Whether you want giant hamstrings or not, they most definitely should be on your wish list! Generally speaking, the hamstrings are the ‘ugly duckling’ to the more eye and ego-pleasing quadriceps. Yet from a performance perspective they offer so much, and also play a critical role in staying injury free. So much so in fact, that it’s worth highlighting that the hamstrings, along with the gluteals, play a vital role in knee stability and prevention of knee injuries, in particular ACL injuries which are about as common as a protein shake in a gym.
Having strong quadriceps without strong hamstrings is like strapping a V8 engine onto a bicycle. The bike (or in this case your hamstrings) have no chance in dealing with the power that your V8 quadriceps can create and it can be a recipe for disaster as the hamstrings just can’t deal with the torque that the quadriceps create, resulting in a torn hamstring or blown knee.
THE BEST HAMSTRING EXTERCISES
So now that we have clarified the importance of the hamstrings, which exercises are the most effective at building strength and size? We need to remember that the hamstrings are responsible for both knee flexion and hip extension, so a combination of these movements that simultaneously stretch the muscle while putting it under load at both its origin and insertion will put the most strain through the muscles.
There is one key characteristic that you will find is generally consistent across most great hamstring exercises: when the hips are forced to extend while the knee is also extended, this creates unparalleled lengthening of the hamstring muscle and also loads both ends of the muscle during the contraction phase of the exercise.
A study conducted by The University of Memphis took a group of untrained individuals and had them perform four well-known leg-focused exercises while measuring muscle activity. The exercises were the leg curl, Good Morning, Glute-hamstring raise and Romanian deadlift.
Although all four exercises successfully activated the measurable muscle groups, there were two exercises that stood out above the rest with an emphasis on hamstring activation. Those two exercises were the glute-hamstring raise (GHR) and the Romanian deadlift (RDL).
Both the RDL and GHR create positions where the hamstrings are placed on a huge stretch with a large amount of load. During a RDL, we hinge at the hips while the knees are virtually extended (maintaining soft knees). The focus of the movement around the hips with the knee position fixed is extremely effective at lengthening the hamstring, with the load managed at both ends due to the requirement of stability at the knee insertion and strength at the pelvic insertion.
The GHR is almost the opposite to the RDL, where the hips are fixed in an extended (stabilising) position while the knees flex and extend (strengthening) to lift your bodyweight against gravity. The midpoint that is created by a GHR is extremely intense and slightly unsettling at first as the position of your whole body prone and under load is manufactured by the machine and is not a natural position the human body would find itself in. That being said, there’s a reason why virtually every Olympic Lifting facility has one of these machines: the movement is particularly effective at strengthening the posterior line and of course in particular the hamstrings and gluteals.
Comparing these two exercises with the lying hamstring curl can give us further perspective. The research paper ranked this commonly found exercise dead last as an effective hamstring recruiter. Where’s the justice in that? After all, it’s the only exercise out of the four that more or less completely isolates the hamstrings, right? Wrong. The ‘trusty’ lying leg curl unfortunately at no point extends or loads the hips during the movement. In fact, if you have a look at a lying hamstring curl machine next time you’re at the gym, you’ll see that the machine actually flexes the hips 15-20o to help place the hamstrings on stretch. But because there’s no hip extension, all work is done around the knee joint which is only half the job of the hamstrings.
Also, we might think that the Good Morning is a very similar movement to the Romanian deadlift, so why wasn’t it as effective? Sure, it is probably better than an isolated hamstring curl, but there is something to be said for the position of the weight that is being moved. In this case, with the bar being on the shoulders the weight is a long way from the fulcrum (hips), so there is more load placed through all the joints between the hips and the weight in providing stabilisation. Therefore the spine and particularly the lower back will contribute significantly during a Good Morning and take the focus off the hamstrings, effectively reducing muscle fibre recruitment.
There are dozens of exercises that can target the hamstring muscles as a compound movement or in isolation. If you’ve been spending weeks, months, or years trying to bulk up your hamstrings without success, remember to focus on movements that actively extend both the hips and knee at some point during the movement. That way you can be sure your hamstrings are getting stressed the way they’re designed to be and you will be on a winner. If you’re not really one for mixing it up too much then be sure to keep to Romanian deadlifts and the glute-hamstring raise for best results.
• Begin by holding a pair of dumbbells or barbell
• Stand tall and keep a flat back
• Slightly bend the knees and drive your hips back
• Legs will remain stationary as you lower the weight with straight arms
• Again, keep the back flat throughout
• Pause once your body has come to a parallel position with the floor
• Return to the starting position
• Secure your feet into the pads of the Glute-Ham Raise machine
• Begin by crossing the arms against the chest
• Straighten your body, resting your hips on the center pad
• Activate the gluteals, hamstrings and calves to pull your upper body straight up
• Simultaneously, drop your knees slightly against the pad
• Your back will be flat throughout the movement
• Once you reach the top, slowly lower yourself back to the starting position, focusing tension in the hamstrings and calves
Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises, McAllister MJ, Hammond KG, Schilling BK, Ferreria LC, Reed JP, Weiss LW, Exercise Neuromechanics Laboratory, The University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee.
Tristan Hill, Masters of Sports Coaching, author of Lifting the Bar and mentor to Personal Trainers.