If you want to know which hamstring exercises and workouts build the best legs, then you want to read this article.
When it comes to working out, we tend to focus the most on what we see the most.
“Out of sight, out of mind” seems to be the order of the day.
That’s how tragedies like this happen:
I have to confess though…
I used to skip legs all the time and looked more like that guy than I would have wanted to admit.
I’ve repented and paid my dues and while my legs are still a work in progress (and my calves in particular), they’re no longer a laughingstock:
Now, as far as leg training goes, the quadriceps almost always take center stage because they’re bigger and stronger (and more visible) than the hamstrings.
Well, under-developed hamstrings aren’t ideal for several reasons:
- It creates an imbalanced look that is particularly noticeable from the side and back.
- It makes achieving proper depth in the squat much more challenging.
- It increases the risk of hamstring and knee injuries.
And a proper leg routine requires more than just squats.
Yes, squats are one of the best leg exercises you can do, but if they’re all you’re doing, you’re not getting everything you can out of your time in the gym.
So, in this article, I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned about building big, strong hamstrings, including…
- The most effective way to program your leg training
- The best hamstring exercises and how to do them
- My favorite hamstring workout that you can put to use right away
- And more…
Let’s get started!
The Anatomy of the Hamstring Muscles
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles on the back of the leg:
- Biceps femoris
Here’s how they look:
(And in case you’re wondering, the ischial tuberosity is a part of the pelvis.)
Together the hamstring muscles work to bend the knees, extend the hips, and tilt the pelvis (roll it back).
Thus, hamstring exercises bring the hip from a flexed to extended position (straightening the joint) and bring the knee from an extended to a flexed position (bending the joint).
Now, when the hamstrings are well developed, they can add a considerable amount of size and shape to the legs.
Case in point:
Hamstrings aren’t just for guys, either.
If you’re a woman, whose legs would you prefer:
If you’re like most women I know, you’d choose door number two.
And if you’re like most women, getting there will require gaining a significant amount of muscle in your legs, including your hamstrings.
(And in case you’re worried about it, no, gaining muscle doesn’t have to make women “bulky”.)
In fact, here’s a better shot of #2’s hamstring development:
Prefer an infographic? Click the image below to see a larger view.
The Simple Science of Effective Hamstring Training
There are a lot of theories out there about how to best train your hamstrings.
- Some people say you have to focus on high-rep training and really feel the burn.
- Others say that heavy weights are the key.
- Some people say you should do exercises that isolate the hamstrings.
- Others say isolation is unnecessary and you should stick with the big compound movements instead.
- Some people still say that you should split your leg workouts into hamstring and quadriceps workouts.
- Others say this won’t benefit you or is even detrimental.
Well, I’ve tried all the above and more, and I’ve worked with thousands of people, and here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Hamstring-centric exercises help balance your overall leg development.
Your average leg workout is very quad dominant thanks to exercises like the half-squat, leg press, and lunge.
2. Heavy compound movements are best for adding strength and size.
High-rep sets and machine exercises can be included in your hamstring workouts, but they can’t replace heavy free weight movements.
3. One heavy hamstring workout per week is generally enough.
A crucial part of your hamstring training is volume, or the total amount of reps you do each week.
This is especially important when you’re doing a lot of heavy weightlifting because the overarching rule is this:
The heavier you lift, the fewer reps you can do each week without risking overtraining.
This is especially true of compound movements like the deadlift and squat, because pulling and squatting heavy weights necessitates more recovery time than less stressful (and effective) exercises like biceps curls or chest flyes.
When your training emphasizes heavy weights (80 to 85%+ of 1RM), optimal volume seems to be about 60 to 70 reps performed every 5 to 7 days.
This not only applies to the hamstrings but to every other major muscle group as well.
Now, in the case of the hamstrings, we have to take into account the fact that they’re involved in many of the quadriceps exercises you’re going to do as well.
For example, the first portion of the squat is primarily handled by the quads, but as you descend, the hamstrings are heavily recruited.
(This is one of the reasons why, when squatting, you should descend to the point where your thighs are at or or below parallel to the ground.)
The adjustment here is simple: we’re just going to slightly reduce the volume in your hamstring (and quadriceps) workouts to account for this overlap.
Alright, now that we have basic training theory under our belts, let’s look at the best hamstring exercises for building muscle and strength.
The Best Hamstring Exercises
The health and fitness space suffers from an embarrassment of riches.
A quick Google search for diet or exercise advice throws you head first into a free-for-all melee of opinions and options and somehow you’re supposed to make sense of it all.
Well, I have good news:
Out of all the hamstring exercises you could do, a small handful stand head and shoulders above the rest.
If you simply focus on progressing on the exercises below, you’ll have no trouble building fantastic hamstrings (and legs).
Before we talk exercises, though, let’s talk equipment…
Why You Should Stay Off the Smith Machine
The main reason for this is fixed, vertical path that the Smith Machine’s bar travels on, which requires less body stabilization than squatting a free weight bar (which you have to keep level and balanced).
If you’ve been squatting exclusively on the Smith Machine and are going to make the move to squat rack, get ready for a rude awakening.
Years ago, I did all my squatting on the Smith Machine and had worked up to a paltry 235 pounds for a few reps. When I moved to the free weight squat, I struggled with 185 pounds.
(I’ve since worked up to something respectable: 365 pounds for 2 to 3 reps on my back squat and 275 pounds for 2 reps on my front squat.)
Now, one of the reasons Smith Machine squatting is popular is it seems to be safer than free weight squatting.
This isn’t exactly true. You can free weight squat just as safely with the right setup (and without a spotter).
The key piece of equipment is the Power Rack.
How to Safely Squat Solo in the Power Rack
You don’t have to go to failure every set, but if you’re afraid of failing, you’re not going to be able to push yourself as hard as you should.
(A good rule of thumb is to end your sets one rep short of failure–that point where you struggle to get the rep and aren’t sure if you can get another without help.)
This is why a squat stand is fine if you have a spotter but is limiting if you don’t. There are going to be times where you could have squeezed out another rep or two if it felt safe but didn’t for fear of getting stuck in the hole.
Well, the Power Rack is the perfect solution. It allows you to squat (and bench press) by yourself without worrying about pinning yourself under hundreds of pounds of weight.
Here’s a fantastic one made by Rogue, which I highly recommend:
The beauty is in the safety arms, which you set to catch the weight if you fail.
Here’s how it works:
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s now go over the best hamstring exercises.
1. Romanian Deadlift
You’d be hard pressed to find a hamstring exercise better than the Romanian deadlift (RDL).
When performed correctly, it’s an incredibly effective way to isolate and overload the hamstrings.
Here’s how to do it:
And if this exercise places too much strain on your lower back, you can do the single-leg variation:
2. Barbell Back Squat
You can’t have a serious discussion about leg training without the barbell back squat.
It’s the single most effective exercise you can do for building strong, muscular legs.
It goes further than that, really, because it’s actually a whole-body exercise that involves every major muscle group but your chest.
Now, if you’ve heard that squatting is a quadriceps exercise and shouldn’t be included in hamstring workouts, this is only half of the story.
While it’s true that the squat heavily involves the quadriceps, as I mentioned earlier, the deeper you go, the more the hamstrings are recruited.
This is why achieving proper depth is numero uno with squatting. The shallower the squat, the less effective it is.
Here’s what the bottom of a proper squat looks like:
As you can see, the thighs are slightly below parallel to the ground and the butt is slightly below the knees.
- The head is neutral (not straining to look up or down).
- The spine is neutral (not arched or rounded).
- The chest is up and shoulders are back.
- The knees are slightly beyond the toes.
This is the position you want to reach with every rep.
Here’s an in-depth discussion on how to squat properly:
Now, before we move on to the next exercise, let’s take a moment to talk full (“Ass to Grass”) squatting.
First, here’s what it looks like:
There are benefits to squatting like this.
Namely, the full range of motion makes the legs and butt work harder.
There are downsides too, though.
- This style of squatting requires a high amount of lower body mobility–quite a bit more than most people have.
- “ATG” squats require more technical skill than parallel squats, which makes them harder to execute properly as weights get heavier. (Excessive “buttwinking” is very common, for example.)
This is why I don’t recommend full squats unless you’re an experienced weightlifter that knows proper form and that is flexible enough to do them comfortably.
The reality is you can do just fine with the parallel squat. You don’t need to full squat to build a great posterior chain.
And while we’re talking lower body flexibility and mobility, let’s quickly touch on the most common reasons people can’t squat properly:
- Hip inflexibility
- Hamstring tightness
- Calf and ankle tightness
Fortunately, these issues can be corrected (and prevented) with a simple squat mobility routine, like this one.
3. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is becoming more and more popular among high-level strength and conditioning coaches, and for good reason.
Here’s how it’s done:
4. Glute-Ham Raise
This exercise may look easy but when it’s done properly, it’s a hamstring killer.
(In fact, research shows it’s one of the best exercises you can do for activating the hamstring muscles.)
Here’s how it works:
5. Leg Curl
Like the glute-ham raise, the leg curl is a simple but effective way to target the hamstrings.
Research shows that seated and lying curls train the hamstrings differently, so it’s smart to alternate between them.
Here’s the lying leg curl:
And here’s the seated curl:
6. Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is one of the most versatile exercises you can do for your cardio workouts.
It’s also a fantastic “finisher” for your hamstring training.
It’s basically an aggressive, dynamic deadlift movement that has become a staple in the training of elite fighters and athletes, and it has been scientifically proven to develop strength, explosive power, and endurance.
The type of swing I recommend that you learn is the “hard style” swing, which is considered the center of the kettlebell training universe and a prerequisite for more advanced exercises.
It’s fairly easy to learn but takes quite a while to master, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the hang (or swing) of it in your first go.
Here’s how to do it:
Remember–Progression is the Key to Muscle Growth
That’s it for the best hamstring exercises. Those are all you need to build amazing hammies.
Your goal isn’t to just do these exercises, though–it’s to progress on them.
This refers to increasing tension levels in the muscles over time, and the easiest way to do that is to add weight to the bar.
This is why your primary goal as a natural weightlifter is to get stronger.
So…build strength on the exercises above and eat enough food and you will make gains.
The Ultimate Hamstring Workout
Before we look at an actual hamstring workout, let’s talk workout programming.
The first question to address here is why split your leg training into hamstring and quadriceps workouts? Why not just do all-inclusive “leg workouts” instead?
Well, there are several reasons why you might want to try a hamstring/quadriceps split:
1. You’re an advanced weightlifter that is having trouble adding size to your legs.
A hamstring/quads split allows you to maximize weekly volume on each muscle group.
2. Your leg muscles are imbalanced (either your quads or hamstrings are under- or over-developed).
A hamstring/quads split allows you to work harder on your lagging muscle group while maintaining the other.
3. You like it more than traditional leg training.
In many ways, the best workout routine is the one you can stick to, so personal enjoyment matters.
If those criteria don’t apply to you–if you’re new to weightlifting, your legs aren’t imbalanced, and you don’t particularly like this split more–then you don’t have a reason to do hamstring and quadriceps workouts.
You can just stick to traditional leg training and make tremendous progress. (That’s what I do personally.)
So, with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at hamstring training.
First, you need to keep in mind that your hamstring workouts will train your quads as well, and vice versa.
This is why I recommend that you do just one hamstring and quadriceps workout per week, and that you put 3 days of rest in between the workouts. This will ensure your legs have enough time to recover before you train them again.
(Many people like to train one of the two on Mondays and the other on Thursdays.)
Now, my favorite type of hamstring workout contains at least one big, compound movement and one or two additional exercises to target the muscle group.
Furthermore, the hamstrings can benefit from higher rep work, but you have to emphasize the heavy weightlifting if you want to avoid plateaus.
The workout below is a great introduction to this training philosophy and it’s equally applicable to both men and women.
That said, you’ll see that I recommend different rep ranges for men and women.
This is mainly because most women haven’t done any heavy compound weightlifting before and can’t comfortably work with weights in the higher ranges of their one-rep max.
As they get stronger, though, they can and should start including heavier work in their training. (I talk more about this in my book Thinner Leaner Stronger.)
If, however, you’re a woman that’s well-acquainted with heavy weightlifting, then I recommend that you follow the heavier recommendations for men.
So, do the following workout once per 7 days for the next 8 weeks, and I think you’ll be very happy with the results.
Barbell Back Squat
Warm up and 2 sets of…
Men/Experienced Women: 4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)
Inexperienced Women: 8 to 10 reps (70 to 75% of 1RM)
2 sets of…
Men/Experienced Women: 4 to 6 reps (~85% of 1RM)
Inexperienced Women: 8 to 10 reps (70 to 75% of 1RM)
Bulgarian Split Squat
2 sets of…
All: 8 to 10 reps
All: 2 sets to failure
That’s it. And trust me–it’s harder than it looks.
A few odds and ends:
Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, move up in weight.
For instance, if you get 6 reps with, let’s say, 235 pounds on your back squat, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set.
If, on the next set, you can get at least 4 reps with 245 pounds, that’s the new weight you work with until you can squat it for 6 reps, move up, and so forth.
If you get 3 or fewer reps, reduce the weight added by 5 pounds (240 pounds) and see how the next set goes.
If you still get 3 or fewer, reduce the weight to the original 6-rep load and work with that until you can do two 6-rep sets with it, and then increase.
Rest 3 minutes in between each 4-to-6-rep set and 1 minute in between 8-to-10-rep sets.
Yes, this is going to feel like a lot of standing around, but resting properly is a hugely important part of heavy weightlifting.
This is the time where your muscles recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.
Make sure you’re eating enough food.
You probably know that you’re supposed to eat a fair amount of protein to build muscle, but total caloric intake matters too.
Read this article to learn why.
This type of training is the core of my Bigger Leaner Stronger (men) and Thinner Leaner Stronger (women) programs and I have hundreds of success stories that prove its effectiveness.
If you give this workout a go and get good results with it, I highly recommend you check out BLS/TLS because you’re going to love it.
What About Supplements?
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your hamstring (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
- 5 grams of creatine monohydrate
- 2100 milligrams of L-carnitine L-tartrate
- 10.8 milligrams of corosolic acid
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own pre-workout supplement. It’s called PULSE and it contains 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients available:
- Caffeine. Caffeine is good for more than the energy boost. It also increases muscle endurance and strength.
- Beta-Alanine. Beta-alanine is a naturally occurring amino acid that reduces exercise-induced fatigue, improves anaerobic exercise capacity, and can accelerate muscle growth.
- Citrulline Malate. Citrulline is an amino acid that improves muscle endurance, relieves muscle soreness, and improves aerobic performance.
- Betaine. Betaine is a compound found in plants like beets that improves muscle endurance, increases strength, and increases human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 production in response to acute exercise.
- Ornithine. Ornithine is an amino acid found in high amounts in dairy and meat that reduces fatigue in prolonged exercise and promotes lipid oxidation (the burning of fat for energy as opposed to carbohydrate or glycogen).
- Theanine. Theanine is an amino acid found primarily in tea that reduces the effects of mental and physical stress, increases the production of nitric oxide, which improves blood flow, and improves alertness, focus, attention, memory, mental task performance, and mood.
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
- No artificial sweeteners or flavors..
- No artificial food dyes.
- No unnecessary fillers, carbohydrate powders, or junk ingredients.
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.
The Bottom Line on the Best Hamstring Exercises
You now have everything you need to build strong, muscular hamstrings.
- Do the right exercises.
- Focus on getting stronger over time.
- Don’t try to do so much every week that you wind up overtrained.
That’s it. Simple but not easy.
Work hard at the advice given in this article and stay patient and you’ll be on your way.