Unlike the arm biceps, the leg biceps a.k.a. hamstrings is not very popular among muscle worshipers. Average people just don’t care so much about lower body and on top of everything the hamstring is at the back of the leg. That makes it a muscle that’s almost never the center of attention while the arm biceps has been accepted as the universal symbol of strength.
Hamstrings are an important muscle group when it comes to compound exercises such as the squat and the deadlift.
The hamstring has two main functions – hip extension and knee flexion. During the deadlift and the squat it acts as a hip extensor and as a leg flexor when you do leg curls.
To have a complete leg workout you need to work on both functions, although the hip extension is more important since it carries over to many athletic activities.
However, it’s also beneficial to do some leg curling in order to focus directly on the tendons at the back of the knee and stabilize the joint.
There are many hamstrings exercises that will help in your quest for posterior leg strength. If you have access to a gym, the most straight forward exercise would be the Romanian deadlift.
The Romanian deadlift is a fairly simple exercise. The main point to remember is to keep your back in neutral position even if that means reduced range of motion. A lot people make the mistake of bending their back. The minute your back is not in a neutral position all hamstring tension is lost.
The hamstring has two ends – one at the hip and one at the knee. When you’re performing the Romanian deadlift you’re mostly using that at the hip. However, when you lose proper back position all hamstring tension is instantly released and you end up with less hamstring stimulation and more stress on your back. You can find more information on this topic here: Mark Rippetoe’s Hip Drive Explained.
Another popular hamstring exercise is the good morning, but it comes with a few very important specifics. Many people experience tremendous hamstring soreness when doing this exercise and it also puts the lower back at high risk of injury.
Of course, when done correctly and with intelligent approach it’s a perfectly safe exercise but without a doubt it’s more dangerous than the Romanian deadlift.
When you’re doing Romanian deadlifts you can simply let go off the bar and that’s it. The good morning does not allow you to have this fun. To do this exercise safely you need a power rack with safety pins or at least very good spotters. Most people would do just fine if they stick with the Romanian deadlift. This is especially true for beginners.
If you don’t have access to a gym, you can do T-handle or kettlebell swings. Obviously, this is not a strength exercise since swings are done with lighter weight for reps, but the hamstrings still get some decent work and it’s better than nothing.
Finally, if you want to only train with bodyweight, one of the best hamstrings exercise ever are sprints. When you sprint the posterior chain is what drives you forward. The hamstring and the glutes get a really good workout.
People who don’t usually sprint may feel unbearable soreness after their first session. Sometimes the soreness is so severe that you can feel every fiber of your hamstrings from top to bottom. All leg movement is super painful. If that’s the case, wait until the soreness has diminished considerably.
You don’t want to be sprinting with tight and painful hamstrings. Light jogging may be fine but too much sprinting can tear your hamstrings pretty bad.
Many people underestimate sprints but they put a tremendous stress on the lower body. This is one of the most “natural” exercise you can do for your hamstrings, especially if you have healthy knees allowing you to run. Otherwise stick with weightlifting. It’s boring but at least it’s also joint friendly.
Another thing people often forget when they train hamstring is that the muscle has a very high concentration of fast twitch fibers. This means that its primary function are fast and explosive movements such as sprints. That’s why training hamstrings in the 6-8 rep range works the best. Anything over is endurance work targeting the less dominant slow twitch fibers.
Are squats a good hamstring exercise?
Yes. The barbell back squats works the hamstrings but not as much as the deadlift. If you want to focus specifically on hamstring strength, the squat is not the best option since it’s more of a glute/quad dominant exercise. The hamstrings do less work compared to a Romanian deadlift. This is helped quite a bit by the fact that most people don’t squat deep enough.
Note: The front squat works the hamstring very little and is a poor choice for a posterior leg exercise.
Recommended article: The Best Hamstring Exercises
What about leg curls?
Leg curls are a good exercise to strengthen the hamstrings at the knee end. They can be part of knee pre-hab program and can help you avoid knee instability and injuries. However, don’t go all out on this exercise. It’s not meant to be the heart of hamstring training.
Do you have some info on quadriceps training?
Yes, we have a dedicated article which you can read here: