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.
Table of Contents
- Hamstring Anatomy 101
- Best Hamstring Exercises For Mass
- Why Wasn’t The Squat Included For Hamstring Size?
- How Often Should You Train Your Hamstrings For Mass?
- A Workout For Big Hamstrings
- Should You Stretch Your Hamstrings After The Workout?
Hamstring Anatomy 101
The hamstrings consist of three main muscles:
- Biceps femoris long and short head
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 .
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.
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 . 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
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.
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.
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
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:
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
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.
Here is how to get the most out of the GHR for hamstring growth:
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:
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
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 . Here’s how to use the good morning effectively:
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.
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 .
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:
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?
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) . 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 . 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.
A1) Stiff-Legged Deadlift
3 x 6-8
B1) Seated Leg Curl
4 x 10-12
A1) Glute Ham Raise
3 x 6-10
4 x 8-10
C1) Isometric Single Leg Hamstring Bridge
2-3 x 30 sec/leg
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 .
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.
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