Training at home or in a bare-bones gym with limited equipment? Here’s how to maximize hamstring size and strength.
You don’t need a dozen machines to build hamstrings. These exercises require minimal equipment, so they’re great for home lifters. Have access to a well-equipped gym? Use these to spice up your workouts, add a new challenge, or finish off your hamstrings after your usual compound movements.
This is a variation of the Nordic curl. Most lifters don’t have the strength to do a perfect, crisp Nordic curl. Emphasizing the movement’s eccentric (lowering) phase while assisting yourself in the concentric (lifting) phase is an effective yet brutal alternative.
- Set a barbell up in a rack with enough weight to hold it down during the exercise. No barbell? Grab a buddy and have him hold your ankles down.
- Place a pad on the bar to cushion your heels. Secure your feet under the bar with your toes against the floor. Place a mat or pad below your knees to protect them from pressing against the hard floor.
- Starting from the top position, press your hips into full extension and engage your glutes and hamstrings.
- Lower yourself down to the ground in a slow and controlled manner, catching yourself in a kneeling, push-up position.
- Do an explosive push-up to project yourself off the floor while engaging your hamstrings. Use your hammies to pull yourself back to a fully upright position.
Another variation of a Nordic curl, but this time instead of emphasizing the rep’s eccentric portion, the emphasis is on increasing hamstring activation by manipulating the leverage.
Extend your hips throughout the movement until you reach a high (but bearable) level of engagement. This gradually increases the load placed on the hamstrings. The range of movement will either be relatively moderate or large, depending on how advanced you are.
- Set the barbell up and position yourself in the same starting position as a Nordic curl.
- Start from the top with your hips hinged back and your torso forward, then extend your hips forward.
- Allow your torso to rise to an upright position while pressing your hips forward, aiming to achieve full extension.
- As your hamstrings are about to give way, retract your hips and drop your torso to decrease the leverage.
You can do this with a stability ball (on Amazon) or a suspension trainer (on Amazon)). Unlike the two previous exercises, this leg curl focuses on a full range of motion, with the concentric and eccentric portions being equally intense. You’ll also get increased core engagement, especially using the ball.
Since this exercise manipulates your own body weight, the resistance throughout will vary and, in this instance, create a strong peak contraction.
- Lay on your back with your heels inside the straps or on a ball.
- Place your arms flat on the floor.
- Lift your hips and engage your core to stop any unwanted swaying to either side.
- Drag your heels toward your hips. Keep those hips fully extended in a bridged position until you can no longer mechanically bring your heels back any further.
- Hold a moment at the top to engage the hamstrings fully, then slowly control your heels back to the starting position.
You can do this on one leg, which requires balance and ankle stability. Or you can do it using a staggered stance, where your rear leg assists with the balance by touching the floor lightly behind your front foot.
While the hamstrings are the primary muscle involved, the glutes remain active as an assisting muscle group. The key to a textbook Romanian deadlift is the hip hinge. Without a good hip hinge, you won’t get as much engagement and may struggle to feel the loaded stretch.
- Start in a staggered stance with most of your weight on your front foot and only the toes of your rear foot touching the ground.
- Either lift your rear foot off the floor and raise the leg while hinging your hips back or, if you opt for the staggered stance, hinge your hips back first while keeping your rear foot in contact with the floor.
- While hinging your hips back, lower the dumbbell(s) toward your front ankle.
- While maintaining a neutral spine, travel as far down as possible. Allow a slight bend in the knee until you feel a good loaded stretch without any unwanted spinal flexion.
- Engage your glutes from the bottom of the movement and press the hips forward. Keep the dumbbells in one smooth plane as you return to the top position.
This variation is similar to the bodyweight leg curl. However, the key difference is the direction of travel. Instead of engaging the hamstrings and dragging the object to you, you’re dragging the suspended weight of your whole body toward your feet like an upside-down lying leg curl.
Grip comes into play due to having to hold yourself up with straight arms in an inverted row position for the duration of the set while you move your body like a pendulum.
- Adjust some Olympic rings or a suspension trainer (on Amazon) to around chest height and place a bench around 1.5 meters away from the straps.
- Grab the rings or straps, elevate your feet on the bench, and suspend yourself in the air with your hips fully extended in a bridged position.
- Drag back through your heels, moving closer to the bench using the straps to create a pendulum until you can no longer get any closer to the bench, then control back down.
Do this on a decline bench for constant tension. It targets the hamstrings similarly to a preacher curl for the biceps.
This is an awesome way to work on that biceps (femoris) peak when you don’t have access to a leg curl machine. It maximally shortens the hamstring at the top of the movement since the ankles remain in full plantar flexion while holding the dumbbell in place. This creates a huge peak contraction. It’ll also light up your adductors from holding the dumbbell between the feet isometrically for the duration of the set.
- Set up a bench on a decline if possible. If not, place a foam roller, pad, or rolled-up towel beneath your hips to create a slight downward slope in the thigh. This keeps you from losing tension at the top of the movement.
- Place a dumbbell between your feet and engage your adductors to keep it there. Situate yourself face-down on the bench with your knees off the edge.
- Place your ankles in full dorsiflexion (point your toes) and curl your legs upward, contracting your hamstrings throughout the movement. Aim for a big squeeze at the top, then lower with control as far down as comfortably possible.
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