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The hamstring muscles make up part of your posterior chain and activate during hip extension and when flexing the knee joint.
The muscle, which is located to the back of your thigh, comprises of three smaller muscles;
- Biceps Femoris
They work together with other muscle groups including the quadriceps, glutes and calves allowing for movement of the lower body.
A hamstring injury can be quite common, especially amongst those with weak hamstrings. This is often due to inactivity and sitting down for long periods.
Recommended Reading – 5 Ways To Overcome Lower Back Pain While Squatting During Workouts
When they become weak this can result in muscle imbalances which lead to conditions such as pain to the lower back.
This highlights the importance of building strong hamstrings.
In this article we’ll suggest some of the best hamstring exercises you can incorporate into your workout routine to help increase strength and flexibility.
Hamstring Strength Exercise Benefits
Let’s look at some of the benefits to be had when developing hamstring strength.
When we spend many hours of our day sitting, this may cause muscles to the back of the thigh to retract resulting in tight hamstrings.
This tightness limits normal curvature of the lumbar spine meaning that the lower back starts to round.
However, strong hamstrings can better support the pelvis which in turns allows you to adopt a more upright position when both sitting and standing.
Improved Athletic Performance
Strong hamstrings can help you to run faster and jump higher.
During sports such as sprinting and American football, acceleration and deceleration are important.
Both of which allow an athlete to perform explosive movements such as powering off from the ground and changing direction quickly.
By improving hamstring strength you can limit your risk of injury.
Not just to the hamstrings themselves but also to the surrounding muscles and joints.
It’s important to remember that a well balanced leg workout prevents muscle imbalances and be sure to also work the quads, glutes and calf muscles for best results.
Increased Range Of Motion
When your hamstrings are strong they increase stability to the knee joint and hip joint.
When these joints are supported by strong muscles they function better and allow for a broader range of motion which can help with activities encountered during everyday life.
6 Recommended Hamstring Strength Exercises
Consider adding some of the below exercise in your leg day workout for maximum hamstring gains.
Lying Hamstring Curl
The lying leg curl is an isolation movement performed on a machine.
When compared to the standing leg curl it allows for a full range of motion. As it supports your upper body it removes the need for your core muscles to help stabilise you during the exercise.
When using a machine you can perform the exercise either unilaterally (one leg at a time) or bilaterally (both feet at once).
If you don’t have access to a machine you can perform this exercise by lying in a prone position on a weight bench and holding a dumbbell between your ankles. Set up on the machine is vital for proper form.
How To Perform A Lying Leg Curl Exercise:
- Set up the machine so that the foot roller is positioned just above the back of your ankles.
- Your knee should be in line with the pivot joint of the machine.
- From here, drive your pelvis into the pad and squeeze your shoulder blades together to engage your lats. This is your starting position.
- Using knee flexion, drive your feet towards your glutes going as far as your range of motion will allow.
- Slowly and with control, lower your feet back to the start and repeat for the desired number of reps.
Stiff Leg Deadlift
During a conventional deadlift the user will execute the movement with a slight bend to the knees.
This variation allows you to lift more weight as activation of the quads comes into play but it also places much less stress on the lower back.
However, as the stiff leg deadlift is a hip hinge movement the legs remain straight throughout which places more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings.
Whilst you won’t be able to deadlift your maximum weight load, this variation is the best way of putting more resistance on to the hamstrings.
When performing the stiff leg variation, you should feel a significant stretch down the back of your legs.
If you find the exercise a little too difficult you could opt for Romanian deadlifts.
These are performed in the same way but instead of lowering the barbell all the way to the floor, you stop at around shin height. This reduces the range of motion making it slightly easier to perform.
How To Execute A Stiff Legged Deadlift:
- Start in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart and just under the barbell.
- Hinge forward at the hips and grab hold of the bar with both hands at shoulder width apart.
- Retract your shoulder blades and lock out your knees.
- Drive your hips forward until you are back to a standing position.
- Now lower the bar back to the ground but keep your legs straight throughout.
- At the bottom of the exercise your upper body should be parallel to the floor.
- Repeat this movement to complete your repetitions.
Good Morning Exercise
The good morning exercise is a movement that involves hinging at the hip joint.
It can be performed with a slight bend to the knees or by keeping the legs straight. Keeping the legs straight will help to lengthen the hamstrings, increasing the activation.
Aside from working the hamstrings, it will also target the glutes and lower back muscles.
How To Do The Good Morning Exercise:
- Stand with feet hip-width apart with a barbell resting across your traps.
- From here bend the torso forwards and push back the glutes.
- Keep your shoulders retracted and chin tucked in to help your spine stay aligned.
- Pause when your upper body is approximately parallel and then return back to the start.
The kettlebell swing is an all over body workout with most activation taking place to muscles down the posterior chain. It’s a combination of a hip hinge and hip thrust movement.
Limited equipment is required, just a kettlebell, making them a great option for home workouts.
As the exercise is performed as a continuous motion, it’s also a great way of improving stability and flexibility and can even increase your heart rate helping with cardiovascular strength and fat burning.
Proper form is important to prevent injury so be sure you don’t allow your lower back to round during the exercise.
How To Perform The Kettlebell Swing:
- Start by standing upright with your feet shoulder width apart with toes pointing slightly out and place the kettlebell between your ankles.
- Push back your glutes and squat down, taking hold of the kettlebell with both hands. Your palms should be facing towards you.
- Squeeze your upper arms towards your body as this will help you to maintain the position as you swing.
- Push through your heels and stand upright, be sure to keep your arms relaxed.
- Start to swing the kettlebell backwards and forwards so that you can gain momentum.
- Use your glutes to power up and lock out at the hips before allowing the kettlebell to swing back down and between your knees.
Nordic Hamstring Curl
Nordic hamstring curls are a challenging exercise that builds strength and muscle mass to the lower body, specifically targeting the hamstrings and gluteal muscles.
It’s a popular exercise amongst powerlifters as it helps to significantly increase strength to the posterior chain muscles offering great carryover to squats and deadlift.
This increase in strength also means the hamstrings are much less prone to injuries such as a hamstring tear.
When compared to the glute ham raise exercise it’s slightly different as there is no hip extension. This means there is greater activation of the hamstring muscles.
You can perform the exercise using a dedicated Nordic curl bench or simply have someone support your ankles during the movement to help provide stability.
If you find performing the exercise with a full range of motion very difficult, you can focus on the eccentric portion of the movement.
As you lower yourself towards the ground, maintain control for as long as possible before catching yourself at the bottom.
How To Perform A Nordic Curl Exercise:
- Start off in a kneeling position and make sure that your knees are directly beneath your hips.
- If you’re not using a bench, you’ll need to ask someone to hold on to your ankles or use some other means of support.
- Cross your arms over your chest. This is your starting position.
- Using just knee extension, slowly lower yourself towards the ground. Ensure your body remains in a straight line.
- Aim to get as low as possible before raising back up to the start.
Swiss Ball Hamstring Curl
The ball curl exercise is a great way of strengthening the hamstrings without overloading them and also keeps stress away from the lower back.
This is another good home exercise as all you need is an exercise ball. If you can, aim to use a ball that has a diameter of around 60cm.
Aside from working the hamstrings, it also targets the calf muscles and helps to engage the core promoting good stability.
How To Do The Swiss Ball Curl:
- Begin by lying down on the floor with your arms down by your sides, palms face down.
- Position your lower leg and heels on the ball.
- Engage your core and raise your hips away from the ground until your body forms a straight line from your neck to your ankles.
- Flex your knees and begin to roll the ball towards your glutes. Make sure to keep your hips off the ground.
- Pause briefly and then roll the ball back to the start.
- Reset your hip position before repeating.
Importance of Stretching the Hamstrings
Stretching should be done both before and after strength training.
If you attempt to lift heavy weights without warming up the muscles then you risk tearing the muscle fibers. This is especially true if you have tight hamstrings.
During exercise this muscle group stretches significantly and contracts in order to straighten the pelvis. Whilst not extensive, it does make hamstring injuries more likely.
Take care to perform stretches gently and avoid excessive stretching as this could result in injury and inflammation.
Seated Hamstring Stretch
- Sit on the edge of a chair with one leg outstretched, carefully lean forwards with both hands towards the toes of the outstretched leg.
- Maintain this position for at least 10 seconds and then switch to the other leg.
Lying Hamstring Stretch
- Lying on a bed of the floor, start with both legs outstretched.
- Bend your left knee and bring it towards your chest.
- Using both hands, hold on to the back of your thigh then straighten out your leg so that your foot points towards the ceiling.
- Hold for a count of 10 before switching to the other leg.
Standing Hamstring Stretch
- Stand in front of a coffee table or step and place the heel of one leg on it
- Keeping your back straight bend forwards at the hips so you feel a nice stretch to your hamstrings.
- Hold this for at least 10 seconds and this switch to stretch out the other leg.
As the hamstrings are connected to your knees and hips, they can directly impact lower back health.
Keeping them strong not only makes everyday activities easier to undertake but can also help to provide better support to the surrounding joints improving mobility and stability.
The recommended hamstring strength exercises above will help to increase muscle mass and strength to the hamstrings with some being easier to perform than others.
If you’re new to strength training, always seek the advice of a personal trainer who can put together a suitable workout program factoring in your goals and abilities.