The hamstrings are one of the most important muscle groups to improve athleticism, overall strength, explosiveness and becoming as powerful as you can. In this edition I’ll mainly focus on the hamstrings as a weak point, while on a future thread I’ll give you strategies on how you can turn them into bulletproof strings of steel.
The three muscles of the posterior thigh (semitendinosus, semimembranosus, biceps femoris long & short head) flex (bend) the knee, while all but the short head of biceps femoris extend (straighten) the hip.
The hamstrings cross and act upon two joints – the hip and the knee – and as such are termed biarticular muscles.
Semitendinosus and semimembranosus extend the hip when the trunk is fixed; they also flex the knee and medially (inwardly) rotate the lower leg when the knee is bent.
The long head of the biceps femoris extends the hip, as when beginning to walk; both short and long heads flex the knee and laterally (outwardly) rotate the lower leg when the knee is bent.
The hamstrings play a crucial role in many daily activities such as walking, running, jumping, and controlling some movement in the gluteus. In walking, they are most important as an antagonist to the quadriceps in the deceleration of knee extension.
Anatomically it makes sense to perform hip extension as well as knee flexion movements when training the hamstrings. Simply focusing on hip extension variations and completely neglecting knee flexion movements is a mistake that most people that want to train more athletically, often make.
When you sprint, there’s still knee flexion occurring, it’s never a simple hip extension, so instead of avoiding knee flexion movements simply for the sake of “training minimalism” (which I’m against for the most part) is a surefire way for injuries and leaving gains in the tank.
My favorite hamstring movements are Box Squats, Good Morning variations, RDLs, Nordic curls, deficit deadlifts, sled pulls, GHRs, reverse hypers and leg curl variations.
As always a variety of training intensities and volume will bring the best results, in conjunction with increased frequency and/or Nucleus Overload, especially when trying to bring up a lagging body part.
I typically prescribe two lower body days, the first being a higher intensity (heavier weights) with lower to moderate volume (the amount of total reps per muscle group), and a lower intensity and high/ultra high volume day.
The Box squat when executed properly is posterior chain dominant. What do I mean by properly? The knees don’t travel past your toes and you essentially squat “back” not down. Keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with knees over toes in other exercises, but to take advantage of all the benefits of this variation do it how it’s supposed to be done. I usually prescribe box squat variations for Max Effort work and heavy singles/PRs and for speed work for those that need it. You can also switch speed work for a more hypertrophy focused approach and get pretty good results
For the Good Mornings and RDLs I typically stick within the 8-12 rep range when used as accessory movements, with the occasional 3-5 reps for Max Effort. One important thing to remember is to push your hips back and to not simply bend over.
If you’re one of those people that claim they can’t “feel” their hamstrings, try the seated Good Morning and let me know how you feel the next day.
Nordic curls are a favorite of mine, that will not only help you forget what weak, injury prone hamstrings feel like, but will also increase their size, especially when progressing to Nordic curls with a weighted vest.
For leg curls, I typically stick within the 4-6 rep range (since the hamstrings are primarily fast twitch muscles) and finish every lower body workout with ultra high reps of leg curls. Typically going for a set of 100-200 or for time on a different leg curl variation each time. This can be a machine variation, a band variation or even with the use of ankle weights. That’s how you strengthen the tendons and ligaments, but more on that on the upcoming Bulletproof series. It can also count as a form of Nucleus Overload without over complicating things.
One thing you should remember is that by varying the positioning of your feet you get to recruit different parts of the hamstrings more over others and they all count as different variations. So instead of thinking that you only have seated, standing, lying leg curls now you have 3 additional variations for each of these movements. All you have to do is simply point your feet inwards,outward or keep them neutral and there you go.
Another tip for the leg curls is to use dorsiflexion when flexing the knee and use plantar flexion when lowering the weight/extending the knee. These techniques come from the late Charles Poliquin, a man whose training produced myriads of Olympic medalists.
Sled pulls are a favorite of mine and a more athletic/functional movement to overload the hamstrings. You can either do heavier weights for shorter distances or moderate/lower weights for a longer distance.
Reverse hypers is in my opinion one of the best “bulletproof-ing” exercises out there, while providing enough traction and volume to increase the mass of the posterior chain. Higher rep ranges are typically used with the occasional heavier 8-12 reps. Make sure you watch a video of Louie Simmons explaining how to use proper form before you attempt these.
Deficit deadlifts is another amazing hamstring builder as well as way to improve your pulls, especially if you struggle to lift the bar off the floor all the way to mid shin. I primarily use them for Max Effort work but can be also used as back down sets to address your weaknesses typically within a 4-6 or 6-8 rep range.
So there you have it, literally all you need in order to make hamstring size and strength gains.
Use these strategies and you’ll be surprised with the results and by how quickly you can become stronger.