The best hamstring strength exercises will build you into a stronger and faster athlete, reduce your risk of injury and knee pain, and make your everyday life all around easier.
Building strong hamstrings helps with jogging, running, walking upstairs, and decelerating. Hamstrings also play an important role in protecting your knees and lower back from overuse and injury. They are one of the most important muscle groups in the body.
Continue reading for the the best muscle and strength building hamstrings exercises, including some that are accessible to everybody, and two that are so highly advanced most people can’t do them.
The Hamstring Muscle Group
The hamstring muscles are a group of 3 muscles in the back of the upper leg: the biceps femoris, semitendinosis, and semimembranosus. They are the leg muscles in the back of your legs. Since they cross the hip joint and knee joint, they function to extend the hip and flex the knee.
This means you use your hamstrings in almost every movement you make with your legs, and this is why it is crucial to add hamstring exercises to your strength training.
Why are Hamstrings Important
Strong hamstrings are important for everyone, and they are vitally important to power athletes. Strong hamstrings especially help athletes decelerate, stop and pivot safely and quickly.
For everybody, not just athletes, hamstrings that are strong and flexible in the right amounts take pressure off the lower back.
By using your hamstrings and legs as they are intended to function, instead of relying on your back, you spare the back from overload and injury.
How to Add These Hamstrings Exercises in Your Workouts
Generally speaking, you’ll want to warm up well, do your main lifts or compound lifts, and then add hamstrings accessory work, in that order.
This means your first working exercises will be things like squats, deadlifts, and potentially even lunges or step ups. After this, add 2-3 of these exercises to your sessions. You can do 5-12 reps of most of these. That is a big range, but I’ll give more specific guidance with each exercise, and explain how to choose.
Deadlifts are a large compound movement which is fairly full body. All deadlift variations involve the hamstrings: the conventional deadlift, stiff leg deadlift, Romanian deadlift, sumo deadlift, etc.
Conventional and sumo deadlifts also largely use the quads, so they are more of a general lower body exercise; you wouldn’t necessarily call them a hamstring specific movement. However, the Romanian deadlift, B stance RDL’s and stiff leg deadlifts do primarily work the hamstrings.
The Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian Deadlift is the big daddy of hamstring strength! The Romanian deadlift, also called the RDL, is basically a weighted hip hinge, as the main movement is hip extension. It can be done with barbells, dumbbells, a kettlebell, and even a trap bar. The RDL is one of the best hamstring exercises. It can be used for the goal of building strength, or increasing range of motion in tight hamstrings.
(I get really excited about these because I think these are my favorite hamstring strength exercise.)
Once you get the hinge movement down and really recruit the hamstrings, you can do a good bit of weight here. As always, start with a light to moderate amount. If you get your goal number of reps done well, with good form, increase the weight for the next set. Rest, assess that set, and adjust the weights accordingly for the next set.
RDLs can help hamstring strength, core strength, and even hamstring flexibility.
I like to do heavy RDLs, ranging from 5-8 reps. I recommend leaving 1-2 reps in reserve, as this isn’t an exercise you’ll max out on (even though you can go heavy here).
How to do the RDL:
- stand tall with barbell in front of you, feet shoulder-width apart
- hold the barbell close to your body for the duration of the exercise
- squeeze your back to keep it straight and neutral
- push your hips behind you with knees soft
- let your hamstrings stretch as you lower the weights, keeping them close to your legs
- at the bottom of the movement, drive your big toes into the ground and push your hips forward (squeeze glutes) until you have returned to your starting position
How to do the RDL with dumbbells:
- stand tall with dumbbells in front of you
- hold the dumbbells close to your body for the duration of the exercise
- keep your back straight and neutral
- push your hips behind you with a slight bend in your knees
- at the bottom of the movement, drive your big toes into the ground and push your hips forward (squeeze glutes) until you are standing tall again
Stiff leg deadlifts are very similar to RDL’s, except your knees are kept straight for stiff leg deadlifts. These are a little bit less common, and I generally use RDL’s personally and with my clients.
B Stance RDL
The B stance RDL is similar to the RDL except your legs are offset to put more of the weight on one leg. These are very similar to single-leg Romanian deadlifts.Set up similarly to your RDL, and then extend one foot behind you. You’ll pivot off your toes on that foot.
Everything else will stay set up the same: your hips will stay square to the ground (no opening up your hip), and you’ll still hinge your hips back into the movement. The leg behind you is primarily for balance; for example, if you are standing on your right leg with your left leg behind you, your right hamstrings are doing most of the work.
The B stance RDL is a great way to work muscle imbalances, as it works your legs mostly individually.
This one is fun, but is truly a thinker. If you find you have to back off on the weight or video and watch for proper form, that’s totally ok! RDLs in general take some mental work to understand. It is a learning process to understand how to deliberately move some parts of your body while you are holding still others. Don’t be too hard on yourself as you learn this move.
Good mornings are also hip hinges, and the movement looks very similar to the deadlift. The difference is where you hold the weight. Like the RDL, you can do good mornings with a few different implements. You can use barbell, or hold a dumbbell or kettlebell to your chest. However, the good morning is far easier to do with a barbell.
Because you’re holding the weight higher on your body, you’ll use a lot of core and back strength as you stabilize the bar above your shoulder blades and commence the movement.
Begin with your feet hip-width apart here, because that’s where you’ll probably feel most stable. There isn’t a hard right or wrong way to do this though, so if you prefer a wider distance between your feet, that’s ok.
For reference, you’ll probably use a lighter weight here than on the RDL. I suggest trying a weight where you can do about 8 reps,
To do the good morning with a barbell:
- grip the bar evenly, and then set up as if you are doing a low bar squat (bar on shoulders, not on your neck)
- pull the bar into your upper back and shoulders and slightly shrug into it
- keep your torso tight and neutral, not bending or flexing the spine
- keeping your whole feet flat on the ground, hinge at the hips and send your hips behind you
- keep your torso tight and aim to feel a stretch in your hamstrings
- squeeze your glutes to push your hips back under you
- return to the standing position and repeat for as many reps as is your goal
To do this with a dumbbell or kettlebell, hug the weight to your chest. All other movements will be the same as with the barbell.
The Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian Split Squat! Also called BSS or rear leg elevated split squat, these are widely beloved; practically everyone’s favorite.* To put it bluntly, these are tough. These also bring in quadriceps more so than the RDL or good morning. They are similar to lunges in that you can change your position to focus more on the anterior (quads) or posterior (hamstrings and glutes).
*Just kidding, these are infamously not anyone’s favorite.
I like doing Bulgarian split squats in slightly higher reps. “Like” is a strong word, but these are so challenging that you can’t help but feel victorious after doing them.
How to do Bulgarian Split Squats:
- Set up facing away from a sturdy box, chair or bench.
- Put one leg behind you, on the box
- From here, bend both knees to accomplish the split squat
- Stop before your knee hits the ground
- Focus on the leg in front to do the work; make sure your whole foot is on the ground
- Squeeze your glutes, and drive your big toe in the ground as you come up
- Repeat for as many reps as you are performing
- Switch legs
If you really want to get these right, here’s a deep dive into how to do the Bulgarian Split Squat.
Tips for the BSS:
- You can put your toes on the bench, like I do in the video, or put your foot flat on the bench, with the top of your foot resting on the bench.
- Situate your feet so that there is lateral stability between them. By this I mean, if you were to look down, your feet are as if you are on railroad tracks and not a tightrope. You might have to hop your front foot out to the side to accomplish this. You’ll feel more stable this way.
- You’ll probably find one side is more stable than the other. That is ok!
Swiss Ball, Roller, or Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
You can do this style of hamstring curl with anything that allows your feet to move. Unlike many of the other exercises on the list, these are bodyweight exercises.
You’ll start by lying flat on the ground facing up. Place both your right heel and left heel on your roller or stability ball. From here, raise your hips up so your lower torso is off the ground. Then bend knees to pull your heels under your glutes, aiming for a 90-degree angle at the knee.
This is a fantastic exercise for your posterior chain, and easy to do at home. You can even do these with a towel under your heels if you do not have anything with rollers.
You can do these at home! Don’t suffer through a cold gym! Here’s how to heat your garage gym this winter.
This is a great exercise to add into your leg workouts!
Hamstring Curl Machines
Leg curl machines come in a variety of angles and styles: the lying leg curl machine, standing hamstrings curl machine, and seated leg curl (and a how-to use this Hammer Strength seated leg curl). I LOVE these because they are a fantastic way to get focused attention on the hamstrings. These are usually single joint movements.
Whether these are prone leg curls (lying face down), seated, or standing, they all involve bending your knee against resistance. Pro tip for setting up a hamstring curl machine: fit your knee joint to about the level of the machine’s joint. If you sit down in a hamstring curl machine and your knee is 5 inches away from where the machine bends, it’ll feel really awkward. This will make more sense once you see a machine in person, but it’s a rule that can help you fit any machine to you.
These are more focused on the hamstrings muscle group and less taxing on the whole body. For that reason, I like to do these high rep, 8-12 reps. Instead of focusing on how heavy you can go, focus on getting the best squeeze in your hamstrings as possible.
The name biceps femoris, or biceps of the femur, literally means leg biceps. The femur is the bone in your upper leg. So, as you do these exercises, think of flexing your leg biceps like you would flex your arm for biceps curls. This will help you use these machines best.
Two of the Toughest Hamstrings Exercises
The Nordic hamstrings curl and the next exercise, the glute ham raise, are two of the most challenging exercises in the gym. They both use your whole body as a lever for the knee to flex against. Knee flexion is these positions is very very tough! On the spectrum from strength to conditioning/cardio, these are definitely hamstring strength exercises.
Nordic Hamstring Curls
The Nordic hamstring curl is done by hooking the heels under something stable and immovable. Your knees will be on a mat or pad. From here, the goal is to keep the body in a straight line from knees to shoulders. A very strong athlete who can complete the Nordic curl will hold this positioning, and lower the body toward the ground in a controlled fashion, and then curl the hamstrings and flex the knee to return the body to the upright position.
If this is tough, which it likely will be at the beginning, there are many ways to adjust this to be challenging but do-able. One option is to just work the downward motion under control. This is still tough, and I’d like you to be very warmed up before this.
Another way to modify this movement is to bend at the hips so the level (the body) is not so long, and it’s less force for the hamstrings to work against.
Finally, you can add a band around the chest pulling upward to offset some of the weight. Similarly, you can use a pole or broomstick as a cane, to press some weight into the ground and assisted on the way up.
Nordic curls are very challenging! These are one of my favorite hamstring exercises. It’s a good idea to work overall strength and leg strength as you ease into these.
Since these are so tough, you’ll use these as a traditional hamstring strength exercise and likely do lower reps of 3-5, rather than 10+.
Glute Ham Raise
The glute ham raise is also very difficult because it uses the lifter’s whole body weight as the lever. You begin in the glute ham raise machine by setting up similarly to how you would for the back extension: prone, facing the floor, back of your thighs facing upward, and with feet hooked under the machine’s pads.
From here, you attempt to keep your whole body straight by keeping your torso tight and glutes tight. Flex hard at the knees until you are in an upright position.
This can be modified to be more achievable by bending at the hip to shorten the lever, or using a broomstick/pvc pipe as an aid.
Like the Nordic curls, you’ll probably do low reps here.
What Else Works the Hamstrings?
Most compound lower body movements work the hamstrings. Walking, jogging, running, doing kettlebell swings, squats, lunges, lateral lunges, step ups, hip thrusts all work the hamstrings.
Here are some other great exercises for strengthening your posterior: best machines for the lower back.
Unless you are trying very hard to isolate your quads, you’ll use your hamstrings anytime you do leg exercises or a lower-body workout. Weak hamstrings are more susceptible to injury, so be sure to add a good amount of lower body work to your strength training program.
How to do Hamstrings Workouts
Like I mentioned in the intro, to incorporate hamstrings into your leg day, I suggest getting a through warm up. For the best results, do 1 or 2 compound movements such as the deadlift or squat early in your session when you are freshest. After that, add in isolation exercises like leg curl machines, and assistance exercises like the ones listed above.
If you need specific and custom programming, I would love to talk about working together. Message me here!
About the author
Kathryn Alexander is a strength coach and personal trainer in Austin, Texas. She loves hiking, college football, and the feel of a perfectly knurled barbell. Read more about Kathryn here.