My legs have always been my weak point. I’m not a bodybuilder–I train for strength primarily. I want a bigger deadlift, a bigger squat, and a bigger bench, just like most guys who are trying to put on size, but I had never focused much on my legs until the last couple of years. And while I put a lot of size on my thighs, I noticed the biggest difference in the look and power of my hamstrings. So if you’re like most guys, you’re probably neglecting your legs. But if you’re not, you could still be neglecting dedicated hamstring work. Here are a few things that have worked for me.
I don’t use hamstring curl machines for a couple of reasons. 1: I don’t like it that the path of my legs is chosen for me by the path of the machine. It can only pivot in a defined spectrum, which may not be advantageous for everyone; 2: I’m really tall, so I don’t really fit into those machines as they’re advertised anyways.
But here are my favorite exercises for bigger, stronger hamstrings, which lead to more power, more muscle, and strength overall. Every time something improves, everything gains the potential to improve.
Swings (kettlebells or otherwise)
Kettlebells are not magic, so ignore the snobs out there who tell you that you’re a loser if you’re using anything but these Russian strength training tools. But they are a wonderful tool, and they can definitely work wonders for developing your hamstrings. The kb swing turns your hammies into the cord of a bow. On the backswing, the hams are loaded with a lot of tension, when you unfold from the hips to project the bell forward, a lot of work is done given the velocity of the kb and the snap of the hips.
But the swing is simply the movement pattern. It can be done with any implement, provided you can hold on to it. Here’s strongman Adam T. Glass working with a swing tool (and swinging an insane amount of weight) from Ryan Pitts at Stronger Grip. It’s called The Plateau Buster.
There is no lift I would rather do. The deadlift seems like it builds everything at once, and it is so fun for me that I get irritated whenever it’s not testing well. When you are deadlifting in just about any variation you can come up with, your hamstrings load up as you reach back with your hips. As you stand with the weight, pulling your hips through and locking it out is powerful stuff. Remember, there is a lot of real estate on the backs of your legs. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The deadlift will hit you just right.
And for a more hamstring-intensive variant, try the Romanian Deadlift.
Please note the difference: this is not a stiff-legged deadlift. It is in between the conventional pull and the stiff legged version.
Those are my primary hamstring builders, although I do a lot of front squats, power cleans, and long cycle clean and jerk with kettlebells. All of those contribute.
My main point is one you’ve heard many times: whether you train for muscle or raw strength, you’re only as good as your weakest body part. My hamstrings definitely held me back for a long time. Not because I ignored them–they just never crossed my mind because they don’t show up in the mirror!