How strong are your hamstrings? It matters, especially if you play any type of sport that involves running. That’s because strong hamstrings help you run faster as well as decelerate and change directions when you run. If you’re female, your hamstrings probably need more attention than you’re currently giving them. That’s because women tend to be quad dominant, meaning their quads are stronger and more developed than their hamstrings. As you probably know, that type of muscle imbalance increases the risk of injury.
The Muscles that Make Up Your Thighs
As you know, the quads are the muscles located on the front of the thighs. These muscles include the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris. These muscles are responsible for extending or straightening the knee and flexing the leg forward. In contrast, the hamstrings are in the back of the thigh and include semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris muscles. These muscles flex the knees and extend your legs behind you. The quads and hamstrings are opposing muscles. When one group is stronger and more developed than the other, it creates a muscle imbalance. This imbalance throws your form off when you do other exercises and can lead to an injury.
Since women are likely to be quad dominant, they’re at higher risk of knee injury. What does it mean to be quad dominant? It means you predominantly use your quads during movements where you would normally use both quads and hamstrings. When you’re quad dominant, you also don’t activate your glutes as much when you do exercises like squats and lunges. If you’re a runner, you’re more likely to be quad dominant, so female runners are at particularly high risk of quad-hamstring imbalance.
Weak Hamstrings Drive Knee Injuries
Did you know women have a 2 to 10 times greater risk of developing a knee injury? That’s because quad dominance and weak hamstrings creates an uneven force on the anterior cruciate ligament, ACL, the ligament in the front that stabilizes your knee and helps hold it in alignment. When forces on the ACL are unbalanced, the ligament can tear, leading to a serious injury that, in the worst case, may require surgery. In fact, ACL tears have ended the careers of many an athlete. When you do movements that require you to change positions quickly, it places stress on your ACLs. This force increases the risk of a tear if there’s a muscle imbalance. So, strong hamstrings lower the risk of knee injuries and will help you run faster and remain injury free.
Strengthening Your Hamstrings: What Are the Best Exercises?
Now, you know why it’s important to keep those hammies strong, as strong as your quads. What exercises should you be doing to help your hamstrings catch up with your quads?
The first exercise that probably comes to mind are squats. While it’s true that squats work your hamstrings, they’re more of a quad dominant exercise and they become even more quad dominant if you lean forward too much when you do them, as many people do. A study published in European Journal of Applied Physiology found that the hamstrings are only activated 25% as much as the quads are during squats. So, squats are a quad dominant exercise. If squats aren’t the ultimate ticket to getting strong hamstrings – what is?
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at this issue. What they found was a combination of Romanian deadlifts and glute-hamstring raises effectively activated all the muscles that make up the hamstrings. Plus, they work the hammies in a complementary manner to target the entire muscle group. So, these are two exercises you definitely want to include in your hamstring strengthening routine.
Other exercises that work the hamstring muscles effectively include sumo deadlifts, hamstring curls, and “good mornings.” Don’t ditch the squats though. Instead, increase the activation of your hamstrings when you squat by doing box squats and doing wide-stance squats. Both will shift the focus more toward your hamstrings and glutes.
Another way to recruit the hamstrings more when you squat is to go deeper into the squat, using good form, of course. It’s the eccentric, or lowering, phase of the squat that hits the hamstrings hardest. Slow down the pace of your descent and keep the hamstrings under tension longer.
Structure Your Workout to Place More Emphasis on the Hamstrings
If you normally do squats and lunges first, reorder your workout so that you start with hamstring dominant exercises, like Romanian deadlifts and glute-hamstring raises. Doing this will allow you to maximize the benefits of hamstring dominant moves because your muscles won’t be already fatigued from doing lunges and squats. In general, it’s better to work the weaker muscles that need more work first while you’re still fresh.
The Bottom Line
Don’t focus so much on squats and lunges that you neglect exercises that target the hamstrings more, like Romanian deadlifts and glute-hamstring raises. When you squat, do a few sets with a wide stance to place more emphasis on your hamstrings. When performing front and back squats, keep your spine neutral and don’t let your knees move forward during the movement. This makes the move even more quad dominant. Also, don’t forget that the hamstrings are made up of a predominance of fast-twitch fibers, so you’ll get the most benefits if you use heavy resistance – but make sure that you master your form before increasing the weight.
Squats may still be the king of lower body moves but you shouldn’t focus solely on squats. Add a few hamstring focused exercises to your routine to create more balance and correct any imbalances between your quads and hamstrings. A well-rounded, balanced lower body workout will also help you get more hamstring definition, which looks fantastic when you wear a pair of shorts!
Stack.com. “Study Reveals the 2 Best Hamstring Exercises”
Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. “Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises.” doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000302.
Men’s Health. “The Truth about How Effectively Squats Work Your Hamstrings”
Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: June 2014 – Volume 28 – Issue 6 – p 1573–1580. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000302.