Your hamstring muscles, or hamstrings, are one of the large muscle groups in your legs. They are primarily responsible for extending your hip and flexing your leg, and they are involved in everything from lifting to sprinting.
In this article, you will learn how to train your hamstrings effectively. From hamstring muscle anatomy to the best exercises for increasing your hamstring muscle mass and strength. And then we’ll put it all together into one effective hamstring workout.
Hamstring Muscle Anatomy
Your hamstrings are located on the back of your thighs and consist of semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris.
All three muscles originate from your sitting bone, on the back and bottom end of your pelvis. An exception is biceps femoris which has two heads:
- The long head, which originates from the sitting bone.
- The short head, which originates from the back of your femur (thigh bone).
All three muscles (including both heads of the biceps femoris) then cross over your knee joint and insert in your lower leg: the biceps femoris inserts on the outside of your fibula, and semitendinosus and semimembranosus inserts on the inside of your tibia.
Since the hamstring muscles cross over both the hip and knee joint, they can act upon both joints with:
- Hip extension. Extending your hip, like in the Romanian deadlift or the good morning.
- Knee flexion. Flex (bend) your knee, like in a leg curl.
Additionally, the hamstrings are important antagonists to your quads, responsible for decelerating your leg when you’re swinging it forward while walking or running. It can also rotate your lower leg both inward and outward when your knee is bent.
Hamstring Exercises: The Best Exercises for Building Your Hamstrings
In this section, we’ll take a look at three hamstring exercises with slightly different benefits and training effects, that also complement each other in terms of which of the hamstring muscles they target.
By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great hamstring workout.
1. Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift works the hip extending function of your hamstrings, which means that all hamstring muscles are trained except for the short head of the biceps femoris.
Many people can get a great mind-muscle connection to their hamstrings in the Romanian deadlift, and I recommend that you prioritize muscle contact over weight in this exercise.
Use lifting straps if necessary. The point is to train your hamstrings, not your grip.
2. Seated Leg Curl
A recent study found that the hamstrings grew 55% more from training seated leg curls compared to lying leg curls – 14% vs. 9% increase in muscle thickness over 12 weeks of training.1 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.
3. Lying Leg Curl
The lying leg curl complements the previous two exercises by working the hamstrings at a slightly different position, and by combining all three into one workout, you might reap better hamstring muscle growth.
Don’t stress the details too much, however. Does one of the leg curl exercises feel way better than the other, or is one even causing you pain? Then you shouldn’t hesitate to stick to only the leg curl variant that you prefer, if that means that you will enjoy your workouts more and stay pain-free.
What about the Nordic Hamstring?
I’d be remiss if I wrote about hamstring training and didn’t mention the Nordic Hamstring exercise. It has been shown to reduce the risk of hamstring injuries in sports by about 50% in multiple studies.2
The nordic hamstring exercise is a great exercise if:
- You are able to do it at all, or …
- You are training to reduce the risk of a hamstring strain from sports like sprinting, soccer, or football.
However, most people cannot do the concentric portion of the nordic hamstring, and especially not for multiple reps. Therefore, in the context of building the muscle mass of your hamstrings, and with availability for the majority of trainees in mind, we have not included the nordic hamstring among the recommended exercises in this article or in the workout below. But, you may of course add it of your own volition!
What about the Squat?
The squat is often touted as a great hamstring exercise, so why isn’t it included here?
Because it is likely incorrect.
The squat consist of (among other movements) hip and knee extension. While the hamstrings are hip extensors, they are also knee flexors, and thus antagonists to your quads. Therefore, any force generated by the hamstrings for hip extension is also added to the burden of the quads. Since the quads are already taxed very hard in the squat, it would be biomechanically counterproductive to also have them overcome a large force from the hamstrings.
Studies have shown not only that the hamstrings are not very active in the squat,3 but also that even after ten weeks of two squat training sessions per week, the hamstrings doesn’t show any muscle growth at all.4
While I do love the squat and think it is great for a lot of things, hamstring growth doesn’t seem to be one of them.
Hamstring Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength
So what does an effective hamstring workout look like?
Building on the exercises above, let’s construct an example workout, drawing on several principles:
- The exercises target all three hamstring muscles, and their two main functions: hip extension and knee flexion.
- The load and rep range covers a wide spectrum, ranging from medium-low reps with medium-heavy weights, all the way up to high reps with light weights.
This workout is aimed at both strength and muscle growth, and you will be able to get good results of both with it.
Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.
StrengthLog’s Hamstring Workout
This hamstring workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.
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This hamstring workout begins with four working sets of Romanian deadlift. This exercise will cover the hamstrings’ hip extending functions, which includes all parts of the hamstrings except for biceps femoris’ short head.
Strive to increase the weight you are using in this exercise (or in all exercises, for that matter) each workout, but prioritize muscle contact and technique. The Romanian deadlift is an exercise where you place your muscles under heavy load at a long muscle length, and it is wise to take things slowly to avoid any injury.
Focus on getting a good mind-muscle connection with your hamstrings, use lifting straps if that helps, and get stronger by increasing the weight whenever you feel that your technique can handle it.
After training the hip extending function of the hamstrings, you’ll move on to the knee flexing function. In the seated and lying leg curl, your hip is fixed while your knee is moving, which means that your hamstrings will work solely as knee flexors. This targets all three muscles of the hamstrings, including the short head of the biceps femoris.
By using both seated and lying leg curls, you may cover a greater number of hamstring muscle fibers and thus get greater muscle growth. Focus on muscle contact and “squeezing” the muscle in these exercises, but still add weight whenever possible to keep up your hamstring muscle growth.
And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your hamstring muscle anatomy, what some effective hamstring exercises are, and how you can combine them into one awesome hamstring workout.
Please feel free to download our workout app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains. Remember to try and increase the weight you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.
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- 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.
- Br J Sports Med. 2019 Feb 26. Including the Nordic hamstring exercise in injury prevention programmes halves the rate of hamstring injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 8459 athletes.
- Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Mar;4(1):84-96. Hamstring Activation During Lower Body Resistance Training Exercises.
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Jun 22. doi: 10.1007/s00421-019-04181-y. Epub 2019 Jun 22. Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes.