One training, five steps
Hamstrings are often an afterthought. As a result, most people have hamstrings that are sorely lacking in both size and strength.
Here’s a simple five step recipe for building hamstrings that look great, perform at their best, and may even help you touch those toes again. Simply choose the exercises that sound appealing to you and follow the set and repetition instructions. Do all five steps in one workout.
Step 1: find and feel
The mind-muscle connection is the feeling that you are going deep into your muscle when you press on top of a curl of biceps or block at the end of a leg extension.
Certain muscles lend themselves to this type of sensory connection ̵
The repair? Do a few hamstring isolation exercises, specifically designed to strengthen sensory awareness and connection, before moving on to larger multi-joint exercises.
I know they aren’t overly exciting, but all you need to do is choose ONE of the following exercises for 1-3 sets of 5-8 reps:
One-legged hamstring bridge
Learning to engage the hamstrings in isolation forms the biomechanical basis for using them in complex movements such as hinging and walking.
Foam roller bridge with co-contraction
The traditional hip bridge, where you push through your heel and lift your hips as high as possible, targets the gluteal muscles. Here, we’re using the mid-range of knee flexion – about 130-150 degrees – combined with a contraction of the calves to activate the hamstrings in a way that mimics running and is a more realistic exercise for athletes to carry over.
Step 2: load and explode
Most people spend most of their training at the end of the strength-speed curve, focusing more on lifting progressively heavier weights (strength) than increasing the speed of the bar (speed).
That’s fine if your primary goal is hypertrophy, but it also leads to one-dimensional muscle development that doesn’t translate into performance. Somewhere in the middle – between power and speed – there is a “sweet spot” where a respectably heavy weight is lifted at an impressively high speed.
This is where peak power exercises live – a bridge between real warm-up exercises and the difficult things that lie ahead of us. Choose ONE or TWO of the following exercises and do 1-3 sets for 5-10 repetitions at maximum speed:
Long jumps move along a horizontal axis, elongating the hamstrings eccentrically along the lines of a hinge (as opposed to a box jump, which moves on a vertical path).
Reverse Medicine Ball Throw
This is all about integrating the lower back, glutes, and shoulders into a single, fast, explosive concentric contraction. It’s best to do this outdoors, especially if the gym has a chandelier.
Kettlebells can be a great tool for strength development by combining fast speeds with the weight and activating the stretch shortening cycle for a powerful concentric contraction. Here we use it as a ballistic exercise – similar to a medball throw, but harder and without leaving your feet.
Step 3: apply tension
Muscles grow in direct response to mechanical tension. That said, you need to put on the weight and grind the reps. Stick to compound bilateral lifts for maximum exposure and recruitment. You will have time to enjoy yourself later.
Choose an exercise for 1-3 sets below. Keep the reps for hypertrophy in the range of 5 to 10.
Straight bar deadlift
The benefit of using a straight bar is the ability to load heavy weights and maximally recruit the hamstrings. The downside is increased lower back stress, which isn’t a big deal for most people, but can be a non-starter for some.
Trap bar deadlift
The advantage of the air-termination rod? Heavy resilience with minimal back involvement and strong transfer to athletic performance. While position generally pulls the quadriceps more into the exercise than the traditional deadlift, depending on your injury history and tolerance to back extensor loads, this is often a worthwhile trade.
The RDL is often blocked as an additional exercise, but this is wrong. No other type of deadlift comes close to the feeling – the stretch and then the contraction – that you get from a range of heavy duty RDLs. Remember that muscle hypertrophy is a local phenomenon. So if hamstring growth is the goal, RDLs hit the bull’s eye every time.
Step 4: add volume and metabolic stress
Here is your chance to get creative. Ease the burden a little; play around with different angles, force vectors, and exercises; and accumulate tissue-specific volume. Choose one or two exercises for 3-5 sets below. Shoot for 8-12 reps.
Back foot on the wall dumbbell RDL
This variation of the traditional RDL places the back foot against a wall for added stability, neutralizing the balance challenges many people seem to face during this exercise.
Lying BOSU Hamstring Curl
One of the biggest mistakes with hamstring curls is the excessive arching of the lower back when the knee goes into flexion. This flexes the hips and rolls the pelvis forward, placing the hamstrings in an overly elongated position where they cannot generate effective force.
To counter this, slide a BOSU ball – yes, that thing – under your stomach to keep your back in flexion and your hips in extension, where the hamstrings can maximally work to bend the knee.
Nordic hamstring curl
The eccentric or breaking action of the Achilles tendon is important for sprinting, jumping, and jumping but is often neglected. Not only that, but eccentric exercises build a ton of strength that will help strengthen your numbers on the bar.
No need to complicate this. However, they are already tough, perhaps too tough for most people. If you need help, pull some tape around the top of a squat cage for extra help.
Step 5: build capacity
Capacity is the ability to maintain form and motor control under fatigue. The problem is, most high-rep endurance exercises target the quads far more than the hamstrings. So you have to be strategic.
Choose one of the following exercises. Switch between the two options each time you workout. Pick a fixed distance and start with 8-10 sets. Increase the volume by 2 sets per week.
Slide push with hip extension
Most people associate quads and calves with sled pushes, but you can easily shift the focus of the exercise to the hamstrings. First, pull your rib cage down and back and roll your tailbone under you – just like you would with a stomach plank. This allows the hamstrings to work better.
Next, push the floor away through your heel instead of your forefoot to help keep your hamstrings working.
Sprints are the ultimate test of hamstring strength and athleticism. You build explosive strength, elasticity of the connective tissue, muscle stiffness, and reflexive control of the chest and pelvis. When repeated, they also improve cardio-respiratory fitness, give you a bigger motor, and improve your ability to recover between workouts.
The problem is, sprints can also be risky, especially if you haven’t done them in a while. So start with 50-75% effort and save the top end stuff until you are ready (usually work out up to the fourth or fifth). Even then, save 100% effort on the last repetitions.
One last thing …
Hamstring training is an important part of a comprehensive program, but most people screw it up with random exercises or go below target with insufficient volume. Follow this five-step template like a recipe in a cookbook, and customize the time or number of exercises you choose at each step to help you achieve your goals.
Related: The Absolute Best Way To Build Hamstrings
Related: Hamstring Hammering –6 New Exercise