Hamstring Exercises — Building Symmetry in Your Legs
Don’t skip leg day—we’ve heard it before, and we’ll hear it again. But what we don’t hear a lot of is what to work on during leg day. Most people go for those “mirror muscles” when they head to the gym, the quads, abs, and shoulders. Often forgotten on leg day are the glutes and the hamstrings. Both of those groups are going to be equally important.
This article covers the hamstrings and why they are important. Not only will training your client’s hamstrings give them symmetry in their legs but it will also help increase the strength of other muscles, help improve metabolism, and help prevent injury.
Muscles of the Hamstring Group
Before jumping into the importance of training the hamstrings, run through this quick refresher about which muscles make up the hamstring and what those muscles do.
The hamstring group is made of up three muscles:
- Biceps femoris
These muscles start at the bottom of the hip bone, cross the knee joint, and attach to the lower leg at the fibula and tibia. Your hamstring helps with your ability to sit, stand, walk, and even run.
This muscle controls many of the actions in the leg. Some of the major functions include flexing the knee, extending the hips, rotating the lower leg when the knee has a slight flexion, and helping in the lateral rotation of the thigh when the hip is extended.
The semitendinosus takes part in the extension of the thigh from the hip, flexion of the knee, and internal rotation of the knee when it is in flexion.
The final muscle, the semimembranosus, works on hip extension, knee flexion, and internal rotation of the knee when it is flexed.
These muscles have similar responsibilities, but it takes training them for them to work together to be strong to support those movements. Keep in mind, just because they are opposite of the quadriceps doesn’t mean that when the hamstrings are working the quadriceps are not and vice versa. The leg muscles are unique in that they all work together.
Why Train the Hamstrings?
As your client works on hamstring exercises, they’ll notice the glutes and quadriceps getting stronger at the same time. It can be difficult to isolate the hamstring muscles, which part of why as their hamstrings get stronger so will the muscles around them.
The legs are the largest muscle group in the entire body, so as the quads, hamstrings, and glutes all get stronger, your client will have an increase in muscle mass. This, in turn, will cause their body to burn more calories. Which is why as you work your legs more, your metabolism will increase.
Most people, especially women, are typically quad dominant. This often happens from a lack of training and, for women especially, from wearing shoes with heels. High heels cause them to rely more on the quadricep muscles for most of their day. This can lead to many problems in the knee, hip, and even pelvis and lower back. Therefore, it is so crucial to build up that posterior chain, specifically the hamstring muscles, to prevent these injuries from occurring.
Exercises for the Hamstrings
Now that we’ve gone through the basics of the hamstring group and why it’s important to train those muscles, let’s go over exercises targeting this muscle group. There are many options out there, but the following five hamstring exercises are some of the most popular options used to target this muscle group.
The Romanian deadlift can be performed with the same technique using either a barbell or dumbbells, though a barbell is the more common approach. Have your client start with their feet about hip-width apart. They should hold to bar wide enough that bar falls at hip level. Keeping their shoulders back and tight, back arched, and a slight bend in the knees, have them lower the bar ensuring that the butt is moving as far back as possible. The bar should not be able to go much lower than the knee if this is done correctly. Once your client hits that range of motion, they’ll slowly bring the bar back up to the starting position, using the hips to drive forward.
There are two different types of kettlebell swings. First, for the Russian kettlebell swing, the kettlebell will stop at about the height of your eyes. With the American version, the kettlebell goes all the way over the head until the arms are fully locked out and the bottom of the kettlebell is directly overhead. The Russian version is more common, so that’s the version described here.
To start, instruct your client stand with their feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, and knees with a slight bend. Have them hold the kettlebell between their legs. Then, ensuring they keep the arch in their back, they’ll bend their hips back which will force the kettlebell back behind the legs. Cue them to use their glues to extend the hips, forcing the kettlebell to go upward. The kettlebell should reach the height of their eyes. Then, in a controlled manner, they’ll lower the weight back down to the starting position and go immediately into the next rep utilizing the momentum of the kettlebell. If they feel these in their glutes and hamstrings, it’s a good sign they’re doing them correctly.
To perform the glute bridge, your client will start by lying on their back with their knees bent and feet about hip-width apart and directly under the knees. Remind them to engage their core then squeeze the glutes to lift the hips, creating a diagonal line from the hips to the knees. Then, in a slow and controlled manner, return down to the starting position. They can hold this exercise at the top or perform this exercise for repetitions.
Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
To perform the stability ball hamstring curl, your client will begin in the same position as the glute bridge except for this time the feet will be on a stability ball. The ball should start close enough to their body that when they fully extend their legs, their feet are on top of the ball.
To begin, raise the hips off the ground, just like with the glute bridge. They’ll keep their shoulders in contact with the ground while extending the ball out, creating a diagonal line from the feet to the shoulders. Next, they will bend the knees and bring the ball back in as close to the body as possible. They should feel this in the hamstrings. This exercise is typically performed for repetitions.
Your client can perform the good morning exercise with either a band or a barbell, though these directions use the barbell. Have your client start with the barbell in a back-rack position, same as what they would use for a back squat. Their foot stance should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and, like the squat, toes pointed slightly outward.
Instruct your client to engage their upper back and ensure they keep a good arch in their lower back, again, similar to the squat. They should have a slight bend at the knees and be pushing their butt back as they start to bend forward at the hips. Have them bend forward until their torso is slightly above parallel. Then, slowly raise back up to the starting position, engaging the glutes and hamstrings to get there. This exercise is typically completed for repetitions.
Ready to Learn More?
These are just a few of the leg exercises to incorporate into hamstring training. If you would like to learn more about other exercises and how to work different muscle groups, check out ISSA’s Certified Fitness Trainer program. You can make the most of your training and in helping others achieve their fitness goals.