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When exercising, we tend to focus on appearance and utility. Which muscles will make us look good? Which muscles do we need to perform at our peak? Chasing six-pack abs and shredded arms might be appealing, but there’s a case to be made for focusing more on our most fragile muscles, the ones that are most susceptible to damage. The only way to prevent these vulnerable muscles from tearing is to avoid sports entirely or work them out and build them up. That’s why we’re going to highlight some of our favorite exercises for hamstrings, the three stringy muscles on the back of the thigh that should get plenty of love on your next leg day.
Hamstrings run from your hip bone to your knee, and they are essential to the bending of the knee and rotation of the lower leg inward and outward. They also stabilize your knee and assist with hip extension, which moves your upper leg, and basically serve as the yin to the yang of your quadriceps, much like the bicep and tricep muscles. This might not sound that important, but functionally, hamstrings help you walk, run, jump, squat, climb steps, move from sitting to standing and everything in between. Because they’re involved in all this leg work, if your hamstrings aren’t flexible, hydrated or strong, they can tear easily if pushed to an extreme.
We figure you’ve already got the flexibility and hydration parts covered (and if not, it’s worth taking a look at our articles on the best water bottles and best yoga mats), so we wanted to fill in the exercise blanks so you can understand how to bring your hamstrings into your workout routine. And if you’re really trying to drill down on the workout data, don’t forget to grab a smart scale so you can track your progress.
We’re going to briefly walk through what the three hamstring muscles are, just for knowledge’s sake, and then we’ll run through some hamstring exercises and some helpful exercise equipment.
The Main Hamstring Muscles
As the countering muscle to quadriceps, hamstrings basically help control, stabilize and slow down the extension and flexion, or bending, of your hips and knees. Medical websites will have more in-depth breakdowns, but for our purposes, the takeaway is that the hamstring muscles work together to help control your gait when you’re running and slow down the legs before contacting the ground. The bicep femoris muscle helps with this deceleration of your hip and knee and the internal rotation of your knee. The semitendinosus muscle does the same thing and slows the external rotation of your knee. The semimembranosus muscle, unsurprisingly, does the same thing and also helps slow down external knee rotation.
Putting this all together, if you didn’t have your hamstrings basically holding your knees in place, every time you planted your foot while running, your knees could bust out in whichever direction that had additional force, which would make seamless running impossible. Yup, it’s marvelous how human bodies are designed for walking and running upright indeed.
Because hamstrings all work together and all run from your hip to your knee, there isn’t much specific muscle targeting you can do with them, unlike other muscle groups. But each of the following hamstring exercises works to bend your knees and extend your hips, both of which will stress your hamstrings and strengthen them over time, and most of these exercises will also work your glutes, which help with hip extension too. Before we get into the instructions, keep the following in mind:
- Begin with some basic hamstring stretches to warm up your legs. Because these exercises are essentially stretching and contracting your hamstrings with weight on top, a little warm-up can go a long way to prevent injury here. You could go up and down the stairs a few times, or just do a few of the exercises below without any weight.
- You don’t need to do all of these hamstring exercises all the time. Find a couple that you like and add them to your leg day routine.
- Start off with lighter weights than you think you need. It’s important to master the exercise form before you can really start to test the muscles and the last thing you want is a muscle tear. (The recovery period for torn hamstrings is also lengthy, painful and all-around terrible.)
- We generally recommend doing three sets of 10 reps for each exercise, but ultimately the sets and reps are up to you. We like those numbers because they tend to be pretty exhaustive and because they’re easily trackable as you increase the weight you’re using.
- For the most part, the following hamstring exercises can be done at home with some basic equipment that we’ve included at the bottom. But a gym will also have everything you need.
- Listen to your body. You should feel some tension and stress when performing exercises, but if you start to feel pain, that’s a strong signal you should stop.
Now that we know a little bit about the importance and function of hamstrings, let’s (safely!) jump into a few exercises.
The Best Hamstring Exercises
1. Dumbbell or Barbell Deadlift
Widely considered one of the best full-body exercises you can do, the deadlift works virtually all of the muscles in your legs, including your hamstrings. The traditional barbell deadlift makes it easy to ramp up the weight and hit a new personal record, but you can easily perform deadlifts with a good pair of dumbbells as well.
Stand with your hips shoulder-width apart, with a dumbbell in each hand (or gripping a barbell). With your back straight and arms relaxed, slowly bend forward and lower the weights to your knees or past your knees as your body permits. Keep your eyes looking forward and let your knees bend as you lower your back to the point where it’s nearly parallel with the ground. Slowly (but not too slowly) reverse the motion to return to the starting position to complete one rep.
2. Stiff Leg Deadlift
Often called the straight leg deadlift, this exercise offers a hamstring-strengthening twist on its classic counterpart. While the standard deadlift is great for strengthening your lower back and entire lower body, the straight-legged variation will really target those hamstrings. Straightening the legs essentially blocks your quadriceps from helping with the movement, forcing your hamstrings to handle much of the heavy lifting. And, as we said, hamstrings’ injury-prone nature means you should properly stretch and warm-up before tackling an exercise like this one.
To tackle the stiff leg deadlift, grab a barbell as you would with a classic deadlift, with your feet at shoulder-width apart and a standard grip. Hinge at the waist and bend over until the barbell reaches the ground, keeping your legs straight and spine neutral throughout. You should feel a strong stretch in your hamstrings.
3. Glute Bridge
Though the name suggests this exercise is great for building glute strength, it also engages the hamstrings and marks one of the best hamstring exercises you can do at home. Lie down on the ground. We highly recommend using a yoga mat for comfort and to prevent slippage here, but it’s not strictly necessary. Bend your knees and put your feet on the floor like you’re going to do a crunch. Place the dumbbells on each leg in the areas where your thigh muscles meet your hips. Alternatively, if you have a barbell or weighted bar, place it across that area when you lie down. Now push off your heels and lift your hips up to the point where your legs, hips and chest are one sloped line. Hold for a second, flexing your glutes and core, and slowly reverse the motion back to the floor for one rep.
4. Single-Leg Glute Bridge
Now that you’ve perfected the glute bridge, let’s make it a little trickier. Performing one-legged exercises helps ensure your strength is distributed evenly between your two legs and creates an added challenge thanks to the lack of stability.
Without dumbbells at your sides, assume the glute bridge position with your knees bent and place your hands flat on the ground. Raise and straighten one leg, let’s say, your right leg, and point your heel outward. If 3 o’clock means your leg is parallel to the ground, you want your leg pointed toward 1 o’clock here. Hold your leg in that position and perform the glute bridge by pushing off your left heel and lifting your hips. Hold the position for a half-second before lowering your hips back down and keeping your right leg pointed for one rep. For extra difficulty, try to engage your core and not let your butt rest on the floor between reps.
5. Hamstring Curls
True to its name, the hamstring curl is one of the most effective hamstring isolation exercises. While it’s most commonly performed on a hamstring curl machine, hamstring curls are easily adapted to other gear around the gym, like a resistance band or (in this case) the cable machine.
To perform a standing hamstring curl, secure an ankle attachment to the cable machine, and position the pulley at its lowest setting. Stand with your legs narrower than shoulder width, flex your ankle so your foot angles upwards, then slowly bend at the knee, using your hamstring to curl your foot toward your butt. Return to the starting position and repeat for reps on each leg.
6. Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
As we mentioned, there are a ton of different hamstring curl variations, from the seated hamstring curl to the dumbbell hamstring curl. If those aren’t your vibe, try this hamstring curl on an exercise ball. Don’t be fooled by the lack of weight — tackling this exercise on a shaky exercise ball means your hamstrings need to work hard to keep things steady.
Lay flat on tour back with your legs extended and your heels resting on a medium-sized exercise ball. Drive your butt upwards to reach the bridge position, then drive your heels into the ball to pull it towards you. Want to make this even harder? Try doing it with only one leg.
7. Dumbbell or Kettlebell Sumo Squat
Another fantastic leg workout that’s bound to get your hamstrings fired up, the sumo squat implements a wider stance than a standard back squat, allowing you to drop deeper into the squat more easily, and target certain muscles more effectively.
Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width with your toes pointed outward at about a 45-degree angle. With your arms fully extended downward, hold a dumbbell vertically with both hands or a kettlebell in the middle of your body. Bend your knees and lower your hips until your thighs are more or less parallel to the ground. Your butt should be at or just below the level of your knees. Keep your eyes facing forward, which helps keep your back straight. Once you reach that point, flex your legs and glutes and push off your heels back up to standing position for one rep.
The Best Workout Gear for Hamstring Exercises
1. CAP Barbell Adjustable Dumbbell Set
This set of adjustable CAP barbells makes for a great addition to your home workout equipment. The set comes with two handles, four 2.5-pound plates and four five-pound plates. The plates are cast iron so they’re durable and low-maintenance. We’re sure you’ll find you can use them for any number of exercises without a hitch. Try them out on dumbbell variations of stiff leg deadlifts, or for added weight on a glute bridge.
2. Heathyoga Eco-Friendly Non-Slip Yoga Mat
Everybody needs a good yoga mat because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt to have a cushion to protect your body and your floor. Heathyoga’s Yoga Mat is non-slip on both sides, so you can safely exercise on it, and it’s eco-friendly too. That means no latex or PVC or unexpected metals. Not only is that good for the environment, but the thermoplastic rubber material doesn’t have that funky plastic smell and also won’t take on your smells after a hard workout (though we still recommend you clean your mat, just in case).
3. Yes4All Set of 3 Weighted Bars 10lbs, 15lbs, 20lbs
For hamstring exercises, you don’t need a heavy metal Olympic barbell. A simple weighted bar will do the trick. That’s why we recommend Yes4All’s Set of Weighted Bars. This set comes with three bars, in 10, 15 and 20 pounds, so you can comfortably add some weight to your glute bridges, and these bars are made from steel and covered with a rubber-coated foam for comfort and less slippage.
4. AmazonBasics Cast Iron Kettlebell Weight, 15lbs
This 15-pound kettlebell from AmazonBasics will get the job done. It’s made from high-quality cast iron and painted for extra durability, so it’ll last forever as long you don’t throw it off your roof. It’s got a nice long textured grip for easy one-hand or two-hand handling. If 15 pounds seems too heavy for you, you can also pick up an identical kettlebell in 10 pounds.
5. URBNFit Exercise Ball
A good exercise ball is one of the most versatile fitness tools you can own (there’s a reason some folks use an exercise ball in lieu of a desk chair). Great for building strength, an exercise ball is critical to performing the stability ball leg curl we outlined earlier. This exercise ball from URBNFit is made from sturdy PVC with an anti-slip coating to ensure things remain safe during your workout. It comes in 11 colors and four sizes.