The 10 Best Hamstring Exercises for Muscle & Strength

If you want to build big and powerful thighs, you need to train your hamstrings.

Your hamstrings are the muscles on the back of your legs, that, when well-developed, create a curved “sweep” along your back thigh. For athletic purposes, strong hamstrings play a key role in sprinting, walking, and lifting.

In this article, we’ll review ten of the best hamstring exercises you can do in or out of the gym. We’ll cover exercises for developing all three muscles of your hamstrings and their different regions.

Let’s get into it!

Hamstring Muscle Anatomy

To pick the best hamstring exercises, you must first have a basic understanding of your hamstring muscles.

Your hamstrings are large, but still third in size to your other thigh muscles: the quadriceps and adductors.1

The hamstrings are a group of three muscles that run along the back of your thighs.

These muscles are, in order of size:

  1. Biceps femoris
  2. Semitendinosus
  3. Semimembranosus

The muscles originate from your sitting bone at the bottom of your pelvis, run along the back of your thigh, and insert into your lower leg under your knee joint.

Hamstring muscle
The hamstring muscle group.

The biceps femoris is an exception to the above, as it actually has two heads (bi = two, ceps = heads): one originating from your sitting bone, and one originating from the thigh bone. Both heads then join together into one tendon inserted into your lower leg.

Your hamstring muscles cross both your hip and knee joints, and can thus:

  1. Bend your knee (like in a leg curl), and
  2. Extend your hip (like in a Romanian deadlift)

These movements work different parts of your hamstrings.

And, because the muscles cross over two joints, their muscle length is also affected by your position. For example: if you do leg curls with a straight or bent hip.

With the anatomy crash course out of the way, let’s move on to the best exercises for working your hamstrings.

1. Seated Leg Curl

The seated leg curl is an isolation exercise that works your hamstrings’ flexing (bending) function.

If you were only to do a single hamstring exercise, the seated leg curl would be a great choice.

One study found that seated leg curls resulted in higher hamstring muscle activity than the stiff-leg deadlift, good morning, and back squat.2

Another study found that the hamstrings grew 55% more from training seated leg curls than lying leg curls – a 14% vs. 9% increase in muscle thickness over 12 weeks of training.3

This difference in muscle growth might be explained by the fact that seated leg curls work your hamstrings in a longer muscle length (since your hip is bent), and lying leg curls work your hamstrings at a shorter muscle length (since your hip is almost straight). And the evidence is mounting that training at longer muscle lengths is superior for muscle growth.4

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.

How to Do Seated Leg Curls

  1. Adjust the machine so that you are correctly positioned. Your knees should be in line with the machine’s joint.
  2. Push the weight down by bending your knees as far as possible.
  3. Slowly let the weight back again.

2. Lying Leg Curl

The lying leg curl is another great isolation exercise for your hamstrings. Compared to its seated variation, your hamstrings are at a shorter muscle length in this exercise because your hip is more extended.

The lying leg curl seems slightly less effective than the seated leg curl for growing your hamstring muscles as a whole, but it does work your sartorius muscle a little better, and might also work your hamstring muscles in slightly different regions.

Including some sets of both exercises in your workout routine might be a good idea for hamstring growth.

How to Do Lying Leg Curls

  1. Adjust the machine so that you are correctly positioned. Your knees should be in line with the machine’s joint.
  2. Lift the weight by bending your knees as far as possible.
  3. Slowly lower the weight again.

3. Nordic Hamstring

Nordic hamstring curl
Nordic Hamstring Curl. (Unfortunately, everyone in the office called in sick on the day we had planned to film this exercise.)

The last leg curl on this list is the toughest one of them all. Not many people can perform the Nordic hamstring curl, especially not the concentric (upward) phase.

You might be able to work around this by using resistance bands or some other tool to do assisted Nordic hamstring curls, but otherwise, you are left to build up your hamstring strength with leg curls, and, when strong enough, doing eccentric-only Nordic hamstring curls until strong enough for the whole ordeal.

How to Do Nordic Hamstring Curls

  1. Fix your feet under something to hold them in place or have a training partner hold them down, and place a soft pad under your knees.
  2. With a straight hip, slowly lower yourself down toward the ground. Be prepared to catch yourself with your hands if the exercise gets too heavy.
  3. When you touch the ground, use your hands to get back into the starting position (eccentric-only curls), or contract your hamstrings hard to lift yourself up using only hamstring strength.

4. Romanian Deadlift

We’ve now looked at three different exercises that work your hamstrings’ knee-flexing function. It is time to turn our eyes to their other function: hip extension.

The Romanian deadlift is probably one of the best barbell hamstring exercises you can do, and it has been shown to activate the biceps femoris to a similar extent as the lying leg curl.5

In this exercise, your knees are fixed straight throughout the lift. Because of this, your hamstrings are free to work on extending your hips, targeting the higher regions of your hamstrings.

You can probably maximize muscle growth by incorporating both exercise types (a leg curl and a hip hinge exercise) in your hamstring workouts.

How to Do Romanian Deadlifts

  1. Get into the starting position by deadlifting a barbell off the floor or unracking it from a barbell rack.
  2. Inhale, brace your core slightly, and lean forward by hinging your hips. Keep your knees almost completely extended.
  3. Lean forward as far as possible without rounding your back. You don’t have to touch the barbell to the floor, although it is OK if you do.
  4. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Exhale on the way up.
  5. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

5. Stiff-Legged Deadlift

The stiff-leg deadlift is similar to the Romanian deadlift, with the main difference being that the barbell starts and stops on the floor between reps. It resembles the standard deadlift, but performed with almost straight and fixed knees.

One study found that the stiff-legged deadlift didn’t activate the hamstrings’ lower regions (close to the knee) to the same extent as the lying-leg curl and that there wasn’t a difference in activation in the higher regions (close to the hip).6

This furthers the case that it might be a good idea to include different types of exercises (hip extension and knee flexion) in your hamstrings workout routine.

How to Do Stiff-Leg Deadlifts

  1. Step up close to the bar, so that it is about over the middle of your foot. Keep your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Inhale, lean forward with only a slight bend in your knees, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar in a straight line.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you have reached a standing position.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control, still keeping your legs straight.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

6. Good Morning

The good morning is another barbell back exercise that works your hamstrings in hip extension. This is also a classic powerlifting accessory exercise for increasing your strength in the squat and deadlift.

Make the most out of this exercise by starting with a light weight (around 50% of your squat weights is a good starting point) and focusing on good form and muscle contact in the back of the thighs.

How to Do Good Mornings

  1. Place the bar on your upper back, above your shoulder blades. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
  2. Take two steps back, and place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  3. Inhale and hold your breath, and lean forward by hinging your hips. Imagine that you are trying to push your butt back as far as possible.
  4. Lean forward as far as you can with a straight back, and without the bar rolling forward.
  5. Your knees will bend slightly, but most of the movement takes place in the hips.
  6. With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips again while exhaling.
  7. At the top, inhale and repeat for reps.

7. Deadlift

The deadlift is one of the most classic barbell exercises of all and works your entire posterior chain, your hamstrings included.

Of the hamstring muscles, the deadlift seems to work the semitendinosus more than the biceps femoris.7

The conventional deadlift seems to activate the hamstrings less so than the Romanian deadlift and stiff-legged deadlift, but more than the sumo or trap bar deadlift.

How to Deadlift with Proper Form

  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 are standing straight.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

8. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

If you want to do Romanian deadlifts but increase the training effect for your gluteus medius and obliques, you can opt for the single-leg Romanian deadlift.

A benefit of the single-leg variation of this exercise, except increased glute medius and oblique activation, is that you get a lower total load on your spine, which makes it popular among lifters who want to continue training their glutes and hamstrings while rehabbing or resting their lower back.

You will also be able to spot side-to-side differences in strength or coordination, and can use this exercise to bring up your weaker (or “less strong”) side.

A third benefit of the single-leg deadlift is that you can get a good hamstring workout in with a lighter weight, making it a good alternative for a leg workout at home.

How to Do Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts

  1. Stand upright and hold the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Brace your core, and lift one leg off the ground.
  3. Keep the back straight and start to lean forward by hinging at the hips. Lower until you feel a stretch in the standing leg’s hamstring. Make sure to keep your hips still, you don’t want the side with your lifted leg to start rotating upwards.
  4. Return to the starting position. Finish all your reps on one side first, and then repeat on the other leg.

9. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

Another variation of the Romanian deadlift is to use a pair of dumbbells instead of a barbell.

The main drawback of this is that even beginners can use quite a lot of weight in the Romanian deadlift, and heavy dumbbells are more impractical and difficult to hold on to than a barbell.

Still, dumbbell Romanian deadlifts can be a great hamstring and glute exercise for getting started or for home workouts.

How to Do Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts

  1. Stand upright holding a pair of dumbbells.
  2. Inhale, brace your core slightly, and lean forward by hinging in your hips. Keep your knees almost completely extended.
  3. Lean forward as far as possible without rounding your back. You don’t have to touch the dumbbells to the floor, although it is OK if you do.
  4. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Exhale on the way up.
  5. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

10. Kettlebell Swing

Last, but definitely not least, is the kettlebell swing. This exercise measured the highest hamstring muscle activity in a comparison of nine hamstring exercises.8

The kettlebell is a useful tool for hamstring workouts at home, as a kettlebell doesn’t require a lot of storage space, and is comparatively cheap.

Remember that the kettlebell swing is supposed to work your posterior chain muscles: your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back – not your arms or shoulders.

A trick to getting this right is to think of the swing as a “back and forth” exercise, not “up and down”.

How to Do Kettlebell Swings

  1. Place a kettlebell on the ground, about one or two feet before you.
  2. Take a wide stance, lean forward, and grip the kettlebell.
  3. Brace your core slightly, and swing the kettlebell back between your legs, while inhaling.
  4. Swing the kettlebell forward by extending your hip, while exhaling.
  5. Try to swing the kettlebell to about chest height.
  6. Repeat for reps and put the kettlebell back on the ground when finished.

How Many Hamstring Exercises Should You Do?

How many hamstring exercises you should do depends on your training goal, how much time you want to invest, and how important it is to get optimal hamstring development compared to “just” good hamstring development.

Below are recommendations for the goal of muscle hypertrophy. If your goal is instead to increase your squat and deadlift strength, you should take a look at our powerlifting programs.

Minimalist Approach

A minimalist approach is just to pick one great hamstring exercise. According to science, the seated leg curl is a great exercise for developing your hamstring in general.

If you perform the flat bench press, you will grow much of your hamstrings effectively, but with an emphasis on your lower hamstring regions.

While you can probably build decent hamstrings using only the seat leg curl, you will not get optimal development of the upper hamstring regions.

Optimal Hamstring Growth

If you want to optimize your hamstring muscle growth, I suggest that you pick two different exercises, that target your hamstring differently:

  1. A leg curl. Like the seated leg curl or lying leg curl.
  2. A hip extension. Like the Romanian deadlift, stiff-leg deadlift, or deadlift.

Working your hamstrings “from both ends” will work both the upper and lower regions and maximize total hamstring muscle growth.

If you want to get even more granular, you could try doing both seated leg curls and lying leg curls, as they might work your hamstrings in slightly different places.

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do of Each Hamstring Exercise?

How many reps you should do primarily depends on what your goal is.

  • If your primary goal is hamstring muscle growth, I suggest you do most of your hamstring training between 6–15 reps per set.
  • If your primary goal is strength gain, I suggest you do most of your hamstring training in the 3–8 reps per set range.
  • If you want to increase both strength and muscle size, you could do a little bit of both: begin with fewer reps and heavier weights in the compound exercises like the barbell lifts, and finish your workout with more reps and lighter weights in the isolation exercises like the leg curl.

The third alternative above is how we’ve structured our hamstring workout.

Regarding how many sets you should do, research has found that more sets lead to greater muscle growth up to the point of about ten sets per muscle per week.9

This is based mainly on studies with previously untrained participants, and it is likely that you will require slightly higher training volumes to keep growing as you get more trained. Up to 15 to 20 sets per muscle group and week is not uncommon for trained individuals to do, but you should be careful not to do too much too soon, as that increases your risk of injury.

You should also consider the number of hamstring exercises you wish to include in order to work all parts of them and distribute your sets among these exercises.

For example, 50% of your hamstring workout sets might be leg curls, and 50% might be hip extensions.

Hamstring Workouts for Muscle & Strength Gains

Don’t want to design your own hamstring workout?

Then follow ours!

Our hamstring workout is designed to add muscle mass to all muscles in your hamstrings and utilizes both low and high-rep sets to maximize strength and muscle growth.

It is available for free in our workout log app, which you can download with the links below.

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

I hope you learned something from this list of the best hamstring exercises, and wish you good luck with your hamstring training!


  1. Okajimas Folia Anat Jpn. 1996 Dec;73(5):247-51. Morphological analysis of the human lower extremity based on the relative muscle weight.
  2. Hamstring activation during lower body resistance training exercises. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Mar;4(1):84-96.
  3. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020 Oct 1. Online ahead of print. Greater Hamstrings Muscle Hypertrophy but Similar Damage Protection after Training at Long versus Short Muscle Lengths.
  4. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 37(5):p 1135-1144, May 2023. Which ROMs Lead to Rome? A Systematic Review of the Effects of Range of Motion on Muscle Hypertrophy.
  5. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jun;28(6):1573-80. Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises.
  6. Regional differences in muscle activation during hamstrings exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jan;29(1):159-64.
  7. PLoS One. 2020; 15(2): e0229507. Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review.
  8. What Is the Best Exercise for the Hamstrings? ACE Certified.
  9. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
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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.