The Most Effective Way to Train Your Hamstrings - Coach Mark Carroll


Aug 25, 2022
Mark Carroll

It seems everyone wants to build a massive pair of Glutes these days which is awesome, but we need to ensure that we don’t forget about building ourselves a strong set of hamstrings!

Hamstrings are a muscle that we want to be as strong as possible, as they are vital in a lot of our everyday movements. The posterior chain is a key component to athletic performance as well as being important to be strong through pre and postnatal periods, as well as significantly important to ageing populations.

The act of bending over to pick something up off the floor uses your posterior chain. Ideally, we want strong glutes, strong erector spinae (lower back), and strong hamstrings!

Strong hamstrings can also help lead to less hamstring injuries in athletes which is why they have become a key component of resistance training for sprinters, football players and other sports which require speed and power.

Now, I am sure you are all thinking “Cool Mark, but we want gains, not so much athletic performance…”. Yes, I get you! Let’s get into it:

The hamstrings obviously make up a large component of your lower body. A lot of the time though, people tell me their hamstrings are not growing and that they need more hamstring work. I ask them what exercises they are doing and without fail, the list they send me includes exercises that train BOTH glutes and hamstrings.

Many people will believe that exercises like Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, back extensions, reverse hypers, and many more are only glute exercises, BUT they’re not! It’s very rare that you are training your glutes in isolation. The majority of your glute exercises will include quad activation and/or hamstrings.

Now, to train the hamstrings effectively, it is important to recognise the hamstrings have two key functions:

1. Hip Extension

Hip extensions are when the hip hinges. Think of yourself standing up and holding a bar about to perform an RDL. When you bend your torso down to the ground and push your hips back, you are performing hip flexion. Flexing at the hip to bring your torso down to parallel with the ground. This is the hamstrings being lengthened which is the eccentric of the rep.

Then, when you begin to push hips forward and the torso rises back up to the top position, your hips are extending. This is when the hamstrings are shortening and is the concentric portion of the rep.

Hip extension will be exercises for hamstrings such as a Romanian or stiff leg deadlift, conventional deadlifts, good mornings, 45* or 90* hip extension movements, etc.

2. Knee Flexion 

The second way to train the hamstring muscles does not involve the hips extending as it is a knee focused movement. Think of lying down on your stomach with a straightened leg and then you bend your leg and bring your foot to your bum.

Hamstring exercises here (I am sure you will all know) will be the various leg curl machines such as lying leg curl, seated leg curl, lying banded leg curl, kneeling leg curl, single leg curls, etc.

If we want full hamstring development, ideally we want to train both functions of the hamstrings. You often see and hear people talk about focusing purely on big compound lifts for hamstrings like a deadlift and think that a smaller isolation exercise like a leg curl is not needed.

But here’s the thing with hamstring development. What is interesting is that both actions at the joint are responsible for hamstring development and will also actually influence what portion of the hamstring has greater growth.

Hypertrophy adaptations of the hamstrings can be region specific, meaning that hamstring exercises which are hip dominant can have a greater growth in fibres higher up the leg closer to the hip near the glutes. Whereas in leg curl exercises, being a knee dominant movement, has shown to have superior growth of the hamstrings closer to the knee joint lower on the hamstring muscles.

This is why, for full development it probably makes a lot of sense to train the hamstrings through both hip extension and knee flexion. 

Now, what other factors can influence hamstring development?

Since hip extension (hinging movements) are great for hamstrings but are also excellent for glutes, how can we potentially bias the hamstrings over the glutes?

This will come back to the degree of knee bend you have while performing your hip hinge. When you perform hip extension, the more you have a bend in the knees, the more you will decrease the hamstrings’ full potential in hip extension. In turn, the less hamstrings being recruited to hinge, the more glutes will be loaded. Great for glutes! Not as good when your goal is more hamstrings.

This is why performing your Romanian deadlifts or good mornings with a straighter leg, having stiff legged hinges can be more hamstring biassed. When the leg is straighter we increase the mechanical advantage of the hamstrings, while decreasing that of the gluteus.

This is why the small details matter!

The glutes and hamstrings are both hip extensors. However, the bend in the knee can influence which muscle group will be more heavily biassed. Both hamstrings and glutes will be recruited regardless, though the intended target will be influenced by that knee bend.

In summary, glute training is great, just don’t forget to also spend time targeting those hamstrings!

Coach Mark Carroll