Improve Your Hamstring Workouts: The Intermediate’s Guide
Let’s face it, there’s nothing awe-inspiring, motivating or sexy about the need to build bigger, stronger hamstrings. Their close friends, the quads, take center stage when mentioning lower body development. For one thing they are difficult to grow for most gym-goers and they aren’t necessarily a “show-off” muscle when it comes to looking good at the beach.
But they do serve a valuable purpose and deserve your undivided attention. Although not the most satisfying and fun type of training to jump into, hamstring training doesn’t have to suck. Think of it as an integral part of your entire lower body program.
The argument for bigger hamstrings
So what’s the big deal about hamstrings anyways? Most gym-goers simply add in a handful of sets of hamstring curls at the end of their leg day with half-hearted intensity. Many think that if you can’t see it then why worry so much? Besides, bigger, stronger hamstrings are hard to come by and not the type of muscle to brag too much about.
In the real world they serve an extremely important function for many other exercises as well as provide strength and stability for the entire body. As a major player in the posterior chain the hamstrings act together with the glutes and lumbar to give your entire body rigidity, strength and power.
Hamstrings also assist in many exercises such as squats, deadlifts, lunges and even bent-over rows. Without proper hamstring development you will find building mass and strength in your quads difficult, so let’s come up with a plan of attack and look at hamstring training in a new way.
The real story behind bigger hamstrings
As stated earlier, most of us simply relegate our hamstring training to a few sets of leg curls at the end of a leg day session. After brutal sets of squats, leg presses and leg extensions we tend to overlook our hamstrings and train them with a fraction of the intensity.
But how in the world is that going to get you the results you really want? How are a few mediocre sets of lying leg curls going to get you those gnarly, piano wire leg biceps that will compliment your quads and give your entire lower body that finishing touch? Also, don’t forget about the important role they fill functioning in the posterior chain. You want them bigger, yes, but also stronger.
Let’s shift our mindset to one of results-oriented training – a carefully crafted hamstring routine that will finally garner the changes you desire. But first, let’s break down the types of hamstring exercises and create our toolbox.
Your hamstring exercise arsenal
The following is a short list of categories of the different types of hamstring exercises. Although this isn’t an exhaustive list it does break down the types and their subsequent movement variations.
Hamstring curls: Lying, seated and standing leg curls make up most trainees hamstring programs. There’s nothing wrong with this ideology but it is a bit limiting for the simple fact that you are basically performing the same movement for each exercise – curling the weight up.
A thorough program needs to go beyond this one movement. Additionally, too many seem to load up too much weight and let their hips rise off the pad and engage with only a fraction of the load going to the targeted area. Lighten it up and go strict.
Romanian deadlifts: As another meat and potatoes exercise for hams the Romanian deadlift (not to be confused with stiff-legged deadlift) allows you to load up the weight and haul some serious iron. Its uniqueness stems from the fact that it puts your hams in a stretched position lending to a different type of stimulus. Again, too much weight will only yield a potential for injury. Go lighter and use textbook form – hinge at the hips and keep a straight back.
Glute/ham raises: Difficult, yes. But the glute/ham raise (also referred to as the Russian lean) is one powerful, functional exercise few can master. If the freestyle version proves too difficult try using a pole or overhead bands for support. You can also use a slight push from the ground to help you until more strength is developed.
Lunges: Believe it or not lunges stimulate serious hamstring activation. Whether you perform walking, static, alternating or reverse versions the lunge is a great addition to add variety to your current routine. Normally thought of as a quad builder it would behoove anyone to add the into a leg day as a transition exercise between quad and ham exercises.
Floor exercises: Lying ball or suspension trainer floor leg curls round-out this list. You rarely see these performed by many bodybuilders but if you want novelty and a different challenge try lying curls on for some size. Some key points to remember are keeping your abs tight, maintaining a straight line from your shoulders to your knees and going slow.
Hamstring angles of attack
Now that you have a better understanding of what’s at your disposal, let’s break down several facets of hamstring training as it relates to angles of stress.
Traditional mass builders: These exercises stimulate the most amount of muscle at one time without any extreme stretch or contraction. Think of the top half of the Romanian deadlift and lunges. Yes, Romanian deadlift do provide a wicked stretch – they serve a dual purpose here.
Stretch angles: As stated above, the Romanian deadlift will give your hams a good stretch only if done strictly. Be sure to only hinge at your hips, keep your upper back and lumbar in line and knees slightly bent but rigid. Lower the weight down to about mid-shin level before returning back up.
Contraction angles: Peak contraction is easily achieved with all of the leg curling options. The take-home point is to hold the top contracted position for a count and really squeeze your hams before slowly returning. To effectively do this you will need to lighten the load lifted and focus more on a full range of motion without “kipping” the weight up.
Effective hamstring development stems from having all of your ducks in a row. One misconception is that you need high reps to hammer your hams. Actually the opposite is true.
The hamstrings, for most individuals, are made up of mostly fast twitch fibers – the types that respond well to high loads and relatively low reps. However, this isn’t a green light to load up the bar or weight stack as much as possible and have a go at it. It simply means performing slow and deliberate reps with heavy loads with strict form.
Another technique that is seldom used for hamstrings is pre-exhaustion. This is simply performing a single-joint movement isolating the targeted muscle before moving on to a multi-joint movement. An example for hamstrings would be performing a leg curl followed by a lunge exercise.
This can also be used for two isolation exercises in which one uses multiple muscle groups. For example, the Romanian deadlift activated the glutes as well as the hamstrings. So, performing a leg curl prior to the Romanian deadlift is another way to hammer your hams even further.
The hamstring workouts
Below are three uniquely different hamstring routines built for any training situation. One for the traditional gym-goer, one for the home trainer and the last is for bodyweight only enthusiasts. Use one, two or all three for each hamstring session and get ready for new growth.
Perform three to four sets of 10 to 20 reps of each exercise. Rest 60 seconds between sets.
Gym hamstring workout
- Lying leg curl
- Barbell Romanian deadlift
- Weighted walking lunge
Home gym hamstring workout
- Dumbbell Romanian deadlift
- Suspension trainer curl
- Reverse dumbbell lunge
Bodyweight hamstring workout
- Glute/ham raise
- Ball lying curl