By Jacob Ladon Generation Iron
The Impact of Strength Training On Hamstring Health
Over the years, numerous scientific studies and journals have advocated the use of resistance training due to vast number of benefits associated with it. Regular training has been found to improve muscular strength, bone health, mobility and proprioceptive abilities. The impact of strength training is so profound that many health authorities now recommend performing resistance-based training multiple times per week.
While building strength across all muscle groups is important, it is often necessary to place a greater emphasis on training the muscles found at the rear of the body as they are often neglected and underutilized. In this article, we will review a key posterior muscle group – the hamstrings – and uncover a number of premium strength exercises that we can perform to build bulletproof hamstrings!
The Crucial Role Of The Hamstrings
The hamstring muscle group is located on the back side of the thigh and consist of three individual muscles – the semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris. These muscles originate from the pelvis, insert on the bones of the lower leg and cross over the knee and hip joint All three muscles work together to generate movement around the hips and knees – namely, hip extension, knee flexion, and pelvic posterior tilt.
In addition to movement generation, the hamstrings also play a vital role in stabilization of the knee joint. Having weak hamstrings can increase the risk of experiencing a catastrophic anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury which is an injury prevalent across a number of sports.
In order to develop size, strength, and to reduce injury risk, a greater emphasis should be placed on the hamstrings and posterior muscles in general. More often than not, posterior muscles are neglected and anterior dominant exercises (such as squats and bench press) take precedent. Over-development of anterior muscles and simultaneous under-development of posterior muscles can create a muscular imbalance which can lead to injury. (1)
The Top Resistance Exercises For Hamstring Development
In order to efficiently develop the hamstring, it is important to assess which exercises place the greatest demand on the muscle group. The following exercises are all superb activators of the hamstrings and any quality strength program will more than likely incorporate a number of the following exercises.
The majority of the exercises that we are going to cover would fall into the intermediate to advanced level category. Therefore, if you are relatively new to resistance training, I would advise against immediately adopting these exercises.
In a similar vein, if you are an intermediate or advanced lifter yet a number of these exercises are new to you, avoid the temptation to load up the barbell and lift extremely heavy. Instead, I would recommend starting light, focussing on developing your technique first and gradually adding load as the weeks and months progress. By taking this sensible approach you will reduce the risk of injury and promote your own exercise safety.
Okay, so, let’s now have a look at the top resistance exercises for hamstring development…
The Clean Deadlift
Without a shadow of a doubt, the deadlift is the king of all posterior-chain development. Ripping a heavy barbell off the floor places a great demand on all the muscles of the rear of the body – from the bottom of the legs right up to the upper back.
To complete a deadlift and successfully bring the bar from the floor and up to the hips, there must be a very powerful contraction from the glutes and hamstrings to extend through the knees and hips. Additionally, during the lowering of the bar to the floor, more stress is placed on the hamstrings as they must eccentrically contract to stabilize and control the load as it descends.
One variation that we can use to increase the tension placed on the hamstrings is the clean deadlift. This variation is very similar to the conventional deadlift with just one small alteration. In the set up for the conventional deadlift, it is essential that the hips are high, however, for the clean deadlift the hips should be dropped slightly lower. Instead of focusing on extending at the hips and the knees, the focus during the initial drive should solely be on extending the knees. To initiate movement from the floor and extend at the knees, the hamstrings must fully contract. Only once the knees have been extended, should extension through the hips then occur.
The clean deadlift is one very simple and effective variation of the conventional deadlift that we can use to shift the focus onto the hamstrings. However, there are a number of other hamstring-dominant deadlift variations that we can take advantage of…
There are is an abundance of scientific studies which advocates the use of the Romanian Deadlift (RDL) for hamstring development – specifically in light of injury prevention. In terms of activation, there are few exercises that work the hamstring as much as the RDL (2).
The mechanics and movement pattern for the RDL is very similar to the conventional deadlift in terms of upper body and hips movement. The difference is that, for the RDL, the legs must remain straight throughout the movement with only a very slight bend held in the knees.
To perform the RDL, stand up tall with the barbell so that the bar is at the hips. From there, focus on pushing the hips backward and minimizing knee bend. As the bar drops towards the floor, brace the core and engage the lats to keep the bar close to the body. You should feel a deep stretch in the hamstrings as the bar drops down. Once you feel this maximal stretch, you must then drive the hips back through to the standing position, squeezing the glutes together at the top of the movement.
While the RDL is certainly an effectual hamstring exercise, you must be aware not to drop the bar too far. At a certain point, your hamstrings will reach their maximal stretch potential and they can lengthen no further. At that point, if you continue to lower the bar, the lumbar spine will compensate and begin to round which greatly increases the risk of spinal disc herniation (often referred to as a slipped disc) (3).
While this variation of the deadlift can be an effective way of increasing the intensity, difficulty, and load placed on the hamstrings, you must be certain that you actually have the mobility and movement required to safely perform this exercise. The variation involves placing weight plates or a bench under your feet in order to increase the distance that the barbell needs to travel to the floor. Because your feet are raised off the floor, you have to reach down further to grasp the barbell which immediately places a greater demand on the posterior chain. This variation is typically completed using the conventional style deadlift, however, if you have excellent mobility you may find that you can also perform an RDL deficit deadlift which will load the hamstrings to an even greater extent.
While this is a superb hamstring strengthening exercise, be aware that the risk of sustaining a spinal or lower back injury is increased with the deficit variation in comparison to a conventional deadlift. This is due to the increased range of motion which has the potential to “pull” the individual out of position and cause rounding of the lower back. This is why it is imperative to assess whether or not you have the ability to maintain a neutral back for the duration of the exercise. The first and last phase of this exercise, where the bar is nearest to the floor, is where you are most likely to see a rounding of the lower back.
Glute Ham Raises
As the name suggests, this exercise targets the glutes and hamstrings predominantly. An electromyography (EMG) analysis of the hamstrings during a Glute Ham Raise indicated a significant degree of activation. While the previous exercises that we’ve covered thus far predominantly focus on hip extension, the GHR solely concentrates on knee flexion.
The GHR is typically performed on a Glute Ham Developer (or GHD) – a piece of equipment found in many gyms that will allow the user to anchor their heels and “tip forward”. The exercise can also be performed on the floor providing you have a partner available to hold your feet down to allow you to hinge forward and backward.
To execute the GHR, start with the feet anchored, knees in contact with the floor and the body in an upright position. It’s important to squeeze the muscles in your core hard before you begin to fall forward. Keeping the hips, knees, and shoulders in line, descend forward until you are approximately parallel with the floor. From the bottom position, drive hard through the hamstrings and glutes to return to the upright, starting position – once again, remembering to keep the spine neutral and avoid any hinging from the hips (4).
The Power Snatch
The power snatch is simply one of the best exercises that can be performed to train and enhance one’s full body power output and explosiveness (5). The exercise involves bringing the bar up to the hips before powerfully extending through the hips, knees, and ankles while simultaneously pulling the bar upward and catching it in an overhead squat position. While learning the technique for the snatch may take time and effort, it is certainly worth doing so.
If you were to break down the movements of the snatch into phases, you would find that phase 1 and 2 accurately replicate the movement patterns of the deficit deadlift and the RDL – which we already know are terrific hamstring developers. In addition to this, the hamstrings play a vital role in triple extension (extension of the hips, knees, and ankles) which is required to drive the bar overhead. Prior to triple extension occurring, the hamstrings will be in a lengthened state; from there they must rapidly contract to drive the hips through powerfully. The more rapid and powerful this contraction is, the faster the bar will accelerate which will lead to a more efficient snatch.
The Hang Snatch
To isolate the hamstrings to an even greater extent, consider the hang snatch. The difference between two exercises is that the for the hang snatch you start with the bar at the hips rather than from the floor. Start by standing upright with the bar at the hips and initiate the movement by pushing your hips back while keeping the legs straight. You should feel a substantial stretch on the hamstrings – similar to the stretch felt during a RDL. Moreover, remember to maintain tightness in the core tight which will keep your spine in a neutral position. Once you have pushed back a significant distance, you then complete the snatch through a powerful triple extension, high pull, and overhead catch.
The Power Clean
The clean is a second Olympic lift that we can utilize to develop full body explosiveness and specifically build hamstring power and strength. As with the snatch, the rate at which the bar accelerates is determined by the amount of power generated through the hips – a movement initiated primarily by the glutes and hamstrings.
The movement patterns of the power clean and snatch are actually very similar as both involve a rapid triple extension in order to drive the bar up. The difference between the two exercises comes down to the catch. In the power snatch, the bar is caught in the overhead squat position, whereas in the power clean, the bar is caught in the front rack position which is simply when the bar sits on the front of the shoulders.
In the same way that the snatch is a very technical lift, there are many moving parts to a power clean. You may find that you need to keep the weight light for a period of time to facilitate the learning process. Once your technique feels solid, you gradually add load to the bar. If you are finding the technique of clean to extremely challenging or find that you don’t have the mobility required to get into the correct position, consider cleaning from the blocks. This simply involves elevating the bar of the floor by placing it on two lifting blocks. By doing this, you immediately reduce the mobility demands making it easier to get into the right position thus facilitating form and reducing the risk of injury.
The hang snatch was highlighted as an effective way to specifically isolate the hamstring. In exactly the same way, it is also possible to isolate the hamstring in the clean by adopting the hang position. As with the snatch, stand upright with the bar and focus on driving the hips back to drop the bar down towards the knees. From there, accelerate quickly through the hips and pull the bar high. Ensure to keep the elbows high as you then catch the bar on the shoulders.
Scientific studies have indicated that kettlebell swings are one of the best dynamic strengthening exercises that can be performed for the lower extremities (6). Unfortunately, however, this exercise is often performed incorrectly. Many individuals misinterpret the swing as a squat or a even shoulder exercise. In actuality, it is neither of these things. The kettlebell swing is an exercise which engages a vast number of posterior-chain muscles and is all about the drive of the hips. The constant swinging will place a high demand on the hamstrings as they are forced to lengthen and shorten rapidly in a continuous cycle to maintain swinging.
Although the kettlebell will rise up toward the shoulders, the shoulders should not engage or drive the kettlebell up to the end position. Instead, they should stay relaxed as it is the power from the hips that will drive the kettlebell – not the shoulders. Secondly, it is important to remember that the swing is not a squat and therefore we should not be dropping the hips back and down or excessively bend the knees. Instead, the focus must be on maintaining high hips throughout and continuously pushing the hips back in order to swing the kettlebell forward.
With all exercises that involve the hip hinging movement, it is important to maintain tightness in the core. Think about squeezing all your muscles in the trunk to retain a neutral spine alignment through the duration of the exercise. Additionally, at the top of each swing, concentrate on squeezing the glutes together to ensure you have driven the hips through to full extension.
Seen as a staple bodybuilding exercise, the hamstring curl is a powerful isolation exercise. An isolation is simply an exercise which requires effort from a single muscle group across a single joint. In the case of the hamstring curl, the knee joint aligns with the pivot point of the machine and in order to drive the pad to the glutes, the hamstrings must maximally contract (7).
There are two main hamstring curl machines – the seated and lying curl machine. Both movements are practically identical yet place a slightly different stimulus on the hamstrings as a result of different hip angles. With the seated curl, the hips are flexed at an approximate 90° angle while the lying curl does not flex the hips at all. More often than not, personal preference will dictate which machine you use.
Ultimately, if developing strength, figure or performance is high on your priority list, it would be wise to incorporate a number of the aforementioned exercises into your training.
In terms of training frequency, it is important that we are training this muscle group multiple times per week in order to allow for optimal adaptations. Training the hamstrings once per week will not provide a strong enough stimulus that will force the hamstrings to adapt. Instead, look to train the hamstrings 2-3 times per week, at a minimum.
Providing we put the correct training principles in place and make informed exercises choices, we can reasonably expect to see significant improvements in hamstring strength, appearance, and overall health.
- Croisier, Jean-Louis; Ganteaume, Sebastien; Binet, Johnny; Genty, Marc; Ferret, Jean-Marcel (2008-08-01). “Strength Imbalances and Prevention of Hamstring Injury in Professional Soccer Players: A Prospective Study”. The American Journal of Sports Medicine. 36 (8): 1469–1475. doi:10.1177/0363546508316764. ISSN 0363-5465.
- McAllister, Matt J.; Hammond, Kelley G.; Schilling, Brian K.; Ferreria, Lucas C.; Reed, Jacob P.; Weiss, Lawrence W. (2014-6). “Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 28 (6): 1573–1580. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000302. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 24149748.
- CrossFit Journal Article Reprint First Published in Crossfit Journal Issue 63- November 2017
- Madden, Jeff; Roll, Fred; Kennedy, Dave (1990-4). “TEACHING TECHNIQUES #8: The glute-ham raise”. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 12 (2): 34. ISSN 1524-1602
- DeWeese, Brad H.; Serrano, Ambrose J.; Scruggs, Steven K.; Sams, Matt L. (2012-12). “The Clean Pull and Snatch Pull: Proper Technique for Weightlifting Movement Derivatives”. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 34 (6): 82. doi:10.1519/SSC.0b013e31826f1023. ISSN 1524-1602.
- Lake, Jason P.; Lauder, Mike A. (2012-8). “Kettlebell Swing Training Improves Maximal and Explosive Strength”. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 26 (8): 2228. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2c9b. ISSN 1064-8011.
- Gym Smarts: Hamstring Curls