There’s a certain amount of vanity that comes with bulky hamstrings, but there’s a lot more to it than looking good.
Muscle imbalance in your lower body can be a serious risk factor in all types of sports, which is why you see so many professionals focus a lot of attention on their legs.
It’s the one way you can avoid those dreaded tears that can set you back months due to unwanted downtime.
To help you better plan out your leg days, we’ve come up with a list of the best bodyweight hamstring exercises that will help you build up more strength.
Anatomy Of The Hamstring
Don’t worry; this isn’t going to be a boring hamstring anatomy lecture that you fell asleep for in High School.
But it’s important to understand these muscle groups to know what you’re aiming for with individual exercises.
There are three main muscles that make up the hamstrings:
1. Biceps Femoris
Similar to the biceps in your upper arm, the one in your upper leg does a lot of the heavy work when it comes to flexing your knee joint. Look at it as the muscle that takes the load during a squat on the down move.
This is a much slimmer muscle, and it plays a role in extending the thigh and hip and providing some leg rotation as well.
This is a broad and flat muscle that you don’t see from the outside as it sits underneath the semitendinosus. It plays a similar role in thigh and hip extension as well as leg rotation.
Weak hamstrings can have a negative impact on the knee joint as more weight transfers to the joint rather than being carried by active muscles.
That’s why hamstring exercises are so important for athletes of all levels .
One final note is to keep in mind that you want to look at the whole posterior chain that includes the glutes and hamstrings as a connected unit for training.
Warming Up And Stretching
I always shudder when I see folks arrive at the gym and head straight for the leg machines without warming up and stretching their hamstring muscles.
It’s a sure way to get the most common sports injury .
Here is what I suggest you do on your leg days before you start your bodyweight exercises to gain some more hamstring flexibility.
“Hamstring strains are common in sports with a dynamic character like sprinting, jumping, contact sports such as Australian Rules football (AFL), American football, and soccer where quick eccentric contractions are regular. In soccer, it is the most frequent injury. Hamstring injuries can also occur in recreational sports such as water-skiing and bull riding, where the knee is forcefully fully extended during injury.” - physio-pedia.com.
1. Lying L Stretch
Lay down on your back on an exercise mat with your feet tucked in by your butt. Spread out your arms to provide balance so you can focus on the stretch itself rather than trying not to fall over.
Now, push your legs up straight towards the ceiling so that they end up at a right angle to your body.
Make sure you try to point your toes downwards without bending your knees or lifting your lower back off the ground.
Hold this for 30 seconds and repeat 3 to 4 times.
2. Kneeling Mountain Climber
Start off on an exercise mat on all fours with knees under your hips and hands under your shoulders.
From here, bring your left foot forward to just outside your left hand and keep your upper body in a straight line.
Now, slightly straighten your left leg with the foot firmly on the ground, pushing your whole body backward.
You should instantly feel a stretch in your left hamstrings.
Do this for about 30 seconds, and don’t forget to switch around to the other leg.
Other types of exercises:
3. Lying Warrior Pose
Sit on the floor with your legs spread. Start the movement by twisting your upper body to the left, put your left hand next to your hip, and reach out as far as you can with the right hand.
Your right leg will rotate or roll a bit, and as you reach further, you’ll start to notice a stretch in your hamstrings.
Hold the pose for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times for each leg.
List Of Hamstring Exercises
Once you’ve done your warm-up stretch to prevent hamstring injuries, take a look at these exercise categories.
The majority of the following exercises are purely bodyweight-based, but I want to start with two that will require some free weights because they are so effective.
Hip Extension With Weights
1. Romanian Deadlift
This is one of the best hamstring exercises out there as you can pile on the weight to cause a lot of strain within 5 or 6 reps.
Just keep in mind that you may not want to do this if you suffer from lower back pain.
Stand close to your loaded barbell and lower your upper body down until your hands can grip the bar.
Your feet should be about hip-width apart, and you only want a small amount of bend in your knees.
Engage your core, tighten your glutes, keep a straight back, and then pull up the bar with your upper body while keeping it close to your body all the way up.
Once you reach the top, slowly lower it down again and repeat to build up strong hamstrings.
2. Kettlebell Swing
Place a large kettlebell about a foot in front of you.
With your feet shoulder-width apart, lower your upper body down until both hands can grip onto the kettlebell.
Bend your knees slightly and lift the kettlebell off the floor.
As you lift it, swing it back in between your legs and then force it forward and up to about chest-height.
Keep doing that swinging motion between your legs and allow your knees to bend on the way down and fully stretch out on the way up.
You should also feel this in your lower back muscles.
Hip Extension Without Weights
3. Back Extension
For this exercise, you’ll need to set up a back extension bench so that the pad goes from the crease of your hips down onto your thighs.
While keeping your legs straight, slowly lower your upper body down.
Once you get to the bottom of the move, slowly return to the starting position and notice the strain on your glutes and hamstrings.
There are two ways to make this a bit more straining.
One is to grab onto a weight plate or dumbbell. And you can achieve the same by attaching some exercise bands to the bottom of the bench frame.
4. Lying Leg Curl
You’ll need a leg curl machine for this one, and it’s better suitable for anyone with lower back problems.
Lay down on the bench and check that the ankle pad is adjusted to your height.
With your legs straight, grip onto the handles at the front to avoid your upper body lifting off the bench.
While squeezing your glutes and hamstrings, slowly bend your knees and bring your feet up until your knees are just beyond 90 degrees.
From the top, slowly return to the starting position and repeat for 8 to 10 hamstring curls.
5. Nordic Hamstring Curl
To do this exercise, you’ll need to securely anchor your feet to a piece of equipment or furniture.
It’ll need to be heavy enough to withstand the pressure of your body weight to avoid falling flat on your face.
Start in a kneeling position with both feet anchored and your body in a straight line vertical to the ground.
Now, slowly lower your body forward while maintaining that straight line from your ears to your knees.
Go as low as you can, and use your hands to catch yourself if the pressure becomes too much. Then push yourself back up to the starting point and repeat.
6. Exercise Ball Leg Curl
Here’s a great hamstring exercise for you to do at home.
To get into the starting position, lay down on a mat and rest your ankles on top of a medium-size exercise ball.
Now, lift up your hips, so your whole body is in a straight line and fully engage your core muscles.
Slowly bend your knees, which will result in your feet moving towards you and the ball rolling a bit as well until you get to a position with your feet flat on the ball.
Your finishing position is like a decline glute bridge, and you want to hold this position for a few seconds.
7. Glute-Ham Raise
This might look a lot like the back extension, but with slightly different equipment, you can better target your hamstrings and glutes at the same time.
Your starting position is to get your feet comfortable on the footplate, and your knees should be just on the edge of the padded section.
Essentially, you should be able to kneel in an upright position.
Lower yourself down until your body is horizontal and then pull yourself up again.
Because of the different body positions at each end of the exercise, you’ll notice more strain on your hamstrings and glutes.
8. Single-Leg Split Squat
This single-leg squat is a great exercise if you don’t have any equipment to work with.
All you need is a bench or chair, and you start by resting the toes of your left foot on the chair.
Your right leg should be slightly lunged forward, so your heel is about 2 feet from the chair.
While keeping your upper body straight, slowly lower yourself down as low as you can, but keep in mind that you need to push yourself back up again.
Also, don’t let your right knee move forward ahead of your toes, and ideally, keep it right over your ankle to avoid knee pain and injuries.
Home Hamstring Exercises
If you don’t have some gym equipment at home, you’ll still have no excuse to do some bodyweight hamstring exercises.
Here are a few that are highly effective.
9. Walking Lunges
I find this one of the best hamstring exercises as you need little more than 10 feet of clear space.
Stand tall with your feet about hip-wide apart and your hands on your hips.
From here, take a long step forward and bring your back knee almost to the ground.
Your front knee will be at a right angle, and be careful not to allow your knee to go beyond your toes.
Use the strength of both legs to power yourself back up into a standing position and bring your back foot next to the front one.
Now it’s time to rinse and repeat with the other leg.
10. Slider Leg Curl
To do this exercise, you’ll need a hardwood or tile floor that you lay down on. Place your feet flat on a folded towel tight up against your butt.
Get yourself into a glute bridge position by lifting your hips up as far as possible.
Now, gradually and in 4 to 5 stages, slide your feet forward along the floor until you reach a fully extended position.
Finally, allow your lower back to get back on the floor and slide your feet back to your starting point and repeat.
11. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
The single-leg Romanian deadlift is a great way to add more strain to your exercises without necessarily needing more weights.
Stand in a tall stance and lift your left foot off the ground. Flex your hips and allow your left leg to slowly stretch out behind you.
This will be important to maintain your balance.
As your hips flex, allow your knee to bend, and your body will move forward and down towards your knee.
Sample Hamstring Workout Routine
Rather than just randomly choose from the recommended exercises, we have come up with a few routines for clients of different skill and strength levels.
Pick one of these sets of movements for your next leg day and balance them with thigh and calf workouts.
If you haven’t seen the inside of a gym for many years and you break into a sweat after a few flights of stairs, then take it easy at first.
There’s no point going for broke when it will just cause too much pain in your recovery time.
- Exercise ball leg curls (3 sets of max reps)
- Nordic hamstring curl (3 sets of 15 reps)
- Machine leg curls (3 sets of 10 to 12 reps)
These movements are a bit more complicated, and you might want to build up some strength in your hamstrings before you jump on them.
- Slider leg curls (3 sets of max reps)
- Walking Lunges (3 sets of 25 reps)
- Kettlebell Swing (3 sets of max reps)
- Machine leg curls (3 sets of 10 reps)
For some more serious strength gains, we’ve extended the number of exercises and picked those that are tougher on your muscles, including the quads and glutes.
- Kettlebell swing (3 sets of 25 reps)
- Glute-ham raise (3 sets of 12 reps)
- Romanian deadlift (3 sets of 8 reps)
- Walking lunges (3 sets of 25 reps)
- Machine leg curl (3 sets of 8 reps)
Have You Planned Out Your Bodyweight Hamstring Exercises?
Paying the right attention to your legs is important to avoid some of the most common muscle and joint injuries.
Adding a few of the above exercises to your leg days will make a big difference even when you don’t use free weights.
Just make sure that your hamstrings exercises don’t take over and that you balance your training with the front hip flexors as well.
As always, let us know how these worked out for you or if you have some other recommendations that we could add.