May 07, 2021 10 min read

The hamstrings are one of the most important muscle groups in the lower body.

Crossing from the hip to the knee, the hamstrings are responsible for several movements and also act as support for some of the human body’s most easily injured joints. In fact, the hamstrings are themselves quite prone to injury if they aren’t worked out frequently. 

Targeting your hamstrings doesn’t require big leg press machines or long-distance cardio. Bodyweight exercises allow you to build strength in your hamstrings and other important lower body muscle groups with no additional gear.

Added dumbbells or resistance bands can make the exercises more challenging but aren’t necessary otherwise. Continue reading to find out everything you need to know about the hamstrings and learn the five best bodyweight exercises to make them as strong as possible. 

hamstring anatomy chart

Where Are The Hamstrings Located?

The hamstrings are a muscle group that runs along the back of the thigh from the hip to the knee joint. There are three muscles in the hamstring muscle group: the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris. The biceps femoris has a long and short head just like the biceps and triceps in the upper arm.

Why Do We Have Hamstrings?

Many functions activate the hamstrings. Knee flexion, hip extension, and pulling the shin backward all involve your hamstrings. Activities like walking, climbing, running, squatting, moving your pelvis, and jumping all incorporate the hamstrings.

All three muscles work to bend the knee and all but the short head of the biceps femoris straighten the hip. The quadriceps work in tandem with the hamstrings in the sense that they also stabilize the knee and extend the leg.

Located on the front of the thigh, they power the movements of the leg, knee, and hip in the opposite direction from those powered by the hamstrings. Your glutes also work together with the hamstrings.

Their primary purpose is to move and extend the hip joint, but they also play a role in knee flexion and extension because they are connected to the femur. Many of the best bodyweight hamstring exercises also incorporate the glutes and quads.

Common Causes of Hamstring Injuries

Pulled hamstrings are common, particularly in athletes. There are three degrees of severity when it comes to pulled hamstrings. For the more minor grade 1 or 2 tears, healing takes anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks depending on how dedicated you are to home therapy.

Grade 3 pulled hamstrings may not heal for three months or more. Whether you’re an athlete or not, hamstring injuries should be avoided at all costs. Even when they’re relatively minor, pulled hamstrings cause tenderness and pain in the back of the thigh. That’ll interrupt your fitness routine and daily activities.

Hamstring pulls are most commonly caused by overstretching or overexerting fatigued muscles. Overtraining and bad form both contribute to hamstring injury. Another likely reason for hamstring injury is a strength imbalance between the quadriceps and the hamstrings.

Since they have opposing functions, the hamstrings can sustain injury if the quadriceps exert more force than the hamstrings are capable of withstanding. Strain on the ACL is reduced when the quadriceps and hamstrings activate simultaneously.

Professional trainers typically believe that a strength ratio of 1.5:1 is ideal, with the quadriceps being stronger than the hamstrings. The best way to prevent hamstring injury is to build strong hamstrings and make sure your quads are within a 1:1 - 1.5:1 strength ratio. Stronger muscles are always less prone to injury and the hamstrings are no exception.

Best Hamstring Warm-Ups

Priming your hamstrings can also help lower the risk of injury. Although they do see some activation from walking, the hamstrings aren’t put through much stress from simple locomotion. So unless you’ve already been running, climbing, or squatting throughout the day, a warm-up is essential before a hamstring workout.

Dynamic hamstring warm-ups are better for priming your lower-body muscles than static stretching. Try some of these exercises to prime your hamstrings for the workout to come.

1. Leg Swings

Start moving your legs with this simple standing exercise. Find a wall you can place one hand on for balance so you can keep your momentum going. With your right hand on the wall, lean slightly rightward so your left foot is off the ground.

Kick your left leg forward and then let it come down and go slightly behind you. Use that backward momentum to kick the leg a bit higher and continue to do so until the left leg is parallel with the ground each time you kick it up.

You can also do lateral leg swings but turning your body away from the wall and swinging your leg from side to side rather than forward and backward. Remember to do the same number of swings on each side to get your left and right leg equally limber.

2. Single-Leg Standing Hamstring Stretch

This stretch will help loosen tight hamstrings and may eliminate mild back pain. Find a small elevated platform to complete this simple hamstring stretch. If you don’t have a platform, you can also use a step, curb, or even a small stack of books.

Place your right foot on the platform and leave your left leg underneath you for balance. Make sure your right knee doesn’t bend throughout this stretch. Put both hands together and raise your arms above your head and slightly forward as if they were extending from your forehead.

This should help keep your back straight. Bend forward slightly by hinging at the hip and reach forward until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Hold that position for 10 - 25 seconds and then release. Repeat several times before switching positions to stretch the left leg. 

3. Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Target your glutes, hamstrings, and core muscles with this single-leg variant of the leg bridge. Grab a yoga mat if you have one to make lying on the ground a little more comfortable. You can also incorporate a resistance band into this warm-up stretch by wrapping it around your legs above the knee.

Lie on your back on the ground with your feet shoulder-width apart and the soles flat on the ground. Your knees should be bent so that your feet are about a foot away from your butt. Raise your right leg straight in the air and then lift your glutes and lower back off the ground.

There should be a straight line from your neck to your left knee at the top of this stretch. Lower your hips and then raise them again for a total of 10 times. Switch to the right leg to make sure your body is evenly stretched on each side. 

a man foam rolling his hamstrings

4. Foam Rolling

If you have access to a foam roller, you can roll your hamstrings across it to loosen them up during a warm-up or cooldown period. It’s as simple as sitting on the ground with the roller underneath your thigh just above the knee. Put your hands out to either side and then use them to push your body forward.

Your elevated leg should move forward, causing the roller to move from the knee toward the glutes. The pressure from the roller will relax the hamstrings and prime them for the leg workout to come.

5 Best Bodyweight Hamstring Exercises

When you don’t have access to a barbell for full-body strength training exercises like deadlifts, these bodyweight exercises will help build strength in your hamstrings. Include them in your regular lower-body workout routine for well-balanced functional power.

1. Walking Lunge & Reverse Lunge

Many view the lunge as principally a gluteal and quadriceps exercise, but the reverse and walking variations of this classic leg exercise target and build strength in the hamstrings more. That’s largely due to the fact that lunges mimic sprinting with eccentric movements more than a standard lunge.

How to Perform the Walking Lunge

The walking lunge is essentially a traditional lunge with an additional walking movement. Rather than returning to the starting position after each rep, you take continuous steps forward until you’re ‘walking’ around the floor.

Begin in a standing position and take a big step forward with your right leg. Bend your right knee until it’s at a ninety-degree angle. Your rear knee should lower until it’s just above the floor. Unless you have long legs, your front knee shouldn’t go past the toe of your leading foot.

Rather than reverting to the starting position, push through your heel and take another step forward with the other foot and continue lunging like that for 15 reps on each leg.

How to Perform Reverse Lunges

The reverse lunge is just what it sounds like. Rather than taking a large step forward, step backward with your leading leg and then lower into the squat position. You can rise back to the starting position or try to walk backward.

Another option when there isn’t enough space available to do a walking lunge is to begin with a forward lunge and then move immediately into a reverse lunge. Make sure you do the same number of forward and reverse lunges on each leg to build up strength evenly. 

2. Lying Hamstring Curl

Although it’s a straightforward exercise, the lying hamstring curl is surprisingly difficult. It may take a few months of hamstring training to build up the strength to do 10 reps of these hamstring curls in a row.

That being said, once you can do this exercise you’ll be able to do hamstring curls just about anywhere with a minimal amount of equipment. Since you no longer need a leg curl machine, you can isolate your hamstrings during a home workout or just about anywhere else where you have enough space to lie down.

You’ll need a towel, sliders, or socks so that your heels can easily slide across the floor. Hardwood or concrete surfaces are usually easier for this purpose.

How to Perform the Lying Hamstring Curl

Lie flat on your back with your legs hip-width apart and your arms out to each side with your palms on the floor. Lift your butt off the ground so that your core is engaged throughout this exercise. Slowly slide your heels so that your feet move closer to your glutes.

Next, slowly return your feet to the starting position and then go into the next rep without lowering your glutes to the ground. Try to do 10 without lowering your body.

Athletic woman doing a single leg deadlift using a dumbbell

3. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

This is a full-body exercise that uses the glutes, hamstrings, lats, traps, spinal erectors, obliques, and calves. Concentrating on a single leg builds balance strength and functional power in the hamstrings. You don’t need any additional weight for this bodyweight Romanian deadlift, although you can hold free weights or add a resistance band to make it more challenging.

You can also build strength throughout your posterior chain, making your muscles less prone to injury and improving your overall athletic performance. Mobility, posture, and flexibility also see some benefit when you include the single-leg Romanian deadlift in your workout routine.

How to Perform the Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

Stand on your left leg. Draw your shoulder blades in and reach your left hand out in a fist to maintain your balance. Brace your core and move your waist backward while hinging at the hips so that your torso moves toward the floor. Your head, pelvis, and spine should form a straight line throughout this exercise.

Continue moving your torso and lift your right leg out behind you. Stop when your left leg, spine, and right arm are all parallel with the floor. Move back to the starting position and then repeat the exercise on your right leg.

4. Good Mornings

You can do good mornings without any weight at all, but doing them with the right form is easier if you have a barbell to hold across your shoulders. Your lower back and abs will get a workout alongside your hamstrings.

Once you get the hang of the good morning exercise, you can add weight to the barbell or you can use a resistance band to add tension on your muscles throughout the move and incorporate your upper body into this lower body exercise.

How to Perform Good Mornings

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and place your hands behind your head. If you want to use a barbell with this exercise, then lay it across your shoulders and hold onto it with your hands.

Brace your core, pull your shoulders back, and hinge forward from your hips. Keep your back flat but allow your knees to bend somewhat to accommodate the forward hinging. Lean forward until you feel your hamstrings stretching but don’t go any lower once your torso is parallel with the ground.

Exhale and reverse the movement to return to the starting position. If you want to bring a resistance band into the mix, get a large loop band and step on one end of it and rest the other end on your shoulders. You can use the resistance band alone or use it in tandem with a barbell.

5. Broad Jumps

The kettlebell swing is a fantastic exercise for strengthening your posterior chain, including the hamstrings. However, if you don’t have a kettlebell available broad jumps work just as well.

They also bring explosive plyometric energy for some great cardio in your leg day workout routine. If you want to improve your athletic ability, broad jumps are a fine way to do it. You can also use them as an interval filler for a HIIT routine or as a transition move to long form cardio.

How to Perform Broad Jumps

Broad jumps are essentially partial squats with an explosive plyo jump at the end. Make sure you have plenty of space to leap forward. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Stick your butt out as if you were about to sit down in a chair.

You don’t have to get all the way down into the lowest squat position, but you should get somewhere between 25 - 50% of the way down. Swing your arms behind you as you get down into a partial squat. Once you reach the lowest point, leap up and forward.

Swing your arms forward to give yourself some additional momentum. Land softly on the soles of your feet. If you have room, continue broad jumps forward. If not, turn around and continue.

Conclusion:

Working out your hamstrings can prevent injury, build lower body strength, and improve your balance. You don’t have to have access to expensive gym equipment to give your hamstrings a great workout, either.

The bodyweight exercises in this guide will build functional strength throughout the lower body, particularly the hamstrings. Use the warm-ups and bodyweight exercises in this guide to build a workout routine and you’ll notice a difference in your ability to run, jump, climb, and more.

If you’re more focused on upper-body strength training to sculpt your muscles, strong hamstrings will be useful during more complicated lifts. Try these workouts and take the right supplements and you’ll have strong supportive hamstrings in no time.


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