Most people working out these days carry a decent set of quads, but are heavily lacking in hamstring development. It's not abnormal, but who wants to be normal when you could be an anomaly?
Today we're going to discuss 4 exercises that help build bigger, stronger, and most of all, injury-resilient hamstrings.
The injury-resilient portion is especially important since hamstring strains are so common in the gym and sports.
Strength and size are the main goals for most people, so we'll discuss how these exercises can help you create a bigger and more muscular posterior chain.
Let's start with the NHC:
Nordic Hamstring Curl (nhc)
The Nordic Hamstring Curl is far and above one of the most effective exercises for building more strength, preventing injuries(1), and developing thick enough legs that no one will ever question if you lift.
It’s often used as a way to improve hamstring strength and prevent strains, but when used appropriately, it also plays a large in build more muscle tissue in the posterior chain.
Most people don’t have the necessary strength to hold themselves from face-planting the second they get past a 45 degree angle, but we’re going to fix that in the next exercise.
Key things to do for the NHC:
- Lock the feet into a secure, unmovable position
- Posteriorly tilt the hips (tuck your butt in)
- Squeeze the entire abdomen (make your waste smaller by pulling the abdomen in)
- Tense the hamstrings
- Slowly start to lean forward while keeping the body as upright and tense as possible
- Place your hands out in front to catch yourself on the way down
- Push yourself off the ground and use the hamstrings to finish the top half of the motion if possible
- Look strong
Here is another variation of a NHC you can try:
Ball Assisted NHC
The Ball assisted NHC is variation I've played around with to decrease the likeliness of injury in the event of the regular NHC being too strenuous on the person performing them. If someone isn't accustom to this degree of stress, the chances of them falling forward and landing awkwardly on their wrists - or worse yet, the face.
The ball also helps create a comfort for the novice NHC-er. They will be more confident doing the exercise simply because their is a safe guard in place. Additionally, the ball can allow them - or you - to work on the concentric portion in the same movement.
By applying some downward pressure to the ball, the amount of stress on the hamstrings is offset and you can pull yourself up from the extended position. This is a great beginning tool for those looking to eventually perform the entire movement in one motion.
Key things to do for the Ball assisted NHC:
- Repeat the above instructions (NHC)
- Place hands away from each other on the ball
- Slowly guide the ball away from you during the eccentric portion
- Pull the ball towards you to bring yourself up and restart
Bent Knee Glute Ham Raise
The Glute Ham Raise works on many facets of the posterior chain including the glutes, erectors, and calves. The part we're most interested in right now is the hamstrings, so we'll focus on the Bent Knee GHR version as shown. The horizontal placement adds additional downward force (gravity), putting a larger stress on the hamstrings.
To maximize the amount of work on the hamstrings, use the full range of motion if possible.
Key things to do for the Bent knee GHR:
- Keep a bend in the knee when going up and down
- Come to top end of the movement and finish by bending the knee and pulling into a knee flex as shown
- Pause for one second at the end range of the bottom and top to stretch and contract the hamstring fully (in the range of motion available)
- Keep the lower back slightly rounded forward to remove the likeliness over hyperextension
The famous RDL. Some might consider this an easier version of the deadlift. Simply because you don't have to use quite as much weight, it does make it seem that way.
Alternatively, the consistent amount of stress your body takes during multiple sets at a decent weight is still high enough to elicit tearing in the muscle, strength improvements, and a lot of potential hypertrophy for your hamstrings and posterior chain in general.
Some mistake this - and other - deadlift variations for a vertical emphasized pull, simply because the bar travels up and down.
From a biomechanics standpoint, this is essentially a horizontal hip thrust where the bar is simply the drop weight and the hips are the counterweight. This is why we teach lifters to initiate all hip hinge movements by pulling the hips away from the bar. Seems obvious, I know.
Key things to do for the RDL:
- Create tension in the lats so the bar doesn't pull the upper body down to a rounding position
- Keep the collarbone within eye sight. You should be able to see it if you glanced up in the mirror
- Pull the hips away from the bar and towards the back wall
- Keep a slight bend in the knee. Think of using 80-90% hips and only 10-20% knees
- Maximize the hamstring stretch and pause for one second
- Drive the hip towards the bar while pushing the bar into your legs
- Finish in the upright position with a straight torso and your hips pressed into the bar
KB Single Leg Deadlift
Individual hamstring work is a simple way to work through strength and muscle size imbalances. Nearly everyone has some form of difference between the left and right side of their body, but those differences can hold you back when you're aiming to avoid injury and be more symmetrical in your physique.
Whether you're struggling with recurring strains, injuries, or strength differences, single leg work can help improve all three of these issues.
Key things to do for the KB single leg deadlift:
- Have a slight bend in the knee that's still on the ground
- Draw a straight line from your starting point to the back wall with your foot
- Lead with back heel
- Keep the glute on the lifted side tense
- Keep the shoulders locked in place and don't allow the torso to rotate to the side of the kettlebell
- Keep the entire abdomen flexed during the movement
- Finish by bringing the foot back to the start and squeeze the glutes together
Additionally, by gaining more single leg control, you can improve your body awareness meaning you have a better understanding of what your body is doing while doing bilateral (read: two legged) lifts like the examples above. Hip rotation, over-compensation, and otherwise become a lot of more obvious once you master single leg work.
The road to improvement is often begun with simple awareness and control. This is what separates the average from the elite.
Incorporating all of these movements is ideal if you can squeeze them into your program.
If you're on a three day split where you do full body workouts, the hamstring portion of your program may look like this:
Nordic hamstring curl 2-4 x 3-5
KB single leg deadlift 2-4 x 6-12 per side
Romanian deadlift 3-4 x 6-12 with one second pause at the bottom
Bent knee glute ham raise 3-4 x 8-12
Ball assisted NHC 2-3 x 6-10
Single leg deadlift 2-3 x 8-12 per side
Total Accumulated Weekly Volume: 14-22 sets per week
Start with the low end of the volume range and work your way up to the higher at by the end of a 5-6 workout cycle. Use the sixth week to deload if needed, then restart with heavier weights.
Should this volume be too much, simply find a volume range that works better.
Eg. 10-18 sets per week.
- Week 1: 10 sets
- Week 2: 12 sets
- Week 3: 14 sets
- Week 4: 16 sets
- Week 5: 18 sets
- Week 6: Deload
*These volume methods were adapted from Dr. Mike Israetel's work over at Renaissance Periodization.
James Harris is the founder of Titanium Strength Systems, as well as the head writer and coach. He trains online and in person in Chilliwack, BC. You can find his writing around the internet on websites such as Muscle & Strength, The PTDC, Fitness Pollenator, PTBIZ, and Deansomerset.com.
Horst, N. Van Der, D. W. Smits, J. Petersen, E. A. Goedhart, and F. J. G. Backx. "The Preventive Effect of the Nordic Hamstring Exercise on Hamstring Injuries in Amateur Soccer Players: Study Protocol for a Randomised Controlled Trial." Injury Prevention 20.4 (2013). Print.