by Allen Cress
Most bodybuilders can develop showy quads, but just as many are sorely lacking when it comes to the hamstrings. When they turn to the side or rear the depth of their legs seems to disappear. An impressive set of hamstrings can be the determining factor in achieving the “complete package” that nearly all bodybuilders seek. On a personal note, hamstring development has been my Achilles’ heel since I started competing seventeen years ago. It is for this reason I feel I am qualified to write this article. I have had to learn every trick of the trade when it comes to cajoling hamstrings to grow. Read on and learn from my experience.
Anatomy and function
The hamstrings consist of 3 different muscles: the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus. The long head of the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus all cross both the knee and hip joints and are capable of extending the hip and flexing the knee. The short head of the biceps femoris is the only hamstring muscle that doesn’t extend the hip since it only crosses the knee joint.
The most frequently trained hamstring movement patterns are flexing of the knee joint (i.e. leg curl), extending the hips (i.e. Romanian deadlift), extending the trunk when the legs are fixed (i.e. low back extension), extending the legs when the trunk is in a fixed position (i.e. reverse hypers), and keeping the trunk in-line with the upper leg while flexing the knee (i.e. glute-ham raise).
The following lists movement patterns and the best exercises to train them:
1) Flexing of the knee joint: lying leg curl, seated leg curl
2) Extending the hips: stiff-legged deadlifts, single leg RDL, good mornings, cable pull-throughs
3) Extending the legs and/or trunk: back extensions, reverse hypers, straight-leg elevated glute bridges
4) Simultaneous hip extension and knee flexion: glute-ham raises, stability ball leg curls, suspended body curls, and single-leg suspended body curls
Choosing the right exercises and strategies
There are a few strategies I always implement to bring up someone’s hamstrings. First, I often use exercises from the fourth category above either on a separate day from a loaded leg day, or I will superset them with quad-dominant movements. Since the fourth category is more “functional” and trains both movement patterns of the hamstrings (knee flexion & hip extension) it is a great way to teach the needed mind-muscle connection for the trainee. In addition, because they are essentially body weight exercises recovery time is much shorter.
I always do an isolated hamstring exercise (such as seated leg curls) before doing compound movements (such as squats and leg presses). This comes from working with hundreds of clients over the years. I’ve found that doing them first elicits greater hamstring activation and feel during the compound exercises that follow.
This brings me to another rule. The trainee must feel the muscles they are training through the entire range of motion. Too many times I have bodybuilders come to me seeking better development, yet once I start training them they are almost always more concerned with how much they are lifting than having the needed mind-muscle connection. Just because you are strong and can move a lot of weight on an exercise does not mean you are developing that muscle and tapping into those high-threshold motor units.
Back in my powerlifting days, I could perform RDL with 350 lbs for 6 reps, but I lacked hamstring development. It wasn’t until I started concentrating on feeling the muscles through the entire range of motion on every rep, of every set, of every single exercise performed that my hams started improving. Take your EGO out of the equation and truly grasp that mind-muscle connection you hear bodybuilders talk about. For example, when performing any leg curl variation if you cannot feel a peak contraction at the top of the movement you need to drop the weight down until you are able to.
The following are a few ways to focus on your hamstrings during your sessions:
- As you perform the eccentric part of the movement, imagine the hamstrings taking the weight down as if you are “fighting the flex”.
- For movements such as stiff-legged deadlifts get that deep-stretch feeling by continually pushing the hips back, but not allowing your hips to drop as you bend forward at the waist. On the concentric portion imagine your hams and glutes pulling your hips forward. Once you reach the top, flex the hams and glutes hard.
Proper progression is thus form and feel followed by load with load never taking precedence. In other words, increase the load, but only do so when you can without reducing your ability to focus on your hamstrings during the movement.
This is real intensity, folks! Performing exercises in this manner on every rep, of every set, of every exercise is grueling but supremely effective. For development, always remember to train the muscle, NOT the movement!
After reading this article you have no excuse for sporting gimpy, under-developed hamstrings that disappear when you turn to the side. For best results, perform all types of hamstring exercises in all rep ranges. Variety really is the spice of life! Get to the gym and start putting in the work. Before you know it you will have well-developed hams that separate the four-shots-of-espresso men from the decaf-soy-latte boys!
* “The Abel Approach” by Scott Abel was used as a reference for this article.