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For strong, powerful legs, you need to work both your quads (on the front of your thighs), and hamstrings (on the back). For the quads, squats are a given. But what are the best exercises to hit the hammies? Read on for a breakdown of how to work this muscle and my picks for the best moves. 

What the hamstrings are and what they do

The hamstrings are the muscles on the back of your thighs. I was about to write here that butchers traditionally hang pig carcasses from their hamstring tendons, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. “Ham” comes from an old English word meaning the back of the knee, so the word just refers to the “strings” (tendons) at the back of the knee. The muscles attached to those tendons are the hamstrings we’ll talk about today. Meanwhile, butchers usually hang hams from their hocks. 

Getting back to human anatomy, the hamstrings are a muscle group, not a single muscle. That group includes: 

  • The biceps femoris, a two-headed muscle that runs along the outside of the back of the thigh. 

  • The semitendinosus, a thick muscle that runs down the inner side of the back of the thigh.

  • The semimembranosus, a thinner muscle that runs alongside the semitendinosus.

If you put your hand behind your knee and tense your leg muscles, you’ll feel these two groups of tendons (the original “ham strings”). The tendons toward the outside of your knee belong to the biceps femoris; the ones on the inside are the semitendinosus and semimembranosus.

All three of these muscles help you to flex (bend) your knee, and they also help to extend (straighten) your hip. If you’re standing, and you bring your heel up toward your butt, that’s the action of the hamstring muscles. 

But the hamstring doesn’t just help us move our feet around in the air. When your feet are on the ground, your hamstrings are what help you stand up if you’ve bent over to pick up an object from the ground. 

The best barbell exercise for hamstrings: Romanian deadlift

Your hamstrings, along with your glutes (butt muscles), are responsible for moving your body in what fitness professionals call the “hinge pattern.” Imagine that your body can only bend at the hips; that’s your hinge. You do a hinge motion when you take a bow, when you do a forward fold in yoga (the kind with a straight rather than rounded back), or when you deadlift. 

This brings us to the best barbell exercise for hamstrings: the Romanian deadlift, or RDL. A deadlift just means you are picking up a “dead weight” from the ground; the Romanian variation is where you start with the weight in your hands, lower it but don’t let it touch the ground, and then stand up. Regular and Romanian deadlifts are both great for your hamstrings, but the RDL focuses on them just a bit more. 

In an RDL, unlike a regular deadlift, you want to keep your knees relatively straight. (A soft bend is okay.) Bend at the hips until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, and then stand back up. 

Besides starting at the top, and keeping your knees a little straighter, all the usual rules of the deadlift apply. Keep the bar close, and brace your core. RDLs can be tough on your grip, so don’t be afraid to use straps

The best barbell exercise you’re (probably) not doing: good mornings

I just want to put in a good word here for the “good morning,” which is the same movement as the RDL, but you hold the barbell on your back (as you would for a squat) instead of in your hands. Keep your knees soft and your core braced, as above. 

Good mornings are an excellent option for a home gym, or anywhere else you have a limited amount of weight to work with. A light barbell on your back can give you a similar strength-building stimulus as a heavy bar in your hands. 

The best bodyweight hamstring exercise: slider curls

No barbell? Try a bodyweight hamstring curl. Use sliders—either fitness-specific ones, or just get a set of furniture sliders. Lie on your back and put the sliders under your heels. Now, pull your heels toward you, while lifting your butt off the ground. If it’s too hard to do the exercise with both feet at once, try doing one at a time. 

The best advanced hamstring exercises: Nordic curls

I probably just made a lot of people mad by giving slider curls the crown as the best bodyweight exercise for hamstrings. “What about Nordic curls?” I can hear you guys shouting. Look, Nordic curls are hard. Also, I personally cannot do them, at least not very well, and maybe I’m a little bit bitter about that. 

But they’re definitely a good exercise, so they’re still on the list—but as the best advanced hamstring exercise. (Look, it’s my list.) In a Nordic curl, you kneel on a cushion, anchor your feet, and straighten your knees, until your torso is face-down on the ground. Then you bend your knees to rise to the starting position.

There are several ways to make this movement easier. One is to use a band, either around your torso or stretched between the supports of a squat rack underneath you. (I’ve been known to tease a certain gym buddy who does these by calling them “banded faceplants.”) There are other options, which you can see in the video above. If you make your way to doing full Nordics, you have stronger hamstrings than I do. Congratulations, and enjoy.

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