Before we address this question, let’s define exactly what area we are talking about. When people refer to the hamstring, they are typically referring to the muscles in the back of the leg, in between the buttocks and knees. There a few muscles that will be worked in any standard hamstring exercise. The major players here are the Biceps Femoris (long and short head), the Semimembranosis, and the Semitendinosis.
What Are The Hamstrings?
The hamstrings are muscles found on the back of the leg and function a bit like the biceps on the front of the arm (perhaps that is why they are called biceps femoris). They function in large part to curl up the heel toward the buttocks. You may recall that the femur is the longest and largest single bone in the body. As such there is a lot of muscle that can be targeted here. There are a few primary movements that translate into various exercises when targeting the hamstring area. Keep in mind that as the body adapts, it is often beneficial to move to different exercises so that you do not stagnate in your progress. The body has an amazing ability to adapt to a stimulus. Once it has, you need to throw a little bit of change into the mix in order for your body to progress even further. This is something that many experienced lifters and athletes have to contend with over a long-term basis.
Before we look at a few of the best hamstring exercises, let’s speak for a moment about stretching. I am a huge believer in stretching. I am even more adament about stretching when a person begins to engage in consistent resistance training. As people become resistance trained, and as the body adapts to that stimulus, people usually begin to lose flexibility. Because of this, it is important to engage in regularly stretching. There are many great stretches that will target the hamstrings. My favorite stretches for this area involve the use of bands. Some bands are made out of materials that stretch, and some do not. I do not want to veer too off topic here. Stretches for the hamstring area is an entire topic in and of themself. Suffice to say; regular stretching, when done properly, will help prevent loss of range of motion.
A Word On Exercise Technique
I’ll be mentioning what I consider to be some of the best hamstring exercises. Keep in mind that you should always speak with your doctor before engaging in any exercise program. Any sort of knee or orthopedic problem should be carefully considered before doing any resistance training. Improper technique, or even perfect technique done with certain orthopedic problems can result in serious injuries. Always consult a qualified and experienced personal trainer on proper technique before attempting any exercise. It will be well worth your time and money, and may save you big problems down the road.
I’ll be blunt-I do not consider the leg curl to be one of the best exercises for the hamstrings. Why mention it then? Because it has its place. The leg curl is great in large part as a warm up or a cool down. It can even be thrown into the middle of a great leg workout. There is a lot more out there that really hits the hamstrings well. So while not considering the Leg Curl as one of the best hamstring exercises, I do consider it an important part of working the muscles of the back of the leg.
Many experienced lifters consider the back squat to be the end-all be-all of free weight exercises. Some contend that the dead-lift is superior, but we’ll save the debate for another day. The squat is a great free weight exercise that pulls in many muscles. As you might have guessed by now, it does work the hamstring muscles, or those muscles in the back of the leg. The movement involves placing a bar on the upper back (not on the actual neck) and moving up and down. Not only is the person moving their own body weight, but the person will be lifting whatever weight he or she has put on the bar. When done properly, there are few resistance oriented movements that can contend with the squat. It is by far one of the greatest hamstring exercises that can be done. When the squat is done improperly, there are few more sure fire ways to injure yourself. Again, this is where it becomes important to meet with a qualified personal trainer to break-down the proper form and correct any issues that may arise with your technique.
A spotter is necessary for this exercise. You will need to work with someone who knows what they are doing on this. Do not assume that by watching someone do this that you can jump in and do the same thing. There are fine details to the movement that the casual observer will miss…details that are important. Once you have mastered this movement, particularly with a wider stance, you will target those hamstrings. So the squat makes it’s way into being one of the best hamstring exercises.
Many of those who resistance train, indeed many experienced lifters, have never heard of a good morning. It gets my vote for being one of the best hamstring exercises not only because it works the hamstring muscles, but because in doing the movement you get a proactive stretch in those muscles as well. Just like the squat, doing this movement incorrectly can cause serious injury, so consult a qualified personal trainer who knows what they are doing. The movement in this exercise involves leaning forward at the waist, and utilizing the hamstring muscles as well as the lower back (erector spinae) muscles. Just like the squat, do not assume that by casually watching someone do this exercise you will understand all the finer details of this movement…finer details that will keep you from injuring your back.
Deadlifts are by far some of the best hamstring strengthening exercises out there. Like many free weight exercises, there are a few variations of the deadlift. The standard deadlift involves bending at the knees and pulls in dozens of muscles throughout the body. The deadlift is a very demanding exercise and the hamstring muscles are pulled in a great deal to complete the movement. The sumo deadlift is similar in concept to the standard deadlift, with the major exception being the width of the lifters feet. While still pulling in the hamstring muscles considerably, the sumo deadlift also tends to pull in the adductors quite a bit more in order to finish the movement. Finally, the stiff legged deadlift is another means of deadlifting that specifically targets the muscles throughout the hamstrings. While doing this exercise, the muscles in the hamstrings are not only required to lift, but are also stretched as the lifter reaches the bottom of the movement. For this reason, many people over-do the exercise and are sore for several days or more after their lift. Much like the good morning exercise, doing the stiff legged deadlift may not seem that difficult when a person is doing it if they are lifting relatively light weight, but due to the stretch response in the hamstring muscles, increased soreness in the days proceeding the lift is often common.
Doing Hamstring Exercises Safely
When doing hamstring exercises, it's important to do them safely. Before beginning any exercise program, it's important to ask your doctor if he or she has any restrictions or precautions for you. Squats and deadlifts in particular can present a risk of serious injury if done with improper back positioning and/or overall technique. Improper lifting technique can result in serious injuries such as herniated disks. For this reason, if you are unfamiliar with how to do any exercise, you should seek the instruction of a certified, experienced, and competent professional. A small investment up front in proper lifting technique can help save you a lot of problems down the road.
There are many great ways to work the hamstring muscles beyond what I have indicated in this article. I have simply chosen here those that I consider to be the best. Having worked one on one with many clients, I have been able to see first hand which hamstring exercises are the most effective and yield the greatest results. If you can safely incorporate these resistance movements into your routine, you should see noticable improvements in both muscle tone and strength.