7 Vicious Exercises To Build Bigger Hamstrings (Science Backed)

August 26, 2021

The often-neglected muscles of the legs. No, I’m not talking about the calves. I’m talking about the hamstrings. You can’t see them in the mirror and you can just wear skinny jeans to cover them up. Hence the lack of attention!

But a set of big, drooping hamstrings provides an aesthetic that shows you are a serious lifter. And you’ll even be able to tell through a pair of jeans (not skinny jeans of course because you won’t fit those anymore).

When you look at big legs from the side, it’s the hamstrings that create the well-rounded full muscle look. Not to mention that big, strong hamstrings will help reduce knee pain by providing a balance between your quadriceps and hamstrings.

So, I’ve got 7 vicious exercises to blast your hamstrings into orbit. But first, just giving you the exercises is no good without understanding some basic hamstring anatomy because certain exercises will target certain hamstring muscles.

Hamstring Anatomy 101

The hamstrings consist of three main muscles:

  • Semitendinosus
  • Semimembranosus
  • Biceps femoris long and short head
Hamstring Anatomy

As you can see in the picture, the biceps femoris is the outermost hamstring muscle while the semitendinosus is the innermost hamstring muscle. We can target the inner and outer parts of the hamstrings using different exercises.

Hip extension-based exercises (e.g. Romanian Deadlift) activate more of the biceps femoris muscle than knee flexion-based exercises (e.g. leg curl) which mainly activate the semitendinosus [1].

Further, the biceps femoris is the longest muscle and crosses two joints. The hip and the knee making it susceptible to extreme stretch. Try placing your foot on your couch while standing and then bending forward.

This traditional hamstring stretch places the knee into extension and the hips into flexion stretching the biceps femoris from both ends! That’s why you can’t touch your toes unless you bend your knee (unless you are like Elastigirl from The Incredibles).

You might be thinking, why do I even need to know this? I just want massive, drooping hamstrings! I’ve got you.

Training the hamstrings at long muscle lengths is superior for muscle growth compared to short muscle lengths [2]

So, you can ditch half repping the lying leg curl. A greater range of motion equals more work being performed and the muscle being put through stretch under load.

This maximizes mechanical tension which is one of the main mechanisms of muscle growth [3]. Safe to say, if you can load the hamstrings through a large range of motion, you’ll have those massive hamstrings you’ve always dreamed of.

So, let’s get to it. My top 7 hamstring exercises to build absolutely ridiculous and massive hamstrings. All backed by science.

Best Hamstring Exercises For Mass

Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian Deadlift (RDL for short) is a staple exercise in any fitness enthusiasts’ leg or hamstring routine. You can load it heavy, get a great hamstring stretch, and build crazy glute and lower back muscle with it. The RDL is not a stiff-legged Deadlift (more on that later) as the RDL always starts from the top.

Meaning when you Deadlift the weight from the floor, that does not count as your first rep. So, let's give a quick rundown on how to perform this to maximize hamstring growth.

  • Assuming you’ve picked your weight up, stand tall with your knees slightly bent, and chest out. Activate your lats to keep the bar close by thinking about having oranges under your armpits you are trying to juice (probably wouldn’t drink that imaginary juice, to be honest).
  • To initiate the movement, arch your lower back like you're going to twerk (who knew you could learn the basics of the RDL through Tik Tok?) and push your hips backward. Your bodyweight should be through your heels. You can either pack your chin and look down so you have a straight line for your spine or you can have your head and eyes facing forward. Either is fine and go with what feels best.
  • The bar should travel down your legs as you push your hips back. You shouldn’t have any space between the bar and your legs. That’s how close it needs to be. Your knees should be at exactly the same angle as the beginning.
  • The most important point that many lifters get wrong is when to stop the descent. As soon as your hips STOP MOVING BACKWARD, that is the end of the descent. You will find this is either just above or below your knee cap. If done properly, you won’t have the bar by your shin as that will mean now your lower back is taking the rest of the load, not your hamstrings.
  • Thrust your hips forward to get back to the starting position. Rinse and repeat.

You are not limited to the barbell with the RDL. Feel free to use dumbbells or even kettlebells. Barbells just allow you to lift the heaviest loads.

Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-5 sets of 6-12 reps

Seated Leg Curl

If I was going to choose just one leg curl exercise for hamstring mass, this is it. That’s why I wrote an entire article just on the seated leg curl! But why this exercise and not other leg curl exercises? Remember my hamstring stretch example with your foot on the couch?

The seated leg curl puts you in that exact position. An extreme stretch through hip flexion and knee extension. You can’t ask for much more in a hamstring exercise. The only problem is you need a seated leg curl machine to perform this exercise. But if you have one, start using it today.

  • Set yourself up in the machine by placing your legs onto the pad. The pad should sit at the bottom of your calf muscles. Secure the support pad on top of your thighs to keep you in place.
  • Curl your heels under your seat. Flex your feet towards you to reduce the involvement of the calf muscles.
  • Control the weight back to the starting position and get back to a full stretch of the hamstrings.

A quick pro-tip. Instead of leaning back in the seat, lean forward like am I demonstrating in the video above. You’ll put the hamstrings under an even greater stretch giving you a bigger muscle growth response.

Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-5 sets of 8-20 reps

Stiff-Legged Deadlift

As mentioned, the stiff-legged deadlift (or SDL for short) is much different from the RDL as it starts from the bottom. It will involve more lower back so if you do have an iffy lower back, avoid this exercise and stick with the other exercises.

If your lower back is fit as a fiddle, then you’re ready to smash your hamstrings with an absolute hamstring killer. Here is how to do it:

  • Stand by the barbell like you would when setting up for a regular Deadlift. Bend your knees slightly and push your hips back like an RDL until your hands reach the barbell. Yes, you will have to bend at the lower back slightly to get the extra range of motion. But it should not be noticeably flexed.
  • Pull the slack out of the bar to create full-body tension. You should be actively trying to keep a flat back and tension in your hamstrings before the weights even leave the floor.
  • Drive through your heels as you hinge the barbell to your hips.
  • From the top position, you will be performing an RDL to bring the barbell back to the starting position on the floor. However, you will not be stopping when your hips stop moving backward. Only stop once the weight is back on the floor.

A quick pro-tip. Don't lose your body tension when the weights hit the floor. It will make it much harder to lift the weight again. Slow and controlled in this exercise will be your best friend.

Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-5 sets of 6-8 reps

Glute-Ham Raise

Unfortunately, the glute-ham raise (or GHR for short) is often the last piece of equipment on a commercial gym’s equipment list (another spin bike to add to the other 40 is much more important). But if you have access to one or you train in a CrossFit gym, then you are ready to perform one of the hardest bodyweight hamstring exercises.

Not to mention that the GHR displays some of the highest hamstring muscle activation out of the RDL, good morning, and lying leg curl [4].

Here is how to get the most out of the GHR for hamstring growth:

  • Set the foot support to a distance where your feet are close to flat with your knees jammed hard against the pad. Not on top of the pad. The flatter your feet, the better as you’ll be able to feel your hamstrings more without your calves screaming at you.
  • From the top position, slowly “fall” while resisting with your hamstrings.
  • Once you reach the horizontal position with your legs completely straight, re-bend your knees to pull yourself back to the starting position. It’s important you maintain a straight line from your knees to your head. Don’t let yourself bend at the hips.
  • Throughout the exercise, have your hands close to your sides or by your chest. If you want to make the exercise harder, place your hands behind or above your head.

You may have seen examples of the GHR where someone falls to horizontal and then bends at the hips to perform a back extension. You don’t need to do this.

Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-5 sets of 6-15 reps

Lying Leg Curl

The staple hamstring exercise in everyone’s hamstring training routine. You can’t fault it. While you don’t get the crazy stretch like the seated leg curl, you can shift some big weights through a decent range of motion.

If you want to maximize hamstring mass with this exercise, here are some pointers:

  • Lie on the machine so your knees are just off the edge of the machine. It will be painful if you leave your knee caps on the machine. Set up the pad so it is placed at the bottom of your calves. You don't want it halfway up your calves as some people do. You won't get the same tension and it will shorten your range of motion.
  • Curl the weight all the way until the pad touches your bum. Try to keep your hips against the machine and not lift them off to get extra range as you are cutting it short.
  • Control the weight back down until your legs are completely straight.

You can do this exercise with different feet positions. I prefer always having my ankles in a dorsiflexed position meaning pulling my toes up (lying on the leg curl will mean you are pointing your feet down towards the floor).

This way, you minimize the involvement of the calf muscles and can nail the hamstrings. When you plantarflex your ankles (point toes away), you will find the calves take a lot of strain.

Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-5 sets of 8-20 reps

Good Morning

Perhaps this exercise got its name from the fact you are essentially bowing with weight on your back. The good-morning is exactly the same as an RDL except the barbell is on your back instead of in your hands.

Why does that make this exercise different? The barbell is placed further away from the hips (pivot point) creating a longer moment arm than the RDL. If that makes no sense, all it means is you don’t need as much barbell load to get the same relative load on the hamstrings.

While the RDL may be superior for eccentric activity (activity during the lowering phase) of the hamstrings, the good morning comes in a close second [4]. Here’s how to use the good morning effectively:

  • Un-rack the bar like you are going to back squat. Either with the bar on your traps or in a low bar position. Bend your knees slightly with your bodyweight through your heels.
  • Keep your knees in the same position while pushing your hips back and maintaining a big chest. Your eyes and head will have to look forward. You cannot pack your chin and look down while you good morning.
  • Thrust your hips forward to return to the starting position.

This exercise can aggravate the lower back in those that have lower back issues so avoid this if you have that problem.

Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-5 sets of 6-10 reps

Isometric Single Leg Hamstring Bridge

The final exercise in this list is something a little different. It's an isometric hamstring exercise that you don't often read about when it comes to hypertrophy or muscle gain. Isometrics are usually used in a rehab or sports performance setting.

Recent research has stated that isometrics should primarily be used to alter muscle morphology, including muscle size [5].

Specifically, isometrics at long muscle lengths (catch the trend here of exercising through large ranges of motion?).

Long muscle length isometrics are far superior to short muscle length isometrics when it comes to muscle growth. Why is that?

They tend to produce more muscle damage, produce a greater build-up of waste products, increases the rate of oxygen consumption (creating a hypoxic environment), and occludes more blood flow than short muscle length isometrics [5].

Essentially, they tick the boxes of high levels of metabolic stress and muscle damage which are the final mechanisms of muscle growth to end out the trio with mechanical tension.

Here is how to perform this isometric exercise:

  • Lie on your back on the floor with your heel on top of a bench. You can vary the angle of your knee based on how strong your hamstrings are. As you have read, the longer the muscle the greater the growth so work towards having your knee almost straight. Don’t do this with a straight leg.
  • Lift your hips off the floor as high as possible and hold for the allotted time.

It’s really that simple. You can do this on the floor with no bench and you can even do it with your feet and back on a bench.

Recommended Sets and Reps: 2-5 sets of 10-45 seconds

Why Wasn’t The Squat Included For Hamstring Size?

Check any random fitness magazine or website and you’ll see the back squat listed as one of the best hamstring builders. Can someone tell these people that they need to read some research or at least apply some common sense?

Take a look at this recent study where 10 weeks of either half or full squats showed no changes in hamstring muscle volume while large increases were seen in the glutes and quadriceps [6].

And I'm going to arm you with the reason why. The hamstrings cross the knee and the hip as mentioned in the beginning. When you squat, you flex the knee (knee bend) while flexing at the hip. Essentially, you are lengthening one end and shortening the other so muscle length essentially stays the same throughout the movement.

The quadriceps and glutes are the big prime movers in the squat, not the hamstrings.

How Often Should You Train Your Hamstrings For Mass?

The current consensus is that training a muscle group twice per week is superior to once per week for muscle growth (bye-bye bro splits) [7]. It makes sense. If we can train a muscle twice, we get two opportunities to stimulate growth instead of one.

Secondly, we can potentially perform more volume which is a key driving factor behind muscle growth, and thirdly, we can get higher quality volume over two sessions instead of one. For example, if you were to perform 20 hard sets of hamstrings in one session, from set 10 onward, you may struggle to lift anywhere near the poundage you are capable of.

But if you perform those 10 sets later in the week, you are fresher and can use more load creating more mechanical tension and therefore, a bigger muscle growth stimulus for your hamstrings.

In terms of volume, 10-20 sets seem to be the ideal range for muscle growth [8]. You could potentially push this to 25 sets a week during an overreaching week before a deload.

Split over two sessions, this could be 8 sets in one, 12 in the other, or split evenly as 10 sets each. You could even push for 14-16 sets in one session as a hamstring-focused workout and 4-6 sets in a second workout that is quad-focused.

A Workout For Big Hamstrings

This article wouldn't be complete without giving an example hamstring training program. So here is a two-day-a-week hamstring workout for big, bulging hamstrings.

Day 1

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Stiff-Legged Deadlift

3 x 6-8

8 RPE

B1) Seated Leg Curl 

4 x 10-12

9 RPE

Day 2

Exercise

Set/Rep

Load

A1) Glute Ham Raise

3 x 6-10

9 RPE

B1) RDL

4 x 8-10

8 RPE

C1) Isometric Single Leg Hamstring Bridge

2-3 x 30 sec/leg

Cell

You can fill the rest of the session with quadriceps and glute work as you need. If you don't have access to any equipment, try these hamstring exercises at home.

Should You Stretch Your Hamstrings After The Workout?

While stretching after a workout is an article in itself, I wanted to address this in the hamstring article for a couple of reasons:

  • People generally go to stretch their hamstrings more than any other muscle (purely anecdotal), and
  • People will often complain of tight hamstrings. Especially after a hard hamstring workout.

But you should avoid stretching your hamstrings after a hard hamstring workout. You’ve already put your hamstrings under huge stretch with load. And this has been shown to improve range of motion just as well as static stretching so don’t worry about losing flexibility [9].

If anything, you will gain it. Further, when you’ve really smoked your hamstrings, even bending over can be painful! So rest up and get ready to hit it hard again later in the week.

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. Maeo, S., Huang, M., Wu, Y., Sakurai, H., Kusagawa, Y., Sugiyama, T., ... & Isaka, T. (2021). Greater hamstrings muscle hypertrophy but similar damage protection after training at long versus short muscle lengths. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 53(4), 825.

3. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.

4. McAllister, M. J., Hammond, K. G., Schilling, B. K., Ferreria, L. C., Reed, J. P., & Weiss, L. W. (2014). Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(6), 1573-1580.

5. 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.

6. Kubo, K., Ikebukuro, T., & Yata, H. (2019). Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes. European journal of applied physiology, 119(9), 1933-1942.

7. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Effects of resistance training frequency on measures of muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 46(11), 1689-1697.

8. Schoenfeld, B., & Grgic, J. (2018). Evidence-based guidelines for resistance training volume to maximize muscle hypertrophy. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 40(4), 107-112.

9. Morton, S. K., Whitehead, J. R., Brinkert, R. H., & Caine, D. J. (2011). Resistance training vs. static stretching: effects on flexibility and strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(12), 3391-3398.

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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