You need strong hamstrings! Without strength in those large muscles that span the back of your thighs, you can’t generate as much power when you run or jump and your risk of injury will be higher. Want to jump higher and sprint faster, develop your hamstrings! Strong hammies also help you with your posture and protect against knee injuries. In fact, women are at higher risk of ACL tears. Why? Because a woman’s hamstrings are often weaker relative to the muscles in the front of their thighs, the quads. But you can correct that through training!
In fact, hamstring weakness relative to the quads is commonplace. According to the American Council on Exercise, most people, especially women, have quads that are 50 to 80% stronger than their hamstrings. However, you can correct this imbalance by shifting more focus toward your hamstrings. By now, you’re probably wondering what the best exercise to do this is? You might also wonder which ones aren’t as effective as you think they are.
Best Exercises for Your Hamstrings
The three main muscles that in the back of your thigh that give your thigh that enviable definition are the:
· Biceps femoris
Together, these muscles extend your hips and flex your knees. That’s why the best exercises for strengthening and hypertrophying these muscles involve knee flexion and hip extension. One way to get an idea of which exercises best work the hamstrings most is to use EMG data. EMG measures how strongly the hamstrings are activated during different exercises. Muscle activation isn’t the full story since other factors can influence strength development, but it gives a rough idea of how hard you’re working the hamstring muscles. According to EMG data, deadlifts are a powerful exercise for the hamstrings.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found Romanian deadlifts topped the list of exercises that activate the hamstrings. Another exercise they tested in the study that hit the hamstrings hard was glute-hamstring raises.
The American Council on Exercise also sponsored their own study on hamstring activation using EMG data. In the study, they focused on nine different exercises that people often do for their hamstrings including seated leg curl on a machine, Romanian deadlift, stability ball leg curl, reverse hip raise, glute-ham raise on a machine, glute-ham raise without equipment, single-leg deadlift, and kettlebell swings. The goal was to compare these exercises to the prone leg curl, an exercise that specifically targets the hamstring muscles in an isolated manner. They measured activation of the biceps femoris and semitendinosus but not the semimembranous since it’s a deeper muscle that’s harder to access.
The results? Only two exercises activated the two muscles of the hamstrings as much as the prone leg curl. These were kettlebell swings and single-leg Romanian deadlifts. Therefore, it’s wise to include both of these exercises in your hamstring routine to get the most out of your training. Another exercise that focuses on the hamstrings is good mornings, a movement that strengthens the entire posterior chain. On the downside, the risk of injury with this exercise is high, especially at the bottom of the movement when your pelvis is almost parallel to the floor. For this reason, avoid this exercise if you’re just starting out or have a history of back problems. You can get similar benefits by doing Romanian deadlifts.
Exercises That Aren’t as Good
You’re probably wondering why this article, so far, hasn’t mentioned squats. They work the hamstrings, right? We’re so conditioned to think that squats are the ultimate exercise for the lower body that you might assume squats hit your hamstrings hard. The truth is they don’t. All squats, even the back squat, activate the quads more than hamstrings. You can work your hamstrings a little harder by increasing the tempo with which you squat but it still won’t activate your hamstrings to the same degree as the other exercises discussed. Although squats are a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups, they’re more of a quad exercise than a hamstring-focused movement.
Prioritize Your Hamstring Training
If you’re trying to correct a quad-hamstring imbalance and get your quads up to speed, make them a priority in your training. Too often, people focus too much on squats based on the idea that they’re the best exercise for strengthening all the muscles in the lower body. The reality is that squats fall short in terms of hamstring activation, a muscle that’s too often under-emphasized during training. So, start your lower body workout with hamstring-focused exercises, like single-leg Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and glute-ham raises before doing quad-focused training, like squats. Don’t wait until you’ve fatigued your lower body with quad-focused movements.
Remember, don’t just focus on your hamstrings for aesthetic reasons. Do it for better sports performance, greater functionality, and a lower risk of injury. An imbalance between quad and hamstring strength increases the odds of straining or tearing a hamstring muscle. If you’re a runner, your hamstrings may be your “Achilles heel” in terms of injury. Strengthening these large muscles that help you generate speed and power will help you stay injury-free.
Don’t forget to add exercises that target another big muscle that helps you generate speed and power, your gluteus maximus. Include isolation exercises that specifically target this muscle, like glute bridges and hip thrusts. Some exercises you do for your hamstrings will also power up your glutes, like kettlebell swings. When you strengthen both your glutes and your hamstrings and correct strength imbalances between the muscles in the front and those in the back, your performance will improve and you’ll enjoy a lower risk of injury and chronic back pain.
· J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jun;28(6):1573-80. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000302.
· American Council on Exercise. “ACE-SPONSORED RESEARCH: What Is the Best Exercise for the Hamstrings?”
· Stack.com. “Why You Should Do Good Mornings to Strengthen Your Glutes, Hamstrings and Lower Back”
· The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: March 2018 – Volume 32 – Issue 3 – p 587–593.
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