Best Hamstring Exercises For Beginners

April 18, 2022

Being a beginner with skinny legs is more than the muscles located at the front of the legs. Sure, big quads will make up most of your leg size. However, seeing your legs from the side or behind will reveal how little attention your hamstrings have been given.

So, if you’re looking to build big hamstrings as a beginner, use the seven exercises I've listed below to get started. But before you get there, it's essential to understand some basic hamstring anatomy.

Hamstring Anatomy

The hamstrings are made up of three different muscles and four muscle heads. We will focus on these main muscles consisting of:

  • Semitendinosus
  • Semimembranosus
  • Biceps femoris
Hamstring Anatomy

The hamstrings are unique muscles as they cross two joints, making them biarticular. That means they serve two main movement functions knee flexion and hip extension. Knee flexion exercises preferentially target the inner hamstrings, while hip extension exercises target the outer hamstrings [1].

This is why it's so important to encompass leg curl and deadlift movements for the complete development of the hamstrings. However, we want to pick the movement regressions for beginners training the hamstrings to nail a great mind-muscle connection with the hamstrings.

7 Best Hamstring Exercises For Beginners

As a beginner, you've likely never directly trained your hamstrings, even though you may have been to the gym many times. They are often highly neglected because they aren't "sexy" to train and can be difficult.

So, these hamstring exercises will be the initial exercises to start with before progressing to more advanced exercises.

Dowel Good Morning

This is where I start anyone I work with to learn proper hip hinging. Learning to hip hinge properly will ensure you can target your hamstrings during hip hinging exercises. You'll be able to do exercises like the deadlift safely.

While this may look easy, it certainly isn’t. And while it won’t stress your hamstrings to a great degree, it will set you up to hit them hard when you start loading. Here’s how to do it:

  • With a wooden dowel, place it behind your back, so the back of your head, thoracic spine, and tailbone are touching the towel.
  • Keep the knees soft (slightly bent) as you push your hips back. Maintain all three points of contact against the dowel during the movement.
  • Once your hips stop moving back, thrust your hips forward and squeeze your bum.

Romanian Deadlift

You can progress to the Romanian deadlift once you've learned the dowel good morning, and load the hip hinge. For a beginner, I prefer the Romanian deadlift over the good morning as it’s easier on the lower back and much easier as a progression. Here’s how to do it:

  • Pick the barbell up from the floor as you would when deadlifting. Keep the knees soft and maintain a big chest with tension in the lats.
  • Push the hips back while keeping the knees in the same position.
  • The bar should track down your leg as you keep tension in the lats and maintain a big chest. Once your hips stop moving backward, stop and thrust your hips forward.

The reason to stop once your hips stop moving is to keep the exercise targeted to your hamstrings and glutes. This will result in the barbell only getting to your knee or slightly below. If you go further, your lower back continues the movement, not the hips, so avoid doing this.

Bent Leg Isometric Hamstring Bridge

The bent leg isometric hamstring bridge will cause your hamstrings to cramp if you haven't trained them before. It's tough! But easily scalable to your current level of strength. Isometric exercises are the forgotten stepchild among muscle building.

But there's excellent research showing isometrics, especially at long muscle lengths, are potent muscle builders [2]. Here’s how to do it:

  • Lie flat on your back on the floor. Bend your legs and dig your heels into the ground to lift your hips off the floor.
  • Hold this position for 10-20 seconds.

Remember, you can bend your legs further to make the exercise easier. As you get stronger, work your way to almost straight legs.

Lying Leg Curl

The lying leg curl is a bodybuilding staple. It’s one of the few leg curl movements you can load heavy and for high reps. Because you are stable and locked into the machine, it's easy to focus on the hamstrings doing the work. Here’s how to do it:

  • Set the leg curl, so the pad is at the bottom of your calves when fully extended.
  • Curl the pad, so it touches your bum.
  • Slowly lower the pad until your legs are straight.

Swiss Ball Leg Curl

The Swiss ball leg curl is an excellent option for when you are training hamstrings at home. You can even do it in your living room while watching TV to get those hamstrings popping. Here’s how to do it:

  • Lie on the floor with your heels on the Swiss ball. Bridge so your hips are off the floor, and there's a straight line from your head to your feet. Keep your hands on the floor for support.
  • Maintaining this high hip position, curl your heels towards your bum. Slowly straighten your legs back to the starting position.

Seated Leg Curl

I prefer the seated leg curl over the lying leg curl if you have the option of choosing one or the other. It allows you to place the hamstrings in a more extended stretched position resulting in a stronger muscle-building stimulus. Here’s how to do it:

  • Set the machine up, so your legs are straight at the top. Lean forward to stretch your hamstrings further.
  • Curl your feet under your set and slowly return to the starting position.

Assisted Nordic Hamstring Exercise

The Nordic Hamstring Exercise is a super intense eccentric hamstring exercise. So intense that doing this as a beginner without assistance won’t provide the exercise benefits and will cause you to cramp almost instantly.

With assistance, it turns into a no equipment leg curl. It works by reducing the bodyweight load as the exercise gets more challenging. Here’s how to do it:

  • Tie a resistance band to a sturdy structure above you. Loop the band under your armpits. Kneel with your knees on a pad.
  • Have a partner hold your feet down by pushing on the Achilles tendon.
  • Lower your chest to the floor as slowly as possible while keeping a straight line from your knees to your head.
  • Push yourself back to the starting position once you reach the floor.

Hamstring Workout For Beginners

Day 1

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Dowel Good Morning

4 x 10

Dowel

B1) Bent Leg Isometric Hamstring Bridge

3 x 10 sec

Bodyweight

C1) Lying Leg Curl

3 x 12

7 RPE

Day 2

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Swiss Ball Leg Curl

4 x 10

Bodyweight

B1) Romanian Deadlift

3 x 8

7 RPE

Summary

Start with the dowel good morning and machine leg curl variations as a beginner. As you build some base strength in the hamstrings, you can progress to the other exercises on this best hamstring exercises for beginners list.

References

1. Bourne, M. N., Timmins, R. G., Opar, D. A., Pizzari, T., Ruddy, J. D., Sims, C., ... & Shield, A. J. (2018). An evidence-based framework for strengthening exercises to prevent hamstring injury. Sports Medicine, 48(2), 251-267.

2. Oranchuk, D. J., Storey, A. G., Nelson, A. R., & Cronin, J. B. (2019). Isometric training and long‐term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 29(4), 484-503.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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