Ready to give your hamstrings the attention they deserve?
For many athletes and gym-goers, the hamstrings can lag behind the quads in development, but with these 6 exercises you'll be on your way to achieving a well-balanced, powerful set of legs.
If you haven't yet, be sure to read our primer on hamstring anatomy and hypertrophy.
Let's dive into some of the best exercises for hamstring power and growth.
The Dynamic Warm-up
Regardless of what hamstring exercises you’re doing, you can’t go wrong with performing a dynamic warm-up prior. You don’t necessarily have to perform ALL of these exercises, however, it gives you plenty of ideas and options to warm-up the hamstrings and the posterior chain. There are hip-bias and knee-bias movements to choose from depending on if you’re doing hip extension or knee flexion focused exercises.
Stiff Leg Or Romanian Deadlift For Hamstring Development?
What deadlift variation should you perform for bigger and stronger hamstrings?
In this video, Arash demonstrates both movements on a force plate, which allows you to analyze lever arms (he is also going a bit lower with the RDL than we described earlier).
The lever arms for the hip and the knee are perpendicular horizontal lines that you would draw from the yellow vertical line to the hip versus another line to the knee. In simple terms, a longer lever arm (longer line) means more demand on a muscle at that joint. This is just one person performing the lift, depending on the body type, build, and the way the movement occurs, other people may activate muscles differently, but it is still interesting to take a look! Below we break it down with some evidence to support it.
Although the differences between these two deadlift variations are very subtle, one study by Ono et al. 2011 found the stiff legged deadlift demonstrates activation in the hamstrings alone. The stiff leg deadlift maximally stretches the hamstring, and creates more leverage at the hip and knee. Meanwhile, during the Romanian Deadlift example, you can see the orange line go right through the knee joint and pass in front of the knee cap. This allows the Romanian Deadlift to get help from the quadriceps and glutes reducing overall domand on the hamstrings.
If your goal is to lift the most amount of weight, the Romanian deadlift is favored by decreasing the lever arm for the back extensors (paraspinals) and increasing the lever arm for the hip extensors (glutes) and knee extensors (quads), which have greater torque producing capabilities compared to the paraspinals.
However the Stiff Leg Deadlift more fully isolates the hamstring, so if your goal is hamstring hypertrophy and growth, that'll be the best bang for your buck even though you may be lifting less total weight.
If you think back to the first time you did deadlifts, you might remember how brutally sore your hamstrings were for days. This is because deadlifts demand a huge eccentric muscle contraction from the hamstrings, which causes microtears in the tissue and is associated with Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).
All deadlifts (conventional, sumo, RDL, stiff-legged deadlift, and unilateral stiff-legged deadlift) have been noted in research to produce relatively high levels of hamstring activation. It is worth noting deadlifts are an excellent posterior chain exercise as well. Below we will review a few deadlift variations along with their differences and some interesting notes to mention.
Conventional Barbell Deadlift
The conventional barbell deadlift is a great bang for your back posterior chain exercise. You’re going to get a lot of hamstring, glute, and paraspinal muscle activation. However, the opportunity to really maximize hamstring activation is during the eccentric portion of the lift. Slow it down lowering the bar and increase time under tension - really exhaust your hip hinge range of motion and perform tap-and-go deadlifts as shown in the video above versus performing the lift and slamming the bar down. You’ll feel your hamstrings for a few days!
Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
A staple posterior chain exercise, the Romanian Deadlift (RDL) typically refers to performing a deadlift with the weight stopping just below the knee versus touching the ground by performing a hip hinge motion with the knees slightly bent (defined by most at least). With this exercise, you can really focus on the eccentric portion and loading up the hamstrings big time. If you have a hard time doing RDLs, check out the video below to build up your RDL capacity!
Kettlebell swings when performed correctly will absolutely thrash your posterior chain, especially your hamstrings and your glutes. Kettlebell swings are different than deadlifts because there is a velocity component to the movement, which increases overall motor unit recruitment and fast-twitch (type 2) muscle fiber recruitment. Also slowing the kettlebell down as you lower into a hinge demands a very large eccentric muscle contraction! Kettlebell swings are great for hamstring development because when you primarily focus on a hip hinge to drive the movement, you’re going to get a large lever arm at the hips. Watch the video and you’ll see I am performing a kettlebell swing on a force plate. If you were to pause the video when my trunk is parallel to the ground and draw a perpendicular line from the yellow line to my hip versus another line to my knee, the line that goes to my hip is significantly longer. That is why kettlebell swings are a hip extension focused hamstring exercise versus a knee flexion exercise. Check out the video below to get tips on how to perform your first kettlebell swing!
45˚ Back Extension
The 45 ̊ Back Extension is a great machine-assisted hip extension exercise. The set-up of the pads is key, you want clearance right above your hips so that you can fold over the pads to get max hip flexion to put the hamstrings on stretch. Another key tip I have found to feel your hamstrings more is to position your feet close together, have your feet face 12 o'clock, and focus on pushing back through your heels and keeping the inside of your feet down - don't let your big toe lift off the ground. Also, to isolate your hamstrings more and get less help from your back, keep your head and eyes looking down so that your trunk lags as you lift up. There is no doubt you will feel the burn in your hamstrings!That's all for now. Get out there and crush your next leg day, and make sure to take a well-balanced approach to training your legs.
Stay tuned for our next article. We'll introduce you to 6 more hamstring exercises you may have never done, but are an amazing addition to any leg-day.
- Ono T, Higashihara A, Fukubayashi T. Hamstring functions during hip- 47 extension exercise assessed with electromyography and magnetic resonance imaging. Res Sports Med. 2011 Jan; 19(1): 42-52.
- Presland, J., et al. “The Effect of High or Low Volume Nordic Hamstring Exercise Training on Eccentric Strength and Biceps Femoris Long Head Architectural Adaptations.” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, vol. 20, 2017, p. 12., doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2017.09.213.
𝙏𝙝𝙚 𝙋𝙧𝙚𝙝𝙖𝙗 𝙂𝙪𝙮𝙨 𝙞𝙨 𝙖𝙣 𝙚𝙙𝙪𝙘𝙖𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙖𝙡 𝙥𝙡𝙖𝙩𝙛𝙤𝙧𝙢 𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙩𝙚𝙖𝙘𝙝𝙚𝙨 𝙥𝙚𝙤𝙥𝙡𝙚 𝙝𝙤𝙬 𝙩𝙤 𝙩𝙖𝙠𝙚 𝙘𝙤𝙣𝙩𝙧𝙤𝙡 𝙤𝙛 𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙞𝙧 𝙤𝙬𝙣 𝙝𝙚𝙖𝙡𝙩𝙝 𝙩𝙝𝙧𝙤𝙪𝙜𝙝 𝙤𝙣𝙡𝙞𝙣𝙚 𝙥𝙝𝙮𝙨𝙞𝙘𝙖𝙡 𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙮.