Dumbbells have become a lost art in hamstring training. Barbells and machines are staples for building huge hamstrings, but dumbbells provide unique exercise variations allowing you to deload the upper body muscles or isolate one leg at a time.
But before I give you an epic list of dumbbell hamstring exercises, we need to understand some basic anatomy because certain hamstring exercises target different parts of the hamstrings.
Table of Contents
- Hamstring Anatomy
- 8 Best Hamstring Exercises With Dumbbells
- Best Hamstring Workout With Dumbbells
The hamstrings are made of three main muscles:
- Biceps femoris
The semimembranosus and semitendinosus are the inner and middle hamstrings, while the biceps femoris is the outer hamstring. 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 .
Therefore, performing hip extension and knee flexion exercises is crucial for complete hamstring development. Using only dumbbells makes this challenging, so supplement hamstring exercises with no equipment to round out your training program.
8 Best Hamstring Exercises With Dumbbells
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is the primary dumbbell exercise to grow bigger hamstrings. To significantly overload the hamstrings, you’ll need to use straps. The movement is the same as with the barbell, but you won’t be able to handle as much load. However, you can torch your hamstrings when doing this correctly. Here’s how:
- Holding two dumbbells by your side, slightly bend your knees.
- Push your hips backward while maintaining the same knee position. The dumbbells will smoothly transition to be in front of your thighs as they move down your leg.
- Once your hips stop moving backward, reverse the action by thrusting your hips forward.
Single-Leg Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
The single-leg version of the dumbbell Romanian deadlift is more common than the bilateral variation listed above. It can help develop a balance between legs reducing strength asymmetries. Further, you’ll find the single-leg version causes severe glutes delayed onset muscle soreness from balancing on one leg.
Additionally, you train the foot muscles, which are often neglected, in favor of more stable exercises. Here’s how to do it:
- There are two ways to hold the dumbbell. On the same side as the working leg (ipsilateral) or opposite side (contralateral). I prefer performing these with contralateral loading as it provides a counterbalance.
- With the dumbbell in your opposite hand to your working leg, pivot like a see-saw with a straight leg from your head to your free foot.
- Your knee should be slightly bent. As soon as your lower back starts to round without your hips moving further, return to the starting position by “pulling” with your hamstrings.
Swings aren’t limited to kettlebells. While kettlebells make this easier, a dumbbell makes a great substitute. You only need one of them so having one heavy dumbbell is enough to fire up those hamstrings.
Be careful doing dumbbell swings for the first time. They are much more intense than other hamstring exercises because of the speed they are performed. Rapid eccentric exercises cause a lot of muscle damage and will leave you limping with muscle soreness the following day.
Develop basic strength with exercises like the Romanian deadlift before implementing the dumbbell swing. Here’s how to do it once you’re prepared:
- Hold the head of the dumbbell, so it’s hanging between your legs.
- Perform a rapid eccentric Romanian deadlift and violently thrust your hips forward, squeezing your glutes.
- You should relax your arms, and the dumbbell should get higher each rep as you gain momentum.
- The dumbbell should never reach overhead or go above chest height, as that is a clear sign you are pulling with your shoulders.
Dumbbell Skier Swing
The dumbbell skier swing is the more comfortable version of the dumbbell swing. The dumbbell doesn’t have an easy bell and handle design like a kettlebell which is better for swings. The alternative is to hold a dumbbell at each side to swing.
You’re not limited to dumbbells either. I like doing these using plates with handles as the weight hangs lower. Regardless, give these a try and feel your hamstrings the next day. Here’s how:
- The skier swing is performed exactly like the dumbbell swing, except you will hold a dumbbell in each hand by your side.
- Perform the same movement with your hips but let your arms swing back and forth next to you.
Dumbbell Lying Leg Curl
I’m not a big fan of this exercise, but if you have no access to any leg curl machines or bands, then this will suffice. The issue is muscular tension decreases drastically throughout the range of motion due to the line of gravity. Only when the legs are straight are the hamstrings put under the full load of the dumbbell.
At the top of the exercise, there is no load placed on the hamstrings since the shins are vertical with the dumbbell. If you have a resistance band, using that combined with the dumbbell would be the ultimate setup. Here’s how to dumbbell lying leg curl:
- You can use the same bench and foam roller set up per the video or lie on the floor if you don’t have equipment.
- Place the dumbbell handle between your feet, so the head rests on the bottom of your foot. You must point your toes straight.
- Once in position, flex your knees to perform the leg curl. Squeeze your hamstrings at the top. Control the eccentric phase.
Dumbbell Staggered Stance Romanian Deadlift
Staggered stance hamstring exercises are much less common but, in my experience, are better hamstring mass builders than single-leg exercises. You still target one leg but have your other leg supporting you so you can handle heavier loads. Here’s how to do it:
- Stagger your feet, one in front of the other approximately shoulder-width apart.
- Holding a dumbbell in each band, have your back leg bent and your front leg knee soft.
- Hinge at the hips keeping your knees in the same position.
- Once your hips stop moving and your lower back is used to continue, stop and bring your hips forward to the starting position.
Dumbbell Lunge & Reach
Think of the dumbbell lunge and reach like a hybrid leg exercise. You will hit the quads and glutes as when performing a walking lunge, but the reach portion will load the hamstrings.
As you lunge, the hamstrings barely change length as the knee flexes, shortening the hamstrings while the hip flexes, lengthening the hamstrings resulting in net-zero movement. However, if you reach forward, you lengthen the hamstrings, further creating tension for muscle growth. Here’s how to do it:
- This is performed slightly differently from a lunge. Holding two dumbbells, step forward and bend the front leg slightly.
- Instead of lowering the hips, maintain this position and reach forward with the dumbbells hinging at the hips.
- Push back to the starting position.
Dumbbell Staggered Stance Good Morning
The dumbbell staggered stance good morning is the same as the dumbbell staggered stance Romanian deadlift, except you will hold one dumbbell against your chest. You could also name this a Zercher position, but for simplicity’s sake, we will call it a good morning.
I couldn’t find a good video for this, so I used my video showcasing the movement with a plate. Just sub the plate for a dumbbell.
This position feels more natural the first time performing a staggered stance, but you can’t load it as heavy since the arms limit you. Here’s how to do it:
- The setup is the same as the staggered stance Romanian deadlift, except you will hug a dumbbell at your chest.
- Maintaining a big chest position, push the hips back, so you feel a hectic stretch in the front hamstring.
- Thrust the hips forward to return to the starting position.
Best Hamstring Workout With Dumbbells
Here is an epic hamstring workout with dumbbells you can do for your next training session.
A1) Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 4 x 8-10
B1) Dumbbell Lying Leg Curl 4 x 15-20
C1) Dumbbell Staggered Stance Good Morning 3 x 10-15/leg
Only having access to dumbbells is no excuse for not training the hamstrings hard. You can still get a great workout, but you must stick to higher rep work. Further, training the hamstrings through knee flexion is challenging, so it’s worth adding bodyweight hamstring exercises like the Nordic hamstring curl.
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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.