Hamstring Exercises — Building Symmetry in Your Legs

Hamstring Exercises - Building Symmetry in Your Legs

Reading Time: 9 minutes 15 seconds


Date: 2023-03-10

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.

Where Is the Hamstring Located?

The hamstring can be found in the back of the upper leg, opposite the quadriceps. It extends from the pelvis to the lower leg, just below the knee.

Clients have varying levels of knowledge about human anatomy. So, talking about the hamstring without checking to see if they know where it is first may reduce the effectiveness of whatever it is you’re saying. It also increases the likelihood that you’ll be met with blank stares.

When first working with a client, it’s helpful to not just explain that the hamstring is in the back of the upper leg but also to place your hand on your own hamstring muscle to show them visually. Continue to motion toward your hamstring (or your client’s) when it is mentioned during the first few sessions to help get them used to where it is.

To drive this point home, have the client stretch one of their legs forward and bend slightly at the hip. The stretch they feel at the back of the upper leg? Yeah, that’s the hamstring. 

Muscles That Make Up the Hamstring

It can also be beneficial to let clients know that, technically, the hamstring is a group of muscles versus being one singular muscle. This helps reduce confusion when they hear it referred to as “the hamstrings.” 

The three muscles that make up the hamstring are the:

Biceps Femoris

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.

Based on their location, the semitendinosus and semimembranosus are often referred to as medial hamstring muscles. The biceps femoris is known as the lateral hamstring.

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.

While it may be unrealistic to expect clients to remember the name of each muscle, or even which is which, at least they understand that there are three. This is also helpful when explaining that an exercise works a specific hamstring muscle.

What the Hamstrings Do

The hamstring has a few basic functions. They include hip extension and rotation, in addition to helping the knee joint bend (knee flexion and extension). This makes the hamstring important in physical actions such as walking, running, climbing stairs, and squatting down. 

Developing hamstring strength can make these types of activities easier to perform. Athletes involved in sports that utilize the lower body also benefit from strong hamstrings. Their movements can become more powerful, as well as increasing speed.

Strong hamstrings also help reduce injury risk. For instance, one study found that performing the Nordic hamstring exercise reduced the number of hamstring injuries in soccer players (1). Other research reports that strengthening the hamstring can also reduce injury to the knee joint (2). Because the muscle is able to better support the joint, it becomes less susceptible to injury.

Though it may not seem like it, the hamstring even plays an important role in keeping a healthy posture. Tight hamstrings can pull the pelvis backward. If this occurs, it reduces the natural arch of the lower back. 

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.

Common Hamstring Injuries

Hamstring injury is all too common, especially when playing sports. The sudden stops, starts, and changes of direction can place stress on the hamstring. If this stress is enough, injury can result. Some of the most common hamstring injuries include:

  • Hamstring strain. A hamstring strain injury occurs when the muscle is stretched too far. This is sometimes referred to as a pulled hamstring since the muscle pulls to the point where it starts to tear. Pain or tenderness is common with a hamstring strain. So is muscle fatigue, swelling, and even bruising.

  • Hamstring tear. If the muscle is pulled too far, a hamstring tear can result. This tear can be partial or complete and it can occur to any one (or more) of the three hamstring muscles. If the rip occurs where the hamstring meets the pelvis, at the ischial tuberosity, this is called a proximal hamstring tear. 

  • Hamstring tendinopathy. Too much load placed on the hamstring tendon can cause it to change, sometimes irreversibly. This leads to pain deep in the buttocks, as well as stiffness extending down the back of the thigh.

Both a hamstring strain and hamstring tear can vary in terms of severity. Severity is assessed according to grade. A grade one injury is a mild strain. A grade two injury refers to a muscle that is partially torn. If the muscle tissue is torn completely, this is a grade three injury. 

While a minor hamstring injury may recover with simple therapies such as rest, ice, compression, and elevation, more severe hamstring injuries might require more intensive treatments. One option is physical therapy. If the muscle injury isn’t likely to heal on its own, surgery may be necessary. 

For instance, with a proximal hamstring tear, a doctor may have to go in and reconnect the torn hamstring tendon to the bone. This is accomplished using tiny anchors and can take several months to heal.

Preventing Hamstring Muscle Injury

To avoid potentially lengthy recovery periods, preventing hamstring muscle injuries is key. This involves, in part, understanding what factors may increase your risk of one of these frequent hamstring injuries. According to research published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, these risk factors include (3):

  • Not adequately warming up

  • Muscle fatigue

  • Biceps femoris length (specifically, a short biceps femoris)

  • Engaging in running and sprinting exercises

  • Kicking or jumping movements

  • Stretching, sliding, turning, or twisting movements

  • Previous injury to the area

  • Age

Strengthening the hamstring through exercise can help protect it from injury. As mentioned previously, the Nordic hamstring exercise (a.k.a. Nordic hamstring curl) has been found to provide this effect. This involves kneeling, locking the ankles in place, then leaning the upper body forward toward the floor. 

Another exercise to increase strength in the back of the upper leg is the exercise ball hamstring curl. This involves lying on your back with your lower legs on the top of a stability ball. After lifting your hips to straighten your body, you contract the hamstrings to pull the ball closer to your buttocks before returning to the original position.

It’s also important to work the quadriceps and hamstring equally. If you work on just the quad or just the hamstring, it creates a muscle imbalance. Over time, this imbalance can lead to postural issues and muscle weakness.

Developing a yoga practice can help relieve tight hamstrings. Downward Facing Dog, Standing Forward Bend, and Triangle Pose all provide a good hamstring stretch. Hold each pose for 30 seconds or more to get the muscle to release.

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.

Romanian Deadlift

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.

Kettlebell Swing

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.

Glute Bridge

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.

Good Morning

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 Personal Trainer program. You can make the most of your training and in helping others achieve their fitness goals.

Featured Course

Certified Personal Trainer

Start your dream career completely online! Take the course, pass the certification final exam, and be guaranteed a job - or your money back!


  • Al Attar, W. S., Soomro, N., Sinclair, P. J., Pappas, E., & Sanders, R. H. (2016). Effect of injury prevention programs that include the Nordic hamstring exercise on hamstring injury rates in soccer players: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 47(5), 907–916. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-016-0638-2

  • Daneshjoo, A., Mokhtar, A. H., Rahnama, N., & Yusof, A. (2013). The effects of injury prevention warm-up programmes on knee strength in male soccer players. Biology of Sport, 30(4), 281–288. https://doi.org/10.5604/20831862.1077554

  • Wing, C., & Bishop, C. (2020). Hamstring strain injuries: Incidence, mechanisms, risk factors, and training recommendations. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 42(3), 40–57. https://doi.org/10.1519/ssc.0000000000000538

Sign Up & Stay Connected

Receive $50 off your purchase today!

I consent to being contacted by ISSA.
Learn More