Does this sound like you every time leg day rolls around? 🍖
You head into the gym and crush your workout plan packed with squats, leg presses, and lunges–then end the session once your thighs are on fire. Here’s some bad news: just because your legs are sore the next morning, doesn’t mean that you’ve sufficiently worked your hamstrings, the bands of muscle on the backs of your thighs.
Now, if you’re someone whose quads are visibly larger and more developed than your hammies, you might want to give this article a good read. Not only do we cover everything you need to know about your hamstrings, but we also share 3 of the best hamstrings exercises you should include in your routine.
Why should I care about my hamstrings?
First, you should know that hamstrings are typically a vulnerable area for strains and tears, especially if you have a weak hamstring to quadriceps ratio.
As such, building a well-balanced, robust posterior chain helps reduce the likelihood of injury, which can take you out of the lifting game for extended periods. And you don’t want that now, do you?
Perhaps more crucially, research shows that weak hamstrings can become a limiting factor in your strength for performing key lifts (e.g., deadlifts) and various athletic abilities (e.g., sprint performance.)
Why? Well, that’s because of the two primary functions of the hamstrings:
1. Hip extension – This is the movement that happens when you stand up straight, and your thigh and torso straighten out. For example, during the Romanian deadlift.
2. Knee flexion – Basically, anything that involves the bending of your knees. For example, during leg curls.
Why do I need to target my hamstrings separately?
We know, we know.
Leg days are already tough enough as they are. Why the need to make them even more challenging to get through by adding in hamstrings-specific exercises?
Well, that’s because, unfortunately, research shows non-optimal levels of hamstring activation during each of the popular leg day exercises:
· Back squats – It turns out that the hamstrings act as stabilizers here. Worse still, they aren't very much involved in the movement. Back squats were shown to only elicit 20% to 30% hamstrings activation; this is in stark contrast to that of the quads, which were shown to be more than 4 times more activated.
· Leg press – As with the back squats, your hamstrings once again only act as stabilizer muscles in the leg press. And your quads are also nearly 4 times more activated than your hamstrings in this exercise.
· Leg curls – Admittedly, this exercise does indeed specifically target the hamstrings. But let’s be honest. Nobody places leg curls right at the start of their leg workout. You’d usually be all tired out by the time you get to doing your leg curls, which means you’re probably not going to go all-out on these. And that takes a toll on your gains.
Over time, this neglect of your hamstrings will start to show: first, in the appearance of your legs, then in the form of strains and tears.
What exercises best target hamstrings?
#1 – Romanian deadlifts
The Romanian deadlift is very much focused on the eccentric portion of the lift, where you’re lowering the weights in a slow and controlled manner.
As it turns out, research indicates that it's precisely this portion–the eccentric strengthening part–that seems to be the most important for both enhancing athletic performance and protecting your hamstrings from any potential injuries or imbalance.
To perform the Romanian deadlifts:
1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place the barbell in front of you such that it's centered over your feet.
2. Keeping your back straight, bend at the hips and grip the barbell with an overhand grip (palms facing toward you.)
3. Lower your hips and pull the bar up by pushing the floor through your heels, and straightening the legs. This is your starting position.
4. Keeping your legs and back straight, with knees slightly bent, slowly lower the bar, pushing your hips back as far as you can—lower the bar to just below your knees.
5. Return to the starting position, pushing your hips forward and your shoulder blades back.
6. Repeat for as many repetitions as required.
#2 – Swiss ball hamstring curl
What's great about the Swiss ball hamstring curl is that not only can you do it without a machine, but it also forces the rest of your body to engage–and that means you're working your core and glutes along with your hamstrings. And let’s be honest. We’re all for time efficiency in the gym.
To perform the Swiss ball hamstring curl:
1. Lay on your back, propping your heels flat on the Swiss ball with your legs extended.
2. Keep your palms flat on the floor to brace and balance yourself.
3. Hinge at the knees to curl your legs in, simultaneously squeezing your hamstrings to bring the ball toward your butt.
4. Squeeze your hamstrings and core for a count, then straighten your knees and extend your legs to roll the ball back to the starting position.
5. Repeat for as many repetitions as required.
#3 – Glute-ham raise
If you could only do one hamstring exercise, choose the glute-ham raise. According to EMG analyses, it's been shown to elicit the highest level of hamstrings activation when compared to other exercises–including the leg curl and the Romanian deadlift! And as with the Romanian deadlift, the glute-ham raise is very much focused on the eccentric portion of the lift, which seems to be the most critical factor for strengthening your hamstrings.
To perform the glute-ham raise:
1. Get on the back extension machine and position your knees just behind the pad.
2. Lower your body in a controlled fashion by contracting your hamstrings.
3. Your head, back, and hips should all stay in a straight line as your knees gradually straighten out.
4. On the way up, curl your body up by using your hamstrings. Again, keep your upper body in a straight line.
5. Repeat for as many repetitions as required.
Now, if you find yourself always struggling with workout programming–unsure of which exercises to perform and when–you need to download the GymStreak app ASAP. Like, right now. AI-powered, this workout app will immediately provide you with a personalized workout plan that progresses, week-after-week, based on your individual fitness goals. If that isn’t cool, we don’t know what is.
Chris Beardsley on Instagram: “Even though there is good evidence that eccentric knee flexion strength training (often using the Nordic curl) can reduce hamstring strain….”(n.d.). Retrieved February 29, 2020, from https://www.instagram.com/p/Bdw9R_Rnm65/?taken-by=chrisabeardsley
Ebben, W. P. (2009). Hamstring Activation During Lower Body Resistance Training Exercises. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 4(1), 84–96. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.4.1.84
Escamilla, R. F., Fleisig, G. S., Zheng, N., Lander, J. E., Barrentine, S. W., Andrews, J. R., Bergemann, B. W., & Moorman, C. T. (2001). Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press: Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33(9), 1552–1566. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-200109000-00020
Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises. - PubMed—NCBI. (n.d.). Retrieved February 29, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24149748
(PDF) Hamstring to quadriceps strength ratio and noncontact leg injuries: A prospective study during one season. (n.d.). Retrieved February 29, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236955327_Hamstring_to_quadriceps_strength_ratio_and_noncontact_leg_injuries_A_prospective_study_during_one_season
The effects of eccentric hamstring strength training on dynamic jumping performance and isokinetic strength parameters: A pilot study on the implications for the prevention of hamstring injuries—ScienceDirect. (n.d.). Retrieved February 29, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1466853X05000350