The 10 Best Hamstring Exercises

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Having weak hamstrings is a major cause of injury for many athletes and decreased performance is also associated with weak hamstrings. As you can reason, improvements in hip extensor strength are vital for acceleration and speed.

Research shows runners’ quads can be as much as 30-40 percent stronger than their hamstrings. So what’s the big deal with having stronger quads than hamstrings? Having uneven quad and hamstring strength can affect your running economy (running economy is how efficiently your body uses oxygen when you run). But experts say quads and hamstrings work best when their strength is balanced. It’s not uncommon to see a runner collapse and grab his hamstring after an intense sprint, which may be due to quad and hamstring imbalance.

The hamstrings are made up of three main muscles:

  • Biceps Femoris
  • Semimembranosus
  • Semitendinosus

Researchers compared ten different bodyweight hamstring exercises and placed EMG electrodes all over the subject’s hamstrings and measured muscle activation. The researchers had the subjects perform the following exercises:

-Unweighted Barbell Lunge
-Single Leg Roman Dead-Lift –
-12 kg Kettlebell Swing-
– Single-Leg Unweighted Bridge-
– Two-Leg Unweighted Glute Bridge with Feet on High Box-
-TRX Hamstring Curl-
-Leg Curl-
-Nordic –
-Fitball Flexion –
-Slide Leg-

Here was the breakdown from Low Muscle Activation of the Hamstrings to High Activation:

Low muscle activation exercises ( <50% MVIC)

The lunge, single leg Roman dead-lift T-drop, and kettle swings were all closed kinetic chain and low intensity exercises, with greater activation of semitendinosus than biceps femoris.

Medium muscle activation exercises (<50% or > 80% MVIC)

The TRX, hamstring bridge, Nordic, and leg curl were all found to be medium intensity exercises.

High muscle activation exercises (>80% of MVIC)

The fitball flexion and slide leg exercises were found to be high intensity.

In sum, the high activation of all hamstring muscle components can be achieved without the need for heavy external loading (i.e., gym weights and machines) and this is best demonstrated by the Nordic and slide leg exercises. What’s interesting is that the two exercises with the highest glute activation, such as the Fitball flexion and the slide exercise, are rarely performed but yield high muscle hamstring activation.

If you’re looking for some variety in your hamstring routine, be sure to try out these two exercises.

Tsaklis P, Malliaropoulos N, Mendiguchia J, Korakakis V, Tsapralis K, Pyne D, Malliaras P. Muscle and intensity based hamstring exercise classification in elite female track and field athletes: implications for exercise selection during rehabilitation. Open Access J Sports Med. 2015 Jun 26;6:209-17.

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