If you have weak hamstrings, then there’s a strong chance you’re not maxing out on your strength potential for squats and deadlifts. Plus, lack of hamstring eccentric strength is a known cause of hamstrings strains. Paying attention to them is great for performance, aesthetics, and injury prevention. Add these six movements to your next leg day for power and strength and if you want to build strong hamstrings and glutes.
Since the hamstrings are extensors at the hip and flexors at the knees, they play an important role in your performance, so it pays to train both ways. With some help from multi-powerlifting world record holder Dr. Stefi Cohen, we break down the best hamstring exercises below for performance, strength, and hypertrophy.
Best Hamstring Exercises
Lying Leg Curl
The lying leg curl is underappreciated, and it’s often done with poor form. But when performed correctly and with a full range of motion, this exercise strengthens your hamstring and calf muscles. Make sure your upper body and hips are locked in, and the movement only comes from your hamstrings, which is the key to making this exercise more effective.
Benefits of the Lying Leg Curl
- The lying leg curl isolates and strengthens the hamstrings as knee flexors.
- It helps improve hamstring flexibility when used with a full ROM.
- Trains the calf muscles.
How to Do the Lying Leg Curl
Lie down on the leg curl machine with the back of your ankles underneath the pad and place the hips down onto the pad. Draw the belly button inwards to avoid movement compensations. Curl the weight towards your glutes quickly and then slowly lower on the eccentric, then pause at the bottom and repeat.
The Hamstring slide trains your hamstrings as a knee flexor and a hip extender, strengthening your hamstrings in two ways. This exercise is easier than the razor curl (see below). It is a good exercise to start with when you’re looking to improve your eccentric hamstring strength — which, again, is the type of strength you want to focus on to prevent hamstring strains (since the lengthened position is where your hamstrings are weakest). Another benefit is that it requires no weight to load the muscle, so it’s joint-friendly.
Benefits of Hamstrings Slides
- Increases eccentric hamstring strength to help prevent hamstring strains and improve squat and deadlift performance.
- Easier exercise to do than the razor and Nordic curl.
How to Do Hamstring Slides
Lie down on your back with your legs bent at 90 degrees and your heels underneath your knees. The heels should be on a pair of workout sliders. (If you’re doing this at home, you can place your heels on a pair of socks on a hardwood floor.) Squeeze your glutes to raise your hips and lower your heels away from your body until your legs are almost fully extended. Then flex your hamstrings to bring your heels back underneath your knees and repeat.
Toes-Elevated Dumbbell Romanian deadlift
RDL’s are a great accessory exercise for deadlifts and add strength and mass to your glutes and hamstrings. The toes-elevated variation takes this to a new level. Elevating the toes shifts the weight back on your heels, further isolating and strengthening your hamstrings. And when performed with a slow eccentric, it’ll help reinforce strength in a lengthened position to ward off unwanted strains.
Benefits of the Toes-Elevated Dumbbell RDL
- The elevated heels further isolate the glutes and hamstrings for more muscle-building and strength potential.
- Increases hamstring eccentric strength to help prevent hamstring strains.
How to Do the Toes Elevated Dumbbell RDL
Find a 25-pound bumper plate or low platform to elevate the toes and bring the feet to close together. As you hinge, reach the dumbbells out so they’re tracking over the toes instead of keeping them close to the body. Control the eccentric tempo to feel the stretch properly, pause for a second in the bottom position, and hinge back up.
Dumbbell Good Morning
The barbell good morning is a great exercise to load the hamstrings, but not everyone has the shoulder mobility to reach behind them to stabilize the barbell. Or, after all the compressive/shear load on the spine from squatting and deadlifting, your spine needs a break. Enter the dumbbell good morning, which engages the anterior core, trains the same muscles as the barbell version but without the load on your spine. Having the weight anteriorly makes you more aware of upper body positioning too.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Good Morning
- Positioning of the dumbbell engages the anterior core and is easier on the lower back and shoulders than the barbell variation.
- Strengthens the lower back, hamstrings, and glutes at the same time.
How to Do the Dumbbell Good Morning
Hold a heavy dumbbell against your chest, keeping your shoulders down and chest up. Maintaining a soft bend in your knees, hinge at your hips until your torso is almost parallel to the ground, keeping your back in neutral. Pause for a second and return to the starting position, and repeat.
The razor curl is a slight twist on the nordic curl that has you maintain flex hips. Flexing the hip allows for a more intense contraction of the hamstring at the hip and a more forceful contraction of the hamstrings at the knee. Plus, it’s been shown to decrease the susceptibility of anterior cruciate ligament injury. But be warned, this exercise is advanced and should be performed when you have built up your eccentric hamstring strength. (1)
Benefits of the Razor Curl
- Improves the eccentric strength of the hamstrings and increases glute strength
- Increases core strength due to falling forward with control.
How to Do the Razor Curl
Have a training partner hold your feet or use a barbell/piece of equipment to anchor your lower body. Slight flex your hips and hold this position for the entire exercise. Fall forward while controlling the eccentric and lightly touch the ground. Use your hands to assist on the concentric if you’re starting to help make it easier.
Single-Leg Stability Ball Curl
The single-leg hip extension hamstring curl strengthens the hamstrings both as hip extensors and knee flexors. And because of the unstable surface of the stability ball, the stabilization demands increase too, making your muscles work harder and making you more aware of your technique. When you emphasize the eccentric with this exercise, you’ll go a long way to bulletproofing your hamstrings. (2)
Benefits of the Single-Leg Stability Ball Curl
- Strengthens the hamstrings, hip extensors, and knee flexors.
- The increased stabilization demands improve hip and core stability
- A great exercise for runners as the stability ball mimics the unevenness of road running.
How to Do the Single-Leg Single-Leg Stability Ball Curl
Lay on your back, place both feet on a stability ball with one leg bent, and engage your glutes. Raise your hips and lift one leg off of the ball. Now, curl the ball toward your butt with the working leg. Slowly reverse the movements and lower your hips to the floor, and repeat.
All About the Hamstrings
Think of your hamstrings like the brakes on a car. They help control the descent when squatting, hinging, and jumping. When quickly changing directions on the court or field, strong hamstrings help you absorb force before applying it in a different direction. They are your main knee stabilizers, and their strength and flexibility go a long way in keeping your knees healthy.
During deadlifts, the quads are needed for the first part of the pull. After that, your hamstrings work mainly to extend the hips and to control the eccentric during the negative. You know you’ve performed your deadlifts correctly when your hamstrings are sore.
Anatomy of the Hamstrings
Your hamstrings consist of three muscles, and understanding what they are and how they work is important in obtaining a stronger posterior. The hamstrings are a group of three muscles on the posterior thigh: biceps femoris (long and short head), semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. They originate on the posterior lower pelvis, and they insert medially and laterally below the knee on the fibula and tibia. Except for the biceps femoris short head, which originates from the lower femur. The main functions of the hamstrings are:
- Hip Extension: Squat, deadlift, and hip thrust
- Hip Hyperextension: Glute kickback
- Knee Flexion: Squat and hamstring curl variations
The Benefits of Training Your Hamstrings
Training your hamstrings will go a long way in keeping your knees healthy. As the hamstrings attach to the pelvis, their length and strength play a role in hip/torso positioning and good posture. Here are a few other important benefits of training your hamstrings.
Hamstrings strains don’t happen when the knee is flexing concentrically. They happen when they extend eccentrically. It’s been shown that eccentric knee flexor exercises reduce the risk of hamstring strains because of improvements in eccentric knee flexor strength and the length of the biceps femoris. (1) Without sufficient hamstring strength, you can develop strength and size imbalances between the quadriceps and hamstrings, which increases injury risk to the knee and hamstring.
Run Faster and More Efficiently
Strength training the hamstrings helps you run faster by improving your neuromuscular coördination, power, and VO2 max. It also improves your running economy through better movement coördination and stride efficiency. (3)
Improved Deadlift And Squat Technique
If you have a strength imbalance between your hamstring and quads, strengthening your hamstrings will improve your eccentric control on hinges and squats and your lockout strength on deadlifts.
How to Warm-up Your Hamstrings Before Training
It is important to warm up the hamstrings for the work ahead to improve performance and prevent injury. You’ll improve circulation to the hamstrings, zone in mentally, and prime your body to lift heavier weights. You need to pay special attention to your hamstring if you’re performing exercises that demand eccentric strength like hinges and sprinting.
Stretching them will not cut it. Instead, perform a set of hamstring slides and a set of passive leg lowering as part of your warm-up. Your hamstrings will thank you.
More Hamstring Training Tips
Now that you have a handle on the six best hamstring exercises to strengthen your posterior, you can also check out these other helpful hamstring training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
- Gretchen D Oliver 1, Christopher P Dougherty The razor curl: a functional approach to hamstring training. J Strength Cond Res 2009 Mar;23(2):401-5.doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818f08d0
- Matthew N Bourne et al. An Evidence-Based Framework for Strengthening Exercises to Prevent Hamstring Injury. Sports Med. 2018 Feb;48(2):251-267. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0796-x.
- M Chtara et al. Effects of intra-session concurrent endurance and strength training sequence on aerobic performance and capacity. Br J Sports Med. 2005 Aug; 39(8): 555–560.