The 10 Best Hamstring Exercises to Strengthen Your Lower Body

These hamstring exercises will light up the back of your thighs and build lower body strength.

12 Moves to Target the Backs (and Sides and Fronts) of Your Thighs
Photography by Jena Cumbo.

In fitness, it's easy to focus on the muscles you can see — you know, the ones on the front of your body (aka your anterior chain). But your hamstrings, a trio of muscles along the back of the thighs, help you bend and straighten your knees and extend your legs from the hips (read: they're super important). Weak hammies make it tougher to run and kick and can contribute to lower back and knee pain. And to make sure your hamstrings are working to their full potential, you also want to give the muscles surrounding them — your quads, adductors, and glutes — some love.

So how do you best target the back of your thighs? To stretch and strengthen these underappreciated movers, learn more about the benefits of hamstring exercises. Then, try 10 of the best hamstring exercises demonstrated by Jill Goodtree, NASM-GFI, NASM-CPT, RRCA run coach, and trainer at Rumble Boxing and Swerve Fitness.

Benefits of Strengthening Your Hamstrings

FYI, your hamstrings are a group of muscles at the back of your legs that include the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris, and they're an essential leg muscle, says Goodtree. "Hamstrings are key in the function of your knee and hip," she explains. "Anything that involves bending your knee, [such as] walking or running, uses your hamstrings."

And surprise: Most people tend to be quad-dominant, meaning their anterior chain of leg muscles is stronger than the posterior chain (that is, the backside of your leg muscles, which includes the hamstrings). It's important to strengthen your hamstrings in order to prevent any muscle imbalances, which is crucial in staying injury-free.

Best Tips for Training Hamstrings

When taking on these hamstring exercises, remember to keep your back flat and core engaged, advises Goodtree. "Generally speaking, you should have a strong, neutral spine in all of these moves," she says. "Brace your core to stabilize your spine and reduce pressure on your back." This movement reminder is especially important with weight-bearing hamstring exercises, such as deadlifts and kettlebell swings, in order to avoid injuring your lower back.

The 10 Best Exercises for Hamstrings

Now that you know why it's so important to do hamstring exercises, it's time to get moving. Each of these nine best hamstring exercises offers unique ways to target the muscle group, and you'll see a variety of equipment used in these demonstrations too. That way, you can adjust your hamstring exercises based on what gear is accessible to you.

How to add the best exercises for hamstrings to your workouts: To get the most out of these hamstring-strengthening moves, add them to your lower-body workout routine once or twice per week on your "pull" day if following a workout split program. Aim for 8 to 12 reps of each exercise, adding enough weight (when appropriate) or intensity so that your last few reps feel difficult — as if you couldn't do more than a few last reps if you had to. Before working out, activate your muscles with a dynamic warm-up routine.

Here, watch Goodtree demonstrate each hamstring exercise in full and learn more about why each of these exercises for the back of your thighs works to help you get stronger.

1. Kickstand Deadlift

Why it works: The kickstand deadlift mimics a single-leg deadlift by targeting one leg specifically, but you'll enjoy added stability with both feet in contact with the ground.

A. Stand with medium to heavy dumbbells in both hands, arms at sides, feet hip-width apart. Shift weight onto right leg. Step slightly back with left foot so that left toes are in line with right heel.

B. Take a slight bend in right knee and hinge forward at hips, allowing left leg to bend. Simultaneously lower torso until parallel with the ground or until you feel a stretch in right hamstring, keeping both arms long.

C. Engage glutes and return to standing. That's one rep.

2. Hamstring Curl with Sliders

Why it works: This challenging move doesn't require any weight, but your hamstrings will be engaged the entire time as you fight to extend your legs while keeping your hips at the max height.

A. Lie faceup on a smooth floor and place feet on a pair of sliders, knees bent 90 degrees. Rest arms on the floor out to the sides. Lift hips and toes.

B. Keeping hips off the floor the entire time and abs tight, straighten right leg as far as you can, then bring right leg back in to the starting position.

C. Straighten left leg as far as you can while keeping hips up and core engaged, then bring left leg back in to the starting position. That's one rep.

3. Romanian Deadlift

Why it works: The Romanian deadlift is a double whammy. First, you'll stretch your hammies as your lower your weights toward the ground. Then, you'll build hamstring strength by contracting the backs of your thighs as you stand up.

A. Stand holding medium to heavy dumbbells, arms hanging in front of thighs, palms facing in, feet hip-width apart, and knees slightly bent. Squeeze shoulder blades down and together and contract abs, bringing spine to a neutral position.

B. Keeping knees slightly bent, with back and arms straight, hinge forward at hips until you feel a slight tension in hamstrings. Contract glutes and hamstrings, straighten to a standing position, and repeat.

4. Hip Thrust

Why it works: While the hip thrust is a glute-dominant exercise, it works the hamstrings as well. Want to isolate the hamstrings even more? Walk your feet out an extra step for more hamstring muscle recruitment.

A. Sit on the floor with center of shoulder blades resting against a bench or box, knees bent and feet planted on the floor slightly wider than hip-width apart. Place a medium or heavy dumbbell in hip crease and hold with both hands.

B. Keeping lower back flat, chin tucked, and gaze forward, engage glutes, push through heels, and raise the dumbbell to the ceiling by extending hips to reach the starting position. Knees should be in line with heels and bent at 90-degree angles and body should form a straight line from shoulders to knees.

C. Keeping lower back flat and knees stable, slowly lower hips until butt hovers a few inches off the ground. Then, push through heels and slowly raise the dumbbell by extending hips, making sure to use glutes and hamstrings rather than back to perform the movement.

D. Continue lifting hips until body forms a straight line from shoulders to knees to return to the starting position. That's one rep.

5. Kettlebell Swing

Why it works: If you're doing a kettlebell swing correctly, almost all of the work should come from your lower body and core — including your hamstrings, which contract as you hinge backward and forward to thrust the kettlebell up in the air.

A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, hands at sides, and a kettlebell on the floor about one foot in front of toes. Bend knees slightly and hinge at hips to lower arms toward the floor. Grab the kettlebell handle with both hands and tilt it toward body.

B. On an inhale, hike the kettlebell back and up between thighs. Then on an exhale, press feet into the floor, squeeze glutes, and drive through hips to quickly stand up and explosively swing the kettlebell forward and up to chest height. Keep arms extended with a slight bend in elbows throughout the movement and allow gaze to follow kettlebell.

C. Hinge at hips, bend knees slightly, and drive the kettlebell back down and in between thighs. That's one rep.

6. Good Morning

Why it works: Without any weight, the good morning is a perfect dynamic movement for stretching your hamstrings.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, toes pointed forward, knees softly bent. Hands should be either straight down, crossed over chest, or resting on back of head (as shown).

B. Brace midline and simultaneously hinge at hips and push butt straight back, keeping lower legs perpendicular to the floor.

C. Maintaining a flat back, continue to lower torso toward the floor until noticing a stretch in hamstrings or until back begins to round.

D. Press into feet and drive through hips to reverse the movement, using hamstrings and core to stand upright. Squeeze glutes at the top. That's one rep.

7. Extended Glute Bridge

Why it works: Similar to the hip thrust, a regular glute bridge works, well, your glutes. By walking your feet out just a bit farther, your hamstrings are forced to be more engaged.

A. Lie faceup on the floor with knees bent, feet placed flat and hip-width apart, and arms at sides, palms facedown. Walk each foot one step further out so heels are digging into the ground and toes are pointed up at a 45-degree angle.

B. Keeping core engaged and tailbone tucked, exhale and slowly push through both heels to lift hips off the floor. Lift hips up as high as possible without allowing the lower back to arch.

C. Inhale and gently lower hips back to the floor one vertebrae at a time. That's one rep.

8. Sumo Squat

Why it works: The sumo squat is key for strengthening your inner thighs, which are near your hamstrings (and remember, if you want to strengthen a certain muscle group — such as the hamstrings — you need to devote training time to the muscles around them in order to prevent muscle imbalance).

A. Hold two medium dumbbells in front of torso. Stand with feet slightly three to four inches wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned out to a 45-degree angle. Arms should be fully extended with dumbbells below your belly button.

B. On an inhale, sit back into hips and bend knees to lower until thighs are parallel or almost parallel with floor, keeping chest up and preventing back from rounding.

C. On an exhale, press through feet to straighten legs and return to standing. That's one rep.

9. Split Squat

Why it works: Among all of these hamstring exercises, you'll still need to train your quads (aka the front of your thighs). Throw in these split squats as an alternate movement from the rest of your exercises for hamstrings.

A. Stand in a staggered stance with feet hip-width apart, right leg forward and left leg behind, left heel raised off the ground. Left knee should be in line with right heel when lowered; it might take a few tries to find the correct position fo your body. Hold a pair of medium dumbbells at sides.

B. Slowly lower down until left knee hovers just above the floor. Maintain a flat back and open chest by peeling shoulder blades back and engaging core.

C. Exhale and drive right foot into the ground to return to a standing position. That's one rep.

10. Prone Mini Band Hamstring Curl

Why it works: You don't need a full hamstring curl machine to work your hammies. All you need for a challenging hamstring exercise is a mini-band and this alternative to hamstring curls.

A. Place a mini-band around left ankle and underneath the arch of right foot. Lie facedown on floor, legs extended, arms cushioning head.

B. Keeping left leg anchored down, drive right heel in toward glutes, stopping when right ankle is directly above right knee at a 90-degree angle.

C. With control, lower right heel back down toward ground and tap right toes to ground. That's one rep.

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