The 5 Best Barbell Hamstring Exercises to Build Muscle

Do you want to build stronger, more powerful hamstrings that can handle anything life throws your way?

Do you want to effectively and quickly pack more meat on the back of your legs?

If so, then you’ve come to the right place!

In this article, we will explore the best barbell hamstring exercises that can help you achieve your fitness goals and take your leg training to the next level.

Whether you’re a seasoned gym-goer or just starting out, incorporating barbell exercises into your training routine can help you build functional strength, improve athletic performance, and enhance your overall physique.

Before we get into the best exercises, let’s take a closer look at the muscle in question: your hamstrings.

The Hamstring: Anatomy and Function

Your hamstring is a group of muscles located on the back of your thigh and consists of the muscles:

  1. Semitendinosus
  2. Semimembranosus
  3. Biceps femoris.

All three muscles originate from your sitting bone, on the back and bottom end of your pelvis. An exception is the biceps femoris which has two heads:

  1. The long head originates from the sitting bone.
  2. The short head originates from the back of your femur (thigh bone).
Hamstring muscle anatomy

All three muscles cross over your knee joint and insert into your lower leg.

Since the hamstring muscles cross over both the hip and knee joints, they can act upon both joints with:

Hamstring muscles

Your hamstrings are also important antagonists to your quadriceps muscles, responsible for decelerating your leg when you’re swinging it forward while walking or running.

Strong hamstrings can thus improve your athletic performance in many ways. At the same time, they can have a significant effect on the visual appearance of your legs, as they are one of the larger muscle groups of your lower body.

Barbell Hamstring Exercises

Barbell exercises are some of the most effective ways to build strength, power, and muscle mass in the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back muscles. Because barbells are found in every well-equipped gym and fit almost all body types, they are a good tool to plan your workouts around.

Among the most popular and effective barbell hamstring exercises are:

  1. Romanian Deadlift
  2. Stiff-Leg Deadlift
  3. Good Morning
  4. Barbell Deadlift
  5. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

In this section, we will provide a brief introduction and step-by-step instructions for each of these exercises.

Then, we’ll cover why a barbell might not be enough to maximize your hamstring muscle growth and which movement is lacking.

1. Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is a pure hip hinge variation of the traditional deadlift that places more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes and less on the lower back.

Here are the steps to perform the barbell Romanian deadlift:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing forward. Hold the barbell with an overhand grip and hands shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keeping your back straight and your knees slightly bent, hinge forward at the hips, lowering the barbell towards the floor.
  3. Lower the barbell until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, but be sure to maintain a neutral spine and avoid rounding your back.
  4. Contract your hamstrings and glutes to lift the barbell back up to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

2. Stiff-Leg Deadlift

The stiff-legged deadlift is similar to the Romanian deadlift but requires a straighter leg position. Additionally, the stiff-leg deadlift usually begin and end with the barbell on the floor.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing forward. Hold the barbell with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keeping your legs straight but not locked, hinge forward at the hips, lowering the barbell towards the floor.
  3. Lower the barbell until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, but be sure to maintain a neutral spine and avoid rounding your back.
  4. Contract your hamstrings and glutes to lift the barbell back up to a standing position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

3. Good Morning

The good morning is another compound exercise that targets the hamstrings, lower back, and glutes. Make sure to start with a light weight in this exercise as you learn and practice good form.

Here’s how to perform it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing forward or slightly out. The bar rests over your shoulders, while you stabilize it with your hands in an overhand grip just outside your shoulders.
  2. Keeping your back straight, hinge forward at the hips, lowering your torso towards the floor.
  3. Lower your torso until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, but be sure to maintain a neutral spine and avoid rounding your back.
  4. Contract your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back to lift your torso back up to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

4. Barbell Deadlift

The barbell deadlift is a classic exercise that targets the entire posterior chain, including the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. The deadlift is the third most popular gym exercise of all according to our workout data.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Step up close to the bar so that it is about over the middle of your foot.
  2. Inhale, lean forward, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you stand straight.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

5. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

The single-leg Romanian deadlift is a unilateral (one-legged) exercise that targets the hamstrings and glutes on one leg at a time, improving balance and stability.

Here’s how to perform it:

  1. Stand on one leg with your opposite leg slightly bent and your toes touching the ground. Hold the barbell with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keeping your back straight, hinge forward at the hips, lifting your non-standing leg behind you.
  3. Lower the barbell towards the floor while keeping your hips level.
  4. Lower the barbell until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, but be sure to maintain a neutral spine and avoid rounding your back.
  5. Contract your hamstrings and glutes to lift the barbell and bring your non-standing leg back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps on one leg, then switch to the other leg and repeat the exercise.

Why Barbell Exercises Are Probably Not Enough for Your Hamstring Muscles

Out of the four hamstring muscles, three cross the hip joint (and can thus extend the hip) while four cross the knee joint (and can thus flex the knee).

Research has shown that different exercises can activate different regions of the hamstrings. One study found that leg curls (a knee flexion exercise) resulted in higher muscle activity in the lower hamstring region compared to stiff-legged deadlifts. In the high hamstring region (close to the hip), both exercises resulted in similar muscle activity.1

This might mean that exercises focusing on hip extension, like the barbell exercises above, primarily work the higher regions of the hamstring, and knee flexion exercises like leg curls are more effective for working the lower regions.

Because the hamstring has more effective moment arms for knee flexion than hip extension, and because the glutes and adductors are better hip extensors, a leg curl is possibly the best type of exercise for developing your hamstrings. This is supported by a study that found higher hamstring muscle activity from the Nordic hamstring curl and seated leg curl, than the stiff-leg deadlift, good morning, and back squat.2

Hamstring muscle activity in the barbell squat

In addition, a recent study compared hamstring muscle growth from Nordic hamstring curls (with assistance) to stiff-legged deadlifts.3 Elite rugby players were assigned one of the exercises and trained twice weekly for five weeks.

After five weeks, the biceps femoris thickness had increased by 8% in the Nordic hamstring group and only 4% in the stiff-leg deadlift group.

What is the takeaway?

If you want to maximize your hamstring growth: include a leg curl variant and a hip extension exercise.

Three Hamstring Leg Curl Exercises

As previously mentioned, barbell hamstring exercises which include a lot of hip extension primarily work the top region of your hamstrings. Because of how the hamstring originates from your pelvis (and femur) and inserts on your lower leg, knee flexion (leg curl) exercises are possibly more effective for training your hamstring, and studies support this as well.

So what are some good leg curl exercises?

Let’s begin with what is possibly the best and most practical of all.

1. Seated Leg Curl

The seated leg curl is an isolation exercise for your hamstrings performed in a leg curl machine. In contrast, the barbell hamstring exercises earlier are compound exercises performed with free weights.

The leg curl works your hamstring muscles in knee flexion, and thus complements hip extension exercises like the Romanian deadlift, good morning, and others.

Should you do seated or lying leg curls?

A recent study found that the hamstrings grew 55% more from training seated leg curls than lying leg curls – 14% vs. 9% increase in muscle thickness over 12 weeks of training.4 This difference in muscle growth can probably be explained by the fact that seated leg curls work your hamstrings at a longer muscle length (since your hip is flexed more) than the lying leg curl.

However, the sartorius muscle grew better from training lying leg curls, and gracilis and biceps femoris short head grew equally well from both. Therefore, you might benefit from training both seated and lying leg curls for optimal hamstring growth.

An advantage of the leg curl machine, no matter if you do it seated or lying, is that you can easily set the resistance to fit your current fitness level.

2. Nordic Hamstring Curl

Nordic hamstring curl
Nordic Hamstring Curl

The Nordic hamstring curl is a classic – but very difficult – exercise for your hamstrings.

On the plus side is that you don’t need a lot of equipment, just something to prop your feet under (or a buddy to hold them down) and a soft pad under your knees.

On the negative side is that very few people are strong enough to do them; even a controlled eccentric requires massive hamstring strength.

If you are one of the few who can: congratulations, you have a great hamstring exercise at your disposal that can also decrease your risk of a hamstring injury. A systematic review of 15 studies found that including the Nordic hamstring curl in a training program decreases the risk of hamstring injuries by 50%.5

Glute Ham Raise

Glute ham raise
Glute Ham Raise

The glute ham raise is similar to the Nordic hamstring curl in that your body weight provides resistance. The glute ham raise is, however, often easier to perform because of details in the design of the bench. Because of how your knees are positioned on the knee pad, the moment arms you’re working against are slightly shorter, meaning that you can get away with less strength (or more cheating) on the glute ham raise.

Still, it is a good bodyweight alternative if you don’t have access to a leg curl machine and an excellent tool for building stronger hamstrings to do the Nordic hamstring exercise.

Do Barbell Squats Build Hamstrings?

The barbell back squat is often touted as a good exercise for your hamstrings, but is that really the case?

Let’s look at the evidence.

First of all: the hamstrings’ two main functions are knee flexion (which it is great at) and hip extension (which it is not as great at). The concentric part of the squat entails hip extension (which the hamstring does) and knee extension (which is the opposite of what the hamstring does).

If the hamstring contracts hard during squats, it will try to bend your knee while your quadriceps struggles hard to extend your knee. It will work against the quadriceps, which is one of the prime movers in the squat.

From a biomechanical standpoint, it is more efficient for your body to first utilize the powerful hip extensors that are your glutes and adductors.

A study using biomechanical modeling suggests that it would be very inefficient if your glutes and hamstrings shared hip extension moment demands equally (50/50), as that would tax your quads to the point that you could only lift about 80% of the weight that you are actually capable of in the real world.6

What about muscle activity measured with EMG?

An American study that we’ve mentioned previously tested quadriceps and hamstring muscle activity in 34 collegiate athletes at their 6RM (about 85% of 1RM) in different exercises:

The results?

Barbell back squats had the lowest hamstring activity of all tested exercises: only 27% of MVIC (maximum voluntary isometric contraction).

Hamstring muscle activity in the barbell squat

Squats also had by far the highest quadriceps muscle activity of all exercises – six times greater than that of the second-most quad activating exercises above, which was the good morning and the stiff-legged deadlift.

Expressed as an H:Q (hamstrings:quadriceps) ratio, this put squats well at the rock bottom of the tested exercises.

Hamstrings to Quadriceps ratio of muscle work in the squat

This further implies that the squat is an exercise that, as far as thigh muscles go, trains your knee extensors (quads) and not your knee flexors (hamstrings).

But EMG is not perfect. What about long-term training studies?

If squats work your hamstrings, surely the hamstrings would grow from squat training?

It turns out that they don’t.

A recent study from Japan had participants train squats twice a week for ten weeks.7 They did 3 set x 8 reps per workout and added weight whenever they completed all 3 x 8 reps.

They used MRI to measure muscle volume in the hamstringsquadsglutes, and adductors before and after the training period.


Great – for the quads, glutes, and adductors. For the hamstrings; not so much.

Muscles worked in the squat

The hamstrings didn’t grow at all, while the prime movers saw a typical 5–7% increase in muscle volume.

In conclusion, barbell squats don’t seem to work your hamstring to any significant degree. Hamstring muscle activity measured with EMG is low in the squat, and the hamstrings don’t grow from squat training.

More reading: Do Squats Work Your Hamstrings?

Are Squats or Deadlifts Better for Hamstrings?

As you read in the previous section, squats doesn’t seem to work the hamstring much at all.

The main explanation for that is likely the high degree of knee extension in the squat, an action that is directly opposed by the hamstring.

But what about the deadlift?

The deadlift also involves a degree of knee extension, but with two differences compared to the squat:

First, most of the knee extension in the deadlift happen in the very beginning and in the very end. There is a large portion of the exercise in which the knee doesn’t extend much in comparison to the hip.8 This allows your hamstring to work without inhibiting your quadriceps.

Ratio of hip and knee extension in the deadlift
Ratio of hip and knee extension in the deadlift. Notice how it begins with mostly knee extension, shifts to mostly hip extension, and then shifts back again. (Hales, 2009)

Secondly, knee extension demands are much lower in the deadlift than in the squat, which frees up capacity in your quadriceps to counteract the pull from the hamstrings. Which is helpful, as hip extension demands are higher.

For these two reasons, I believe the deadlift is better for training the hamstrings than the squat is. Because there still is a knee extension movement in the deadlift, however, I still think that an exercise like the Romanian deadlift (where your knees don’t extend) is better.

And a leg curl might be better still.

Do Hip Thrusts Build Hamstrings?

The hip thrust is an exercise that mainly target your glutes, but does it also work your hamstrings?

EMG does indeed show greater muscle activity in the hamstrings from hip thrust than back squats, but that doesn’t mean much.

Perhaps more importantly, the hip thrust and back squat show similar muscle activity in the quadriceps.9

Coupled with the fact that your knees actually extend in the hip thrust, I don’t believe the hip thrust is a very effective hamstring exercise either.

The hip thrust is excellent for the glutes and possibly also for the adductors, but muscle activity is far higher in the quadriceps than in the hamstrings in this exercise.

Do Lunges or Bulgarian Split Squats Build Hamstrings?

I won’t go into too much detail in this question as I’ve already written most of it in the previous sections on the squat and hip thrust, but no, lunges and the Bulgarian split squat are probably not more effective for the hamstring than the back squat is.

The reason is that both types of exercises are variations of a one-legged squat with a significant knee extension component, which means the hamstring is an antagonist, not an agonist.

What Exercise Best Works Hamstrings?

Based on the available evidence, the leg curl is probably one of the best hamstring exercises. It works all four heads of the hamstring muscles in a knee flexion movement, which is one of the hamstrings’ main functions.

For complete hamstring development, you should probably also include a hip extension exercise where your knees are extended throughout the movement, such as the Romanian deadlift or the good morning.

Below, we’ll outline a simple but effective hamstring workout that will hit all parts of your hamstring muscles effectively.

Hamstring Workout

The exercises below use all the most effective hamstring exercises and target all three hamstring muscles and their two main functions: hip extension and knee flexion.

StrengthLog’s Hamstring Workout

  1. Romanian Deadlift: 4 sets x 8 reps
  2. Seated Leg Curl: 3 sets x 12 reps
  3. Lying Leg Curl: 2 sets x 20 reps

This hamstring workout is available for free in our workout log app.

By tracking your workouts in the app, you keep track of your weights and reps so that you can easily remember (and, more importantly: try to improve on them) on your next leg day.

Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:

Download StrengthLog Workout Log on App Store
Download StrengthLog Workout Log on Google Play Store

Now What?

I hope you enjoyed this article on barbell hamstring exercises, and effective hamstring training in general.

If you want to learn more about how to train different muscles effectively, check out our muscle group training guides.

Looking for a strength training program? Check out our full list of strength training programs.

Alternatively, you can check out some of our most popular training programs (that includes hamstring training) below:

  • StrengthLog’s 5-Day Split. 5x/week. A premium program designed for the intermediate to advanced lifter who wants to build muscle like a bodybuilder and get stronger in the three powerlifting lifts.
  • StrengthLog’s Upper/Lower Body Split Program. 4x/week. One of our most popular programs. Four workouts per week, emphasizing getting stronger in the compound lifts. For both muscle growth and strength gain!
  • Bodybuilding for Beginners. 3x/week. Do you want to get started in bodybuilding? Begin your muscle-building journey with three full-body workouts per week!
  • German Volume Training. 3x/week. A minimalistic training program based around doing supersets of 10 sets x 10 reps in the big lifts. The primary aim of the program is to build muscle, but you can expect to gain strength as well.

Thank you for reading, buddy!


  1. Regional differences in muscle activation during hamstrings exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jan;29(1):159-64.
  2. Hamstring activation during lower body resistance training exercises. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Mar;4(1):84-96.
  3. Muscular adaptations to training programs using the Nordic hamstring exercise or the stiff-leg deadlift in rugby players. Sport Sci Health (2021).
  4. Greater Hamstrings Muscle Hypertrophy but Similar Damage Protection after Training at Long versus Short Muscle Lengths. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020 Oct 1.
  5. Including the Nordic hamstring exercise in injury prevention programmes halves the rate of hamstring injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 8459 athletes. Br J Sports Med. 2019 Feb 26.
  6. Quadriceps effort during squat exercise depends on hip extensor muscle strategy. Sports Biomech. 2015 Mar;14(1):122-38.
  7. Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Sep;119(9):1933-1942.
  8. Kinematic analysis of the powerlifting style squat and the conventional deadlift during competition: is there a cross-over effect between lifts? J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Dec;23(9):2574-80.
  9. A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyographic Activity in the Back Squat and Barbell Hip Thrust Exercises. J Appl Biomech. 2015 Dec;31(6):452-8.
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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.