Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
What can you say about your hamstrings? Probably not much. Hammies usually get overlooked in favor of the glam squad of glutes, calves and quads, but developing strength, shape and power in your hamstrings can mean improved performance, as well as aesthetics (think: the elusive glute/ham tie in).
This muscle-building workout is a three-parter and includes a pre-exhaust portion, a straight-up strength section and a finisher. This format will keep you engaged mentally as you fry your hamstrings (in the best way possible.)
The Hammer-Your-Legs Building Plan
If you train legs twice a week, use this as your hamstring- and glute-focused session and dedicate the second workout to more quad-centric moves. You also can add a few quad-killing moves to this program, but do them at the end of the workout so your hamstrings enjoy the spotlight for a while.
This technique involves tiring out a muscle using isolation moves before moving into your compound moves. Because compound leg moves use all the large muscles of the lower body, the hamstrings won’t be the complete focus of the move. For instance, when doing a Romanian deadlift, the hamstrings get assistance from the lower back, but that assistance limits the amount of fatigue the hamstrings can then achieve. And because your lower-back (erector spinae) muscles are ultimately weaker than your hamstrings, those little guys peter out first, shortening the set and ultimately truncating the work of your hamstrings.
Using two pre-exhaust moves upfront will tire out your hams and bring them down to the level of the lower back, so to speak, so they both fail at the same rate. As an added bonus: You can use a lighter weight for your subsequent compound moves and achieve the same great results while sparing your joints and spine from strain.
Lying Leg Curl
Setup: Lie in the machine and secure your legs underneath the rollers. Grasp the handles on the machine for stability and flex your feet.
Move: Bend your knees and curl your heels smoothly toward your glutes, squeezing hard when you reach the top. Lower slowly almost to the start and repeat right away.
Tip: Use two counts to raise the roller and two counts to lower.
Seated Leg Curl With a Pause
Setup: Sit in the machine and adjust the roller so it hits at your ankles. Hold the seat on either side of your hips for stability. Your feet should be flexed.
Move: Bend your knees and curl the machine arm down and underneath you toward your glutes. When you reach peak contraction, hold for three counts, then slowly return to the start and repeat right away.
It’s no secret that in order to build muscle, you have to lift heavy. If you’re not used to doing heavy work, then start slowly and work your way up in weight from week to week. Keep track of the weight you use, and try to better your previous week by about 10 percent each time you do the lift.
For these moves, perform one or two building sets to work up to your heavy weight, then do three or four working sets using that weight for your workout. Because you’ll be pushing your limits, drop your reps accordingly. If people already call you Xena, then go for six reps, max; but if you’re a Warrior Princess in training, then go for eight reps.
Setup: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and hold a barbell in front of your thighs with an overhand grip. Your back should be straight, your shoulders down and back.
Move: Push your glutes back and bend forward from your hips while maintaining the arch in your back as you lower the bar down along the front of your legs until it comes to about midshin. Extend your hips and slide the bar back up along your legs to return to the start.
Tip: Unlike a stiff-legged deadlift, this version works more of the hamstrings and glutes while minimizing the activation of the lower-back muscles. Your knees should be semi-bent for the entirety of the move.
Setup: Sit in the machine and place your feet a little higher on the platform, about shoulder-width apart with your toes turned out slightly. Your back should be flat against the seat, hips secure.
Move: Unhook the stops and slowly lower the cart by bending your knees, tracking them over your toes as you lower until your legs make a 90-degree angle. Press through your heels and forcefully push the cart away from you until you reach a complete extension without locking out your knees.
Setup: Set the Prowler sled at one end of a long, open area with a smooth surface. Load the Prowler with your weight and stand behind it. Take a high grip on the posts with your arms straight and lean forward into the machine with your back straight.
Move: Maintaining good posture, take short strides forward, pushing the sled in front of you, driving your knees forward and staying low. Push the sled as far as you can, or until you reach the end of the area, then turn around and return to the start to complete one cycle.
Tip: This is not a sprint; the weight should be heavy and you should move purposefully and evenly.
Also known as “burnouts,” these last few moves are intended to completely exhaust your muscles. The reps are high, the weight is low and your mental strength is put to the test.
Each move only has a single set, so plan on how you’re going to break up the reps to give yourself a break as the lactic acid builds and burns. Shoot for clusters of 15 to 20 reps to start, then drop accordingly as you begin to falter. When you break, only take a few seconds, then get right back to it. Remember: The idea is to burn your hamstrings out completely — no slacking!
Setup: Stand with your feet together, arms at your sides or hands on your hips.
Move: Take a large step forward and bend both knees to lower straight toward the floor. When your back knee almost touches down, extend your legs and push off your rear foot to take a step forward. Continue, alternating legs.
Stability-Ball Hamstring Curl
Setup: Lie with your heels on top of a stability ball, feet flexed, arms along your sides. Lift your hips up in a bridge so your head, hips and heels are aligned.
Move: Keeping your hips lifted, bend your knees and press your heels into the ball, pulling it in toward your glutes. Roll the ball back to the start to complete one repetition.
Tip: Your hips should stay raised throughout this move.
The Best Hamstring Stretch
Relieve next-day soreness while increasing the range of motion in your hips and alleviate lower-back pain associated with tight hamstrings by stretching your hammies postworkout.
Setup: Loop a length of rope (or jump rope or resistance band) around the sole of one shoe and hold an end of the rope in each hand. Lie back along the floor, faceup, with your legs extended, feet flexed, pelvis neutral.
Move: Keeping your leg straight, pull it up toward your head using the rope, pausing for two breaths at the top of your range of motion. Slowly lower back to the start, rest for a beat, then repeat. With each rep, try to pull it a little closer toward your head. Do 10 slow reps on each leg.
Tip: To mix it up, turn your leg slightly inward or outward as you pull it toward you to hit different muscle angles.
Tight and inflexible? Bend your opposite knee to allow for more range of motion.