You pay extra close attention to toning your core, arms, and butt—but how about your hamstrings? The often overlooked muscle group (which includes the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, and the biceps femoris) isn’t just responsible for giving you a perky behind and toned legs. Hamstring exercises strengthen a muscle group that greatly affects functional movements.
“Your hamstrings contribute to your functional motion (such as walking and running), help with posture, and are responsible for your speed, power, and agility in many sports. The stronger your hamstrings are, the faster you can stop, resume running, and change direction,” says Emily Samuel, a trainer at New York City’s Dogpound. “Muscles work in pairs, so if you have weak hamstrings, you’re mostly relying on your quads to take the load and stabilize the knees and hips. Those imbalances can lead to injury—you definitely don’t want the quads doing all the work.”
To give your hamstrings get the attention they deserve, bring on the burn with these strengthening exercises, whether you’re working on a mat in your living room or lifting at the gym.
8 trainer-approved hamstring exercises
1. Kettlebell swings
“Starting with the kettlebell about a foot in front of your feet, hinge at your hips, grabbing the kettlebell as it’s tilted back. Hike the kettlebell back to the upper part of your thighs, then drive your hips forward, using momentum to let the kettlebell float. Then let it come back between your legs and drive again through your hips. You don’t want to use your arms to ‘lift’ the kettlebell, as all the power is coming from your glutes and hamstrings. When you’re done with your reps, bring the kettlebell back to the starting position.” —Betina Gozo, Nike global master trainer
2. Romanian deadlift
“Once you have the barbell in front of you, take a deep breath, draw your ribs down, and brace your core. Push your hips backward and, maintaining a long neutral spine from your head to your pelvis, run the barbell down your thighs until the weights tap the floor. Allow a soft bend in your knees as you lower the barbell—you want to pick it up the same way you put it down!—so you squeeze your glutes as you drive your hips forward into the bar.” —Emily Samuel, a trainer at New York City’s Dogpound
3. Pelvic curl
“Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Keep your hands down on the mat, next to your hips. Begin by imprinting—or pressing your low back down onto the mat—then peel your spine up off the mat one vertebrae at a time into a bridge position. Gently pull the weight toward your heels, activating your hamstrings. Hold for five seconds and gently peel back down to the mat.” —Amy Cardin, Rhode Island-based Pilates instructor
4. Single-leg Romanian deadlifts
“Start by standing on one leg with the other hovering above the ground. Slightly bend (unlock) the knee of the supporting leg and hinge forward at your hips, letting your opposing leg slowly kick up in line with your spine and neck as you feel a stretch through the back of your legs. Only go as far as you can while keeping your core engaged—lower is not better here; you want to focus on the hamstrings. Then slowly hinge back up to standing. Start with bodyweight only on this, then you can hold a weight in both hands.” —Betina Gozo
5. Slider hamstring curl
“Lie on your back on a hardwood floor—or another smooth surface—with your heels on a pair of exercise sliders and your hands beside you on the floor, palms down. It will also work will socks instead of sliders. Using the heels of your feet, drive your hips up and your heels toward your glutes. Keep your core braced to prevent hyperextending your lower back and your feet at shoulder-width. Be sure to tuck your tailbone under slightly, draw your ribs down, and keep your tummy tight.” —Emily Samuel
6. Quadruped hip extension
“Begin on all fours with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Engage your core, keeping a neutral position with your spine. Lift your right leg behind you, keeping the 90-degree angle of your leg from the kneeling position, like a donkey kick. Reach your heel up toward the ceiling—without rotating your knee outward—and return to all fours. Repeat ten times on one leg before switching sides.” —Amy Cardin
7. Eccentric partner hamstring curls
“Starting on your knees, have a partner sit behind you, holding onto your feet or ankles—or just put your feet under the couch. Make sure you feel comfortable with the positioning of your feet and where your partner is. With your hands in front of your chest, slowly lower yourself forward in a straight line from your head to your knees, feeling your hamstrings stretch as you come down. Go as slow as you can, using your hands to catch yourself at the bottom, then bring yourself back up and repeat.” —Bettina Gozo
8. Leg pull back
“Begin on all fours and extend one leg at a time into a plank position. Maintain a strong core and lift one leg slightly higher than your hip. Keep your leg straight and slowly pulse the leg higher without arching your back. Pulse five times on each leg and rest before repeating a second time.” —Amy Cardin
If you want to work the rest of your body after these hamstrings exercises, try some moves you can do with a medicine ball from J.Lo’s trainer. No medicine ball in sight? Do these intense Pilates moves instead.
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