If you've read part 1- The 5 Functions of your Hamstrings you understand why your hamstrings are vital to your results whether they’re cosmetic, athletic, or simply to avoid future pain and injury, how should you go about training them?
Our first job is to activate our hamstrings. Because they’ve been sat on, abused and ignored they’re quite difficult to make a connection with without first priming them.
We need to rebuild the inter and intra-muscular coordination necessary to get our hamstrings firing as they should.
For this task, movements that involve balance and co-ordination between muscle groups are great. They re-teach you where the hamstrings sit in relation to other key muscle groups during movements- notably the musculature of the hips and core.
For the hamstrings to be in an advantageous position for proper activation, the hips need to be well set (in their neutral position- i.e your glutes need to be squeezed!) and your core needs to be engaged to enforce the correct hip position. If your hips and lower back are pushed back into extension, the hamstrings are dragged with them and can no longer contract as they should.
For both of these exercises then it is VITALLY important that you concentrate on what your hips and core are doing. You want them braced and solid throughout!
I don’t mean the card game.
Lie on your back and draw your feet up towards you. Your heels will be roughly 6 inches away from your backside.
From here, brace your core and squeeze your glutes whilst driving your hips up.
Don’t expect to feel it in your glutes and hamstrings right away. Remember that if you haven’t been on speaking terms, so this exercise is about starting the neural conversation back up.
3 sets of 12 are a good place to start as a warm-up.
As you progress with these, you can move to a single leg variation, using one leg at a time to extend your hip.
This movement is also a hip extender, but demands a lot more stability and control at the knee.
Make sure you’re comfortable with the bridge first before moving on to this one- it’s slightly more demanding.
But, that’s why it’s good at improving your co-ordination and proprioception in the working muscle groups.
Bracing your core is going to be even more important here, because if you don’t you’re going to topple over. This exercise really does teach you about stabilisation and balance!
You’re going to stand on one leg and hinge at your hip. You will feel a good stretch in the hamstring as you lower yourself and push your hips back and a solid contraction as you use your glutes and hamstring to extend the hip to stand back up.
You’re going to aim to extend the leg that’s not on the floor and imaging touching the wall behind you with your toe.
The arm on the opposite side of your body (so if you’re stood on your left leg and pushing your right leg back, this will be your left arm) is going to reach out in front of you.
It’s sometimes easier to balance if you give yourself something to reach to.
If you can’t handle the balance aspect at all then begin by holding onto something to steady yourself, but you should still be aiming to feel a stretch and contraction in the working leg and be pushing the other leg forcefully behind you.
It’s best to start with less reps per set of these because they demand quite a bit of concentration!
Do 3 sets of 6 reps per leg but aim to do more reps and sets as you start to improve your balance and co-ordination.
Once you’re back on speaking terms with your hamstrings then it’s time we gave them some solid love.
These exercises are some tried and true methods that’ll grant you powerful, sexy and injury proof hammies.
Deadlift Variations (Extension)-
Any deadlift is going to be a big boost to your hamstrings so long as you’re doing them right. A solid deadlift should be a staple in your hamstring training.
If your form is questionable with a barbell or you’ve never deadlifted before then start with something easier like a kettlebell deadlift. Because you can set up with your hips directly over the top of the kettlebell and the bell can move between your legs during the movement, the weight is automatically set beneath your centre of gravity.
There’s none of the complications inherent with a barbell and you can focus solely on getting a good hip hinge and a solid hip extension.
If you are comfortable with more complex deadlift variations then use those too. Romanian, stiff-leg, snatch grip, deficit, rack-pull, conventional, sumo- all of these deadlifts will involve your hamstrings and train them to extend the hip.
The real trick to progress is to rotate these exercises periodically to avoid stagnation in your adaptation. It doesn’t have to be a ground-breaking change, but just a slight change in variation is often enough to keep the gains ticking over and avoid the over-use injuries that can come along with too much repetition.
A small change in variation every 6 to 8 weeks is enough. That gives you long enough to juice the benefit out of one variation then move onto another in the rotation. You can always come back to the variation in the following cycles.
(The only caveat to this is if you’re preparing for a barbell specific sport such as powerlifting. Using variations are a great idea in certain periods of your training but if you’re in the run up to a competition then you should be using a variation that’s very like the style you will use in competition to improve your efficiency in that movement.)
Romanian DL, Snatch Grip Dl, Deficit DL, Rack Pull, Sumo DL
Kettlebell swings (Extension)-
Swings are like a deadlift done dynamically. You CANNOT perform a swing slowly. It’s physically impossible, so a swing teaches you to extend your hips with power.
This is important for performance as powerful hip extension is necessary for almost every sport on earth.
However, the quick, dynamic movement is also important for training the tolerance of your hamstrings.
Your muscles have their own traction control system in the form of golgi organ tendons and muscle spindles which respond to muscular tension and stretch accordingly. When the muscle is subjected to degrees of tension or stretch that are outside of the nervous systems comfort zone, the traction control comes on and the golgi organs and spindles involuntarily relax the working muscle.
In order to improve athletic performance, we need this not to happen! Which means we need to increase the threshold at which the golgi-organs and muscle spindles shut down power development by causing our muscles to relax.
We can do this through rapid stretch-shortening cycles that recruit high levels of our powerful type II muscle fibres with steadily increasing load over time (i.e with kettlebell swings that get heavier over weeks and months!)
Swings then are a valuable tool to train our hamstrings to perform at maximum efficiency. Because we are going to be using them as a power movement 8 reps per set is plenty. Allow yourself adequate rest to ensure that the following set can be performed with maximum power again.
3 sets of 8 reps aiming to increase weight or sets.
Nordic Hamstring Curls (Flexion)-
These are a game-changer.
When I was suffering from a hamstring tendon injury, this exercise stitched me back together.
I’d bet my car that you’ve never felt your hamstrings work like you will doing these too!
This is arguably the toughest knee flexion hamstring exercise going, but you can modify it to suit your ability and get the benefit.
You’ll need a barbell with full size Olympic plates that’s loaded down enough that it’s not going to move and wedged in against something to stop it rolling. One of those barbell pads (that you shouldn’t be using for squats!) and a yoga mat are also useful to make the exercise more comfortable.
(NB- the set-up can be a little tricky, but I’ve included my two favourite methods in the images)
Set up so that your heels are wedged under the barbell (with the pad attached- believe me, it’s not pleasant doing it metal to skin- the ensuing pain will also limit how much force you can create) with your knees on the yoga mat.
From here, squeeze your glutes and brace your abs and lower your body towards the floor under control. Once you’re there, using your arms to press yourself back to the start of the movement.
The first time you do these, you won’t get very far before you want to collapse onto the floor.
But here are my favourite ways of progressing the exercise so that you can steadily improve your control.
The banded method-
For this one you’ll need a resistance band and somewhere above your head to anchor it.
Hold the band over your head and let it take some of the slack as you lower yourself toward the floor.
The band is also the best method for beginning to train the concentric action of the Nordic too (coming back up after lowering yourself!), but for at least the first 8 weeks, focus only on lowering yourself down.
The box method-
Use a box set in-front of you just beneath your sticking point to lower yourself to before pressing yourself back to the start position. You can progress by using incrementally lower boxes as your strength and control improves.
The hold method-
Lower yourself to a point just before you’d lose control and hold there for 2 or 3 seconds. Lower yourself to the floor, press back up and repeat.
Because this is an eccentric movement, it’s fantastic for building tendon strength that’s both useful for rehab and prehab. Training your tendons to withstand tension is as important as training the muscle itself.
However, because it’s eccentric it’s also pretty hard on the muscle and on the nervous system. It’s easy to overdo these and put yourself into a hole of muscle soreness and fatigue.
You’ll need to build up your tolerance over-time so start with 2 sets of 3 reps only. The following week, do 3 sets of 3 and the week after do a set of 4 reps, followed by 2 sets of 3. Then 2 sets of 4 and a set of 3 etc etc.
Eventually you’ll have enough strength and control that you’ll not only be able to lower yourself, but also use your hamstrings to pull yourself back up!
Banded Nordic, Nordic rack set-up with Barbell held in place by the squat rack, Nordic with Box
Single leg deadlifts (Extension)-
Remember the superman from earlier?
This is basically those but with a kettlebell in the hand you would have pushed out in front of you.
“Why do I need to do single leg deadlifts if I’m already doing deadlifts?” you may ask. Because how often in sport or life do you create power from a strictly uniform position stood on two feet? More often you’re favouring one leg or only stood on one leg.
Learning to create force in this position is a good idea. Plus, the muscular contraction in the hamstring and glute is strong even with lighter loads, which saves the spine and the nervous system from constant heavy loading.
Training to improve balance also never hurt anyone’s fitness.
Kettlebells or dumbbells are the preferred method of loading for these and only loading one side also forces you to stay honest with your core- if you don’t you’re going to be wiggling and wobbling all over the place!
These are a better hip extension exercise to do for higher reps. 2 or 3 sets of 10-12 reps will start you off.
Sliders and Swiss ball rollouts (Flexion)-
Both of these exercises are kind of hybrids between bridges and leg curls. Both are fantastic for your hamstrings and can illicit some serious hypertrophy.
Doing them with floor sliders is the less difficult option, however not many gyms have floor sliders (you can get your own for cheap though- they’re about £10 on Amazon) or you can use a towel on a laminate floor surface.
You probably have a swiss ball at your gym but doing them on a swiss ball does introduce more instability to the movement. If you can handle the instability, then keep doing them on the swiss ball! The extra stimulation will do you good in the long run.
Set up like you’re going to do a bridge, except your feet will be on the sliders or up on the swiss ball.
Keep your glutes and core braced and straighten your knees, pushing the sliders or ball away from you.
When you reach the point that you feel like you can’t extend anymore, then use your hamstrings to flex your knee and pull your heels back towards your backside.
You may not feel like you can push the sliders or ball very far from you the first few times you do these. You should aim to increase the distance instead of reps or sets until you can reach near full extension at the knee. Much like with the Nordic, range of motion is a good gauge of progress and strength gain!
The big key with these is to do them under control. If you can only manage 3 reps under control, then 3 reps is all you do.
To begin with do 3 sets of well controlled reps. Whether that’s 3 or 8, make sure that they’re strong and stable- don’t let your hips sag or your back round.
Leg Curl (Flexion)-
These are the only isolation exercise on the list, but they can be useful if you’re struggling with the other exercises because they’re easier to adjust the load according to your ability.
Every gym will have a leg curl machine too!
If you’re struggling to get many reps with the Nordics, sliders or swiss ball, then boosting your volume with a few sets of higher rep curls isn’t a bad thing at all.
If you don’t have a leg curl machine because you train at home, then you can also do leg curls with a resistance band.
3 sets of 12-15 reps will boost your overall volume and give your hamstrings more of a reason to grow whilst also strengthening tendons in your knee.
So how should you organise these exercises into your weekly schedule?
If you only train 2 days per week, pick one hip extension exercise and one knee flexion exercise and do them on both days.
If you train 3 or more days per week then train hamstrings on 2 days per week. You should pick two extension exercises and 2 flexion exercises. You could split your training between hip extension one day and knee flexion on the second day or you could pair one extension exercise with one flexion exercise each day.
As you get stronger, you can include more exercises, but start small and build from there!
I hope this article has inspired you to build some awesome hamstring strength training into your routine!
If you’ve enjoyed it or found it helpful, please share it to your friends who might find it useful too!
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Dan Mennell is a Personal Trainer and Strength Coach working in Staffordshire and Shropshire.
He writes regular fitness articles and creates other informative free-content.
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