The hamstring muscles give critical support to the glutes, hips, tibia, and knees. For women, the hamstrings are important not only for movement but also for safety. Pulled hamstrings are one of the most common injuries for women, likely owing to the fact that extended sitting in offices and cars leads to less-than prepared hamstrings. If you frequently feel tightness in your hamstrings or experience inexplicable lower back pain, it might well be due to hamstrings that can’t flex the way your body needs to.
There are many hamstring exercises you can add to your regular workout routine to make sure your hammies can handle sudden extension and contractions. If you like to get in your cardio, stretching your hamstrings is even more important. A hamstring workout every now and then will help build up strength so when you do run or put a strain on your hips or knees, your body will be able to handle it.
Some hamstring exercises are more effective than others and some can be done anywhere while others require some gym equipment. Like any other exercise routine, the way you train your hamstrings should have some variation built-in to make sure you have a well-rounded muscle that’s ready for anything.
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Here’s what’s covered below:
- Physiology of Hamstrings
- What You Need for a Hamstring Workout
- 8 Hamstring Exercises to Add to Your Routine
Physiology of Hamstrings
Understanding the physiology of your body is the best way to understand the way it works. Hamstrings are actually three muscles – the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and the biceps femoris – that stretch from the knee to the hip. Different exercises work out different parts of the hamstring and prepare it for a variety of situations. If you know what kind of stress you’re most likely to put on your hamstrings, you can prepare more effectively.
Since the hamstrings support so many other parts of the lower body, neglecting them can lead to potentially serious knee injuries. Your quads can also be forced to pick up the slack for your hamstrings, which can also cause some very ugly injuries. The good news is that if you do manage a hamstring workout every now and then, you’ll wind up with toned glutes and be less prone to debilitating injury overall.
What You Need for a Hamstring Workout
There are a few pieces of equipment that might be beneficial to have handy to do some of these hamstring exercises. One or two kettlebells or dumbbells and a yoga mat are fine to start if you aren’t planning on doing these stretches in a gym. A bedroom or living room is just as nice a place to work out as a fully-equipped fitness facility, and many people understandably don’t have the time to get to a gym on a regular basis.
Read through these exercised and give them a try. They should relieve any hamstring stiffness and give you much more functional and supportive hamstrings after a short time. These exercises are simple and easy to do and they’re universally useful, especially if you pair them with proper dieting practice.
1. Good Morning
This is a great hamstring exercise because it works out the entire back of your thigh. It also works your lower back, which is great generally speaking but if you have any back problems you might want to leave this exercise out. Good Morning exercises make a great warm-up because they involve a large area of the body. Applying weight on the shoulders engages a lot of the back into this exercise and it also works the hips.
Here’s how to do a Good Morning Exercise:
- Put your feet hip-width apart and stand up straight.
- Take two dumbbells, one in each hand, and rest them on your shoulder blades. They should be fairly level, though, not drooped over.
- Engage your glutes and bend forward at the hips. Keep your back straight to hinge at your hips, not in your back.
- Continue hinging your hips until your sternum is parallel with the ground.
- Push your hips forward and use your core muscles to lift your upper body back into the starting position.
Make sure your neck stays straight. Look straight ahead to keep your spine neutral. Try 10-15 reps with 5- to 10-pound dumbells. This exercise works your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
2. Romanian Deadlift
Most folks might balk at the idea of using a deadlift in their daily workout routine, but it’s a very effective and surprisingly versatile exercise that does a lot of good for your hamstrings. Although it’s traditionally done with a barbell, you can also use two smaller hand weights, a kettlebell, or a medicine ball. The nice thing about the Romanian Deadlift is that you don’t have to bring the barbell or hand weights all the way above your head. Lifting your weight(s) up to hip level will concentrate the workout on your hamstrings.
Follow these steps to execute a Romanian Deadlift:
- Place your feet hip-width apart.
- Hold your weight(s) out in front of you.
- Make sure your back and legs straight and bend at the waist, just like you would in a Good Morning stretch.
- Lean forward as much as you can. Try to get the weight(s) or medicine ball just below your knees.
- Rise back up to the starting position.
It’s very important to keep your spine and legs straight during this exercise. Your knees will be forced to bend to accommodate the movement once you start to get lower. Start off doing about 10 reps of this exercise. It works out your glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
3. Single-Leg Deadlift
Once you get used to the Romanian Deadlift, try this variant to throw balance into the mix. It can be done with hand weights, a kettlebell, or without any additional weights at all. The best thing about it is that it’s one of the hamstring exercises you can do anywhere. Just like the original Romanian Deadlift, this one is an excellent way to tone your glutes while still giving your hamstrings a great workout.
To do a single-leg deadlift, follow these steps:
- Both legs should be together. A slight bend at the knee is fine, but your body should be straight.
- Place all your balance on the right foot. Start lifting your left foot out directly behind you, as if you were going to place the bottom of your foot on a wall.
- This movement will cause your hips to hinge, just like the previous two exercises. Your upper body will lean forward – just make sure it stays straight.
- Keep your arms out straight at shoulder height. They should be perpendicular to the ground throughout the deadlift.
- Once your left foot is out at a 90° angle and your whole spine is straight and parallel with the floor, you can gradually bring the left foot forward until you’re back in the starting position.
There’s a lot of balance and stability required to execute the single-leg deadlift correctly. 10 reps should do, just makes sure you do all 10 reps on one leg and then switch to the other leg for another 10 reps.
4. Bulgarian Split Squat
A favorite (or dreaded) part of any good leg day, this hamstring exercise completely concentrated all the stress on your lower body. It’s the second exercise on this list to have an Eastern European country in the name, and it shares some similarities with the Romanian Deadlift. It can be done with or without weights, but you will need a bench or some kind of raised surface.
The procedure for a Bulgarian split squat goes like this:
- Find a low bench or platform (it should be about knee-height) and stand in front of it.
- Lift your left foot behind you so that the toes are resting on the bench.
- Lower your body using power from your glutes and core muscles.
- Keep lowering until that left knee is just barely off the ground. If you can’t make it that low, it’s okay.
- Rise up using your front foot until you’re back in the starting position.
That’s all! This is a very simple hamstring exercise but it will definitely still make you feel the burn. Remember that your back leg is mostly just for balancing but the majority of your weight should be on the forward leg. Your front foot should be far enough in front of the bench so that your knee is directly above it when you are in the lowest position. Try this exercise as part of your warm-up before you move on to single-leg deadlifts.
The Bulgarian Split Squat is way harder than it looks – don’t add weights until you’re a pro at executing it. Try a few rounds of 5 reps at the beginning and make sure you complete those reps on one foot before switching to the other.
5. Single-Leg Glute Bridge
Another great exercise that you can do without any additional weights, this one-legged version of the classic glute bridge is a serious workout for your glutes and hamstrings alike. If you can’t do this bridge with just one leg, get used to doing the bridge exercise without lifting one leg off the ground and move up to the single-leg method. Using one leg works out your posterior muscles and hamstrings even more.
For the most effective single-leg glute bridge, try this method:
- Lie down with your spine completely flat and your knees bent so that there’s around a 45° angle in your leg.
- Lift your right leg straight up in the air.
- Powering through your left heel, raise your hips up off the ground until you make a straight line from your knee through your hips and to your shoulder.
- When you have this straight line, pause for a second or two to squeeze your glutes a little to work them out a little more.
During this exercise, your lower back will have to come up off the ground. Your upper back should remain on the ground the whole time. It will engage your core muscles throughout the exercise, which is a great added benefit. It’s a simple movement, so try to get 15 to 20 reps in. Just like all the other single-leg hamstring exercises, complete all your reps on one leg and then switch to the other one.
6. Kettlebell Swing
The Kettlebell Swing has to be one of the simplest exercises for your hamstrings, but it’s still a favorite of many female athletes. It’s a good bit of fun as well since a bit of momentum will build up in the kettlebell as you go through this exercise. As you can probably tell from the name, you are going to need a kettlebell. Hand barbells won’t quite do the trick here, but try a 5 to 10-pound kettlebell if you’re just starting out.
Perfect kettlebell swings are done this way:
- Place your feet slightly wider than your shoulders.
- Your knees should have a slight bend in them.
- Hold the kettlebell with both hands in front of your body. That doesn’t mean out in front of you, just resting on the front of your body is fine.
- Hinge at your hips and swing the kettlebell between your legs. Make sure your back stays completely straight.
- Once the kettlebell is as far as it’ll go behind you, stand up and swing it back through your legs. Swing it forward until your arms are straight at shoulder-height.
- Let the kettlebell fall and swing back through your legs for one complete rep.
Not only will this exercise stretch out your hamstrings, but it will also strengthen your core muscles, shoulders, and pecs. Keep in mind that this is not an exercise to add to a daily workout routine. Allow at least one day of rest after you complete a round of kettlebell swings. Try rounds of 3 and reps of 5 when you first begin.
7. Hamstring Curls
There are a few varieties of hamstring curls. The standing method is a perfect warm-up activity, but you can also do them seated, lying on your stomach, with a medicine ball, or with dumbbells. It’s very similar to the other single-leg exercises we’ve already mentioned, but it’s much easier. If you’re a beginner, this is the hamstring workout for you.
Do a standing hamstring curl like this:
- Place your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips for balance.
- Bend your right knee slowly, sending your right foot back behind you. Bring it back up toward your butt as much as you can handle.
- Bring the right foot back to the starting position.
Inarguably one of the simplest hamstring exercises, hamstring curls nonetheless do a great job stretching out those hammies. The standing curls are ideal for a warm-up, but if you want to try prone or sitting hamstring curls you’ll probably want to include them in your full-on workout routine. You’ll also need a resistance band for the other kinds of hamstring curls. If you are doing the standing curls as part of your warm-up, try 15 to 10 reps. Make sure to switch to the other leg when you finish with the first one.
8. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge
This is a cool exercise to do if you’re just starting to include dumbbells in your workout routine. It also stretches out your hamstrings fantastically. It doesn’t take long to master the reverse lunge and you can pair them with regular lunges quite easily.
Try the dumbbell reverse lunge like this:
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides.
- Step back with the right foot about three feet, just like a backward lunge.
- At the same time, lift the dumbbells up toward your shoulders.
- Continue to lower your hips until your right leg is bent to 90° and your right knee is just a little bit above the ground.
- Rise back to the starting position while lowering the dumbbells.
- Repeat the whole process, but send the left leg back. That makes 1 rep.
The dumbbell reverse lunge will get you sweating and it’s a very good stretch for your hamstrings. It’s simple enough that you can do it at home or in the office if need be, assuming you can bring the dumbbells along with you. Try doing 10-15 reps of this exercise per round and perhaps 3 rounds throughout your workout routine.
The hamstrings are some of the most frequently injured body parts for women. Stretching them out is as easy as adding one or two quick hamstring exercises to your workout routine. There are many exercises to do at the gym, but there are also some that you can do at home with the simple addition of dumbbells, a medicine ball, or free weights.
For less risk in your cardio and additional support to other important muscle groups like the glutes and quads, nothing beats a hamstring workout. All of these exercises are customizable, which means you can learn them as a beginner and alter them for additional difficulty when you want it. They’re so successful that they’re almost surely going to form a permanent part of your warm-up or workout routine once you add them in.
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