reps: 3-5 sets till failure
3) Floor Glute-Ham Raise
This exercise fires up your entire back-side: hamstrings, glutes, calves and back included! You will most likely not need any other weight than your own to get a taste of hamstring burn. The movement will also force you to slow down on the negatives …unless you want to hit the floor like a wet mop.
Glute-ham raise can be performed on a specialised bench or off the floor with a help of a spotter, or by bracing your feet under something (e.g. locked and lowered smith machine bar). Seeing as many commercial gyms do not have glute-ham raise bench, we will focus on the “floor” variation.
✓ Kneel down on the floor and have a spotter grab your ankles and press them towards the floor.
✓ Align your back with your hips and cross your arms over your chest.
Beginners: flex your toes toward your knees (as seen on the photograph) to engage your calves and make the movement easier.
Intermediates/Advanced: keep your toes straight to take the calves out of equation, make the movement more difficult and isolate the hamstrings more.
a) Contract your glutes and slowly lower yourself down by extending your knees NOT flexing your hips.
b) As your reach the floor, place your arms in front of you to stop yourself from falling.
c) Lightly push yourself off the floor, flexing your knees – focusing on contracting your hamstrings and glutes – your back should be kept flat and fairly rigid.
d) Stop the movement before losing tension in your hamstring and glutes and hold the contraction for a second before returning to starting position
Sets and Reps: 3-5 sets till failure
4) Seated Leg Curls
If performed correctly, this exercise is the only leg curls variations, which works the hamstring at optimal length – stretching the upper part of the hamstrings while contracting the lower part. Getting the most out of seated leg curls will require few tweaks described below.
Give it a go and decide yourself if this movement rightfully ended up on “the hardest hamstring exercises” list.
Most modern seated leg curls machines will allow you to adjust the backrest, the height of the level and distance of the lever padding, and:
– Set the backrest so that your knees are aligned with the hinge of the lever and height of the level so that your hamstrings are short of fully stretching.
– Set the lever padding so that it will be few inches below your calves.
– Lock the lap pad against your thighs.
✓ Place your hands on the lap pad but do not squeeze the handles – you will fatigue quicker without any hamstring benefit.
✓ Sit back but do not press your back against the backrest
a) Bring your feet as far back as possible while contracting your hamstrings and lean forward to form a 45° between your torso and the floor
b) Hold the contraction for 2 seconds.
c) Slowly, in a controlled manner, return to the starting position, not allowing the weight stacks to touch.
d) Hold the stretch for a second before carrying on the reps
Sets and Reps: 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps
5) Lying Leg Curls
One more hamstring curls exercise, which can be more optimal (and hard) with some tweaking. Unlike standing leg curls this movement will allow for greater range of motion – at least in most cases, depending on how the machines are designed.
You should also know that, lying leg curls work hamstrings in a shortened position and enable exercising one leg at the time as well as easy adjustment of feet positioning.
✓ Adjust the machine to your height, so that your knees are at the hinge level and the lever padding is few inches below your calves.
✓ Lay face down on the machine and focus on driving your pelvis into the bench to prevent you from lifting your buttocks
a) Grab the handles for better stability and again remember not to squeeze them too tightly.
b) Bring your heels back as far as possible, without arching your back or lifting your buttocks up.
c) Squeeze your hamstrings and hold the contraction for a second.
d) Lower the weight down in a slow, controlled manner and pause for a second at the bottom of the movement, stretching the muscles.
Sets and Reps: 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps
Sample Training Plan
|Hamstrings Workout Plan|
|Seated Leg Curls||3 x 10|
|Lying Leg Curls||3 x 6-8|
|Glute-Ham Raise||3 x failure|
|Side Lateral Raises||3 x 10|
|Stiff-Leg Deadlift||3 x 12, 10, 8|
Take Home Message
Considering the physiological role of this muscle group, properly designed hamstring workout should include both hips extension (e.g. deadlift) and knee flexion (e.g. leg curls) movements. The former can be troublesome for beginners as it also engages back muscles.
Simply put, if your lower back gives up before your hamstrings you are not doing it right!
All leg curls variations also require really strict form for optimal hamstring stimulation. Therefore, focus on the correct technique before breaking gym records. Give a go to our sample hamstrings-only training programme and let us know if you can still fit in your pants!