Editor's note: Find all 10 articles in this series on the 10 Body Part Training Series Main Page.
Balance. It is a term used over and over in the world of bodybuilding. Those who have it have the chance at becoming a champion, those who don’t struggle with repetitive defeats in the eyes of the judges, family and friends. Balance is not only a principle when it comes to aesthetics and proportions of a contest-ready physique; it also plays a pivotal role in the practical functionality of performance in and out of the gym. Certain antagonistic muscles are crucial in the strength, muscle mass development and performance of their counterparts, therefore specific focus and balance of other factors such as volume and intensity are a must for any athlete.
Enter hamstrings. No one sees them, no one ever tells you to flex them, why spend so much thought, time and effort into improving them? Why? On a bodybuilding dais it is the details that count. The details dictate who walks away the champion and who goes home early.
Bodybuilding is sport of specifics when it is game day. The athletes who did their homework on every single aspect of preparation pertaining to development, conditioning, and balance are the ones victorious in the end. Hamstrings should be no different.
Earlier in the 10 Series I talked about quads and how to get them big, beefy, and muscular. Now it is time to focus on its favorite relative; the hamstrings. The goal of any bodybuilder in regard to hamstring development is to build the muscle appropriately so it can be impressively displayed from many angles when on stage – specifically the rear and side poses. Although sometimes difficult to develop, once built, hamstrings can be a serious strength against other competitors. So let’s look at the hamstring complex a little closer and get ready to beef up the backs of those legs!
Quick Anatomy Lesson
The hamstrings are a group of muscles comprised of three main muscles on the back of the thigh. Let’s take a quick look at what comprises the main muscles of the hamstrings and their function.
Biceps femoris (located along the outside of the thigh), semitendinosus (located in the middle), and the semimembranosus (located on near the inside of the thigh) all originate just underneath the gluteus maximus on the pelvic bone and attach on the tibia of the lower leg. The functions of the hamstrings are knee flexion (bringing the heel towards the buttocks), hip extension (moving the leg to the rear), and deceleration of the lower leg.
When speaking of function it is easy to grasp the importance of hamstring development as it relates to other muscle movement performance. For instance, hamstrings play a vital role in the function of the squat, hack squat, front squat, leg press and lunge motions. Balance, therefore, is not only a visual aspect worth value on stage, but also as important while training the entire lower body. Without properly trained hamstrings, the quadriceps will not be able to be trained to their full potential.
Cured Ham Action!
Now that you know a little about anatomy and function, let’s delve into what makes outstanding hamstrings. The movements and routines presented are designed to get the most out of each trip to the gym. Remember to always use good form and not to use too much weight to compromise your safety.
Lying leg curl and seated leg curl: As an old standard for trainers everywhere, the lying leg curl machine is an extremely effective tool for hamstring isolation particularly the lower portion. Simply adjust the foot pad so it will rest on the back of the Achilles tendon. Your knees should be aligned with the axle of the machine for proper movement. Place your feet at approximately shoulder width on the pad. Next, curl up until the pad is near or touching the backs of your legs or buttocks then return to the starting position under control straightening your legs but not letting the weight stack hit at the bottom.
For the seated leg curl it should be a similar set-up. Adjust the pad as above and adjust the seat so your knee again aligns with the axle of the machine. Secure the top pad firmly against your thighs so you are locked into the machine. Perform the movement in a controlled motion curling under your thighs until you feel a strong contraction. Avoid partial movement so be sure to use a moderate amount of weight to allow for a full range of motion.
Quick hit: Try varying your foot/lower leg positions on the pads to hit different parts of your hams. For example: do a set with a wide stance, another with a shoulder width, and the last with the legs close together. This will ensure you are hitting each part of the hamstring for more balanced development.
Standing (one legged) leg curl: Similar to the lying and seated varieties, the standing leg curl machine gives you the opportunity to isolate one leg at a time. Training in this unilateral way also helps contract the muscle harder with each rep as it reaches the peak of the movement. Simply situate yourself into the machine (most have you place one knee on a pad and the other behind the ankle pad). Curl up the working leg for a full range of motion and contract the hamstring hard.
It is easy to twist the lower body to cheat a few more reps out, but try to avoid this. This not only will cheat you out of proper development, but will also put you at risk for injury to the lower back/trunk area. Return the weight to the start position without letting the weight stack rest. Be sure to keep continuous tension on the muscle being worked at all times.
Quick hit: When performing a unilateral movement such as standing leg curls try your best to alternate legs without much rest. When one leg is working, the other is resting, therefore there is no reason to take a break after each set; a few seconds are fine, but try to avoid a normal rest period. Your hams will thank you!
Romanian deadlift and stiff-legged deadlift: A common confusion within the resistance training world is the difference between the Romanian deadlift (RDL) and the stiff-legged deadlift (SLDL). First, the RDL is performed with slightly bent knees and the weight hanging straight down. This movement is mainly to target the hamstring and glute muscles. The SLDL is performed with mostly straight legs (some lock out their knees) and a slightly rounded lower back. This movement is utilized to target the hamstrings and lower back. Both exercises have merit regarding hamstring development. Unlike the leg curl machines, the RDL and SLDL will put more stress on the glute and upper hamstring tie-in area.
For RDLs position a barbell in front of you and take a shoulder width stance. Grasp the barbell with a shoulder width grip and deadlift it up to the start position (it should be against your thighs). Put a slight bend in your knees and lock into this position (your knees should remain in this semi-bent angle throughout the movement). Rotating from the hips – NOT THE BACK – lower the barbell to about mid-shin level feeling your hamstrings stretch.
Without jerking the weight, reverse the direction and come up to upper thigh level without coming up straight – this will keep the tension on the hams. Remember to rotate from the hips and keep your back as straight as possible which will feel like you are sticking your butt out and behind you. Use a light weight at first to get the form down, then once you master the movement you can start adding weight.
For SLDLs position your feet and hands as with the RDLs. This time with your knees locked (or almost locked) lower the bar down while letting your back round slightly. DO NOT overly round your back with heavy weight! This will only cause an injury. The bar should travel close to your legs as the weight descends. You will find that you are able to lower the weight further using this method so use a light to moderate weight and perform the movement slowly and under control.
So which is it? RDL or SLDL? For the beginner stick to perfecting the RDL, but for the seasoned lifter, try throwing in some SLDLs once every third or fourth workout to change things up a bit. You will have to use a lighter weight, but the deep stretch will quickly make up for it.
Quick hit: A good alternative to is to use dumbbells instead of barbells. Dumbbells allow the ability to adjust your form slightly and are convenient in a crowded gym when a barbell station is hard to come by. Try both versions and see what works best for you.
Glute/ham raise: An old movement that has had a resurgence of popularity recently (for good reason) is the glute/ham raise. This particular movement requires a great deal of strength from the hamstrings and not too many trainers are able to initially do these correctly. Position yourself face down on a hyperextension bench with your heels under the foot pads and your knees on the hip pad. Situate yourself so that your knees will be the rotating point for this movement – you should look like you are kneeling on the bench.
Starting from the top position, slowly lower your upper body – only bending at the knees – until you are parallel with the floor. In this position your body should form a straight line. Then reverse the direction contracting your hamstrings and “leg curl” your upper body back into the upright position.
Quick hit: This is a tough movement so you may only get a few reps if any. A trick to get you going early on would be to use a small bar to help you with the upward motion. Simply grasp a small bar and place the other end on the floor – the bar should be perpendicular to the floor. Use the bar much like a hiker’s pole and help your upper body up into the upright position. Once you master the movement and gain ample strength, you can get rid of the “crutch” and get to work!
Quick hit: Another remedy would be to start by using a hyperextension bench that is angled (about 45 degrees). This will allow you to perform more reps and master your form.
Leg press (feet high on plate): The name says it all. Once you have exhausted your hamstring on some of the isolation movements, leg presses with a high stance on the foot plate can be a very effective ham builder. Be sure to place them high enough to push through with your heels so that you feel a nice stretch in the bottom position.
Quick hit: Try wide and close stances with your feet to work all areas of the hamstrings.
Lunge: Traditionally utilized as a quad finishing movement, the lunge can be vital in creating that great side quad/ham tie-in look many bodybuilders are after. Lunges not only work and stretch the quads, but also equally work the hamstrings. See The 10 Bodypart Target Training Series: How to Turn Your Puny Quads into Tree Trunks! for more on lunges.
Cured Ham Schedules
Overall Hamstring Development
- Standing leg curl 3 x 10-15
- Seated leg curl 3 x 10-15
- Romanian deadlift 2 x 10-15
- Leg press (feet high) 2 x 10-15