What are the best hamstring building/shaping exercises?
Colin: For me nothing beats the Romanian deadlift when it comes to the hamstrings, when performed properly. The means not having too much bend in the knee and making sure you are pulling up with your hamstrings and not your back, not excessively rounding the back, and unlike what you hear with most lifts like the squat you want to make sure you don’t go too far down because this will take the stress off the hamstrings. You don’t need to be a hero with weights to get a lot out of an RDL, form is critical.
From there I like stiff leg deadlifts, lying/seated curls and standing good mornings. Personally I like to hit moves like stiff leg deadlifts early in the workout to get a nice stretch before moving onto the rest. I also like to switch it up and work lying leg curls hard concentrically and occasionally working them hard eccentrically. Lifting the weight with both legs and lowering it with one leg for a count of 3 or 4 will really hit them hard. This move will also help you avoid hamstring injuries if you are an athlete who does a lot of sprinting.
Dara: I definitely agree on the Romanian deadlifts. I can really feel my hamstrings with these. I also like laying leg curls and do many variations including lifting with both legs and lowering with just one, drop sets and elevated leg curls where you prop your upper body up on your forearms.
Colin: You really like those drops sets don’t you Dara? I used to do them more but I may have to get back into them again. I pretty well reserve them for calves now it seems like.
Dara: My coach works them in fairly regularly. And yes, I do actually like them. I find them a really good way to fully fatigue the muscles, which has proven to be beneficial to me in my building efforts!
Matt: Drop sets have been off my radar lately. Thanks for the reminder. I’ve rarely used them for hamstrings but obviously they’ll work for any muscle.
Colin makes a great point about going too low on RDL’s. At about mid-shin the stress begins to transfer from the hamstrings to the low back so that’s about as deep as you need to go. Also, what I see a lot with RDL’s is some kind of hybrid deadlift. Your knees should be slightly, I said slightly, bent and locked in place. They don’t move. All of the movement comes from driving your hips back and forth. Of all of the lifts this is probably my strongest and I believe it’s been adherence to strict form that has allowed me to progress to the point where I can Romanian deadlifts the same weight I can traditionally deadlift. You might point out that my traditional deadlift must be weak and you may have a point. Or you may not. This lift just works well with my body.
I’m also a really big fan of lying leg curls. Not so much the seated variety. I always do both plantar flex and dorsi flex for a few sets of each. 90 percent of the time this is how I begin every hamstring workout.
Any type of lunge I also find to be very good and getting deep into the hamstrings. Walking lunges, step backs, Bulgarian split squats – all traditionally thought of as quad exercises but I feel they make better hamstring movements.
The same goes for leg press and hack squats. I usually throw one or the other of those in as well with my feet high on the platform to get a good hamstring stretch.
All of these movements, other than the RDL’s and the hamstring curls, require a lot of quad activation as well but the way I split up quads/hamstrings on separate days with 3-4 days between I feel it is an ideal training method.
Lastly, here’s a highly underrated move: heavily weighted ‘back’ extensions. Grab a plate or three, or use a barbell across your back and lean forward while keeping your spine neutral but contracted. When you get to the bottom and feel a good stretch in your hamstrings expose back to the starting position.
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