Chris Bumstead cranks out seated leg curls. / YouTube
Ham it up: We detail five unique approaches to hamstring workouts. A generation ago, when men with names like Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno, and Columbu stalked bodybuilding stages, hamstrings were deemed about as important to physiques as ham sandwiches and ham radios. You did a few sets of lying leg curls after quads and called it a workout. Today, hamstrings are as crucial to physiques as pectorals. Still, the back of your legs is rarely an easy-growing area, chiefly because hamstring training frequently lacks variety and intensity.
We’ve assembled the five best hamstring training approaches, sure to provide both variety and intensity. Stick to one as long as it works or alternate workouts. These are the five best hamstring workouts.
HAMSTRING WORKOUT 1: PRIORTITIZE
First, a quick hamstring anatomy lesson. Consisting of the biceps femoris (a.k.a. thigh biceps), semitendinosus, and semimembranosus, your hamstrings are a relatively large muscle group. Still, it’s likely you regularly do fewer sets for your thigh biceps than your arm biceps, even though the latter is a smaller muscle.
Do 8-12 sets and two to four exercises in each ham workout. Even if you consistently try to give your hams the requisite dosage of hard work, it’s difficult to do so if you’re always leg curling when heavy squats and leg presses have exhausted much of your strength and energy. If your rear legs lag your front legs, prioritize hams by working them before quads in at least half of your leg workouts.
It’s often best to train hamstrings separate from quadriceps, giving your rear legs their own starring workouts (typically followed by calves and/or abs). If, however, separate workouts don’t fit into your training split, and if your rear thighs don’t trail your front thighs so much that you want to consistently work hamstrings first (which will decrease your strength in exercises like squats and leg presses), try alternating quad and ham exercises.
In the following hamstring priority leg routine, you can do both leg curls and squats with near-maximum strength and energy.
HAMSTRING PRIORITY LEG WORKOUT
Squats — 4 x 8-12 reps
Lying Leg Curls — 4 x 8-12 reps
Leg Presses — 4 x 8-12 reps
Seated Leg Curls — 4 x 8-12 reps
Leg Extensions — 4 x 10-15 reps
Stiff-Leg Deadlifts — 4 x 10-12 reps
Walking Lunges — 3 x 30 steps
HAMSTRING WORKOUT 2: HIGH REPS
Hamstrings are one of those areas, like abdominals, that trainers tend to think they can work details into by doing enough reps. This is untrue. Ham lines—that “vertical blinds” look—come into focus via dieting and cardio, and are rarely prominent off of bodybuilding stages. That said, workouts with sets of 15 or more reps may lead to sore hams the following morning, especially if you normally keep your reps in the 8-12 range. The key is to do these high reps with intensity. Push them to failure or near-failure.
HAMSTRING HIGH-REP WORKOUT
Standing One-Leg Curls — 4 x 15-20 reps
Lying Leg Curls — 4 x 15-20 reps
Dumbbell Stiff-Leg Deadlifts — 4 x 15-20 reps
HAMSTRING WORKOUT 3: LOW REPS
Most weight-trainers rarely do fewer than eight reps for hamstrings. And that’s precisely why low reps can be so effective. The mere fact that you’ve been doing sets of 10 for so long can turn sets of five into a growing experience. In our routine, precede each exercise with a warmup set of 10-12 reps. Then, for your working sets, use a weight that allows you to get 5-6 full reps before reaching total failure. On at least your final set of lying and seated leg curls, either have a partner assist you with an additional one or two forced reps or use rest-pause, halting for 15 seconds before doing two more reps on your own. You can also perform rest-pause on the final set of stiff-leg deadlifts.
LOW REP HAMSTRING WORKOUT
Lying Leg Curls — 4 x 5-6 reps
Seated Leg Curls — 4 x 5-6 reps
Stiff-Leg Deadlifts — 4 x 5-6 reps
HAMSTRING WORKOUT 4: SLOW-MOTION
Speed is one of the most under-utilized weapons in your workout arsenal. Dramatically slow down an exercise and it can become a completely new and stressful experience. You cannot safely do all exercises in slow-motion, but our hamstring routine includes two that you can. One-leg negative curls don’t require a training partner. Curl the weight up at normal speed with both legs, and then lower the weight as slowly as possible with just one leg. Alternate legs with each rep. With slow stiff-leg deadlifts, take approximately five seconds to lower the weight and five seconds to raise the weight. With seated pause leg curls, pause for five seconds at the contraction of each rep.
SLOW-MOTION HAMSTRING WORKOUT
Lying One-Leg Negative Curls — 4 x 6-10 reps (each leg)
Slow Stiff-Leg Deadlifts — 4 x 10-12 reps
Seated Pause Leg Curls — 4 x 10-12 reps
HAMSTRING WORKOUT 5: GLUTE-HAM
A common problem with many hamstring routines is they focus too much on the same few exercises: types of leg curls and (maybe) stiff-leg deadlifts. If your old mainstay is the lying leg curl, you’re going to hit a plateau for both strength and muscle growth. One way to revitalize your hamstring workouts is to incorporate more compound exercises. Stiff-leg deadlifts are compound, focusing particularly on the hamstrings and spinal erectors. Other compound exercises focus more on working both the hamstrings and glutes. Let’s focus on three of those.
The good morning starts out like a low-bar squat (hold the bar against your rear delts and upper back, not your neck) with your feet in a normal squat stance or slightly wider. Then, while keeping your knees slightly bent and while maintain a slight arch in your lower back, bend forward as if bowing, letting your hips push backwards. Stop before your torso is parallel to the floor. Lift your torso back up to the starting position. This bowing motion works the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors—the entire posterior chain.
Well-equipped gyms, especially those with powerlifters, will have a glute-ham raise machine. With this machine you position yourself so your knees are against the forward pad and feet are pressed against the rear plate. Lower yourself to parallel with the floor. Then while keeping your butt tensed and lower back arched and thighs in line with your torso, rise back up to the starting position. Like the good morning, this works the entire posterior chain: glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors. If your gym doesn’t have a glute-ham machine, this exercise can be done by kneeling on the floor and having a partner push down on your ankles from behind or at a lat pulldown station, facing away, with your knees on the seat and ankles under the knee pads.
Whether a walking lunge or stationary lunge, this is an exercise that, studies show, works the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and hips (whew!). That makes it a very compound lower body exercise, and a great way to finish a leg workout. To focus it more on hamstrings, pre-exhaust your hams first by doing leg curls before lunges.
These exercises can be added to other hamstring routines, but our glute-ham workout is made up all three of them. To focus even more on your hamstrings precede each exercise with one set of lying or seated leg curls and do three sets of each glute-ham exercise.
Good Morning — 4 x 10-12
Glute-Ham Raise — 4 x 10-15
Standing Lunge (alternate legs) — 4 x 10-15
HAM IT UP
As long as you provide at least five days between workouts, it’s more likely you’re undertraining your hamstrings than overtraining them. Stop going through the motions with the same low-intensity leg curls. Increase the intensity, the variety, and probably the volume, too. Utilize the preceding routines, exercises, and principles to spark rear leg growth and cure your lagging hams.