Since we’ve already covered the quads for legs, let’s now jump into training the hammies for the full-effect leg explosion. The back of the upper leg in the human body consists of a group of tendons known as the hamstring which is contracted by four muscles: the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, the biceps femoris – long head, and the biceps femoris – short head.
The term “ham” used to refer to the muscle and fat tissue behind the knee and the term “string” refers to the tendons. Accordingly, the hamstrings are the tendons you feel on either side of the back of your knee. If you want to grow huge hammies to match your massive quads, you’ll need to know what they do, how they work, and how best to work them.
Location and Function of the Hamstrings Muscles
The hamstring muscles are responsible for flexion (bending) and extension (straightening) of the knee and hip joints. The semitendinosus inserts at the medial surface of the tibia and is involved in both knee flexion, extension, and hip extension. The semimembranosus inserts at the medial tibial condyle and is also involved in knee flexion, extension, and hip extension.
The long head of the biceps femoris inserts at the lateral side of the head of the fibula is also involved in knee flexion and extension, and hip extension.
Here are a couple of different looks at it…
The short head of the biceps femoris only crosses the knee joint and is therefore not involved in the extension of the hip. The development of your hamstrings depends on the exercises you do and the position in which you hold your feet. Read on to find out how to effectively target your hamstrings for optimum growth.
How to Work Hamstrings
The hamstrings are an oft-neglected muscle group; however, a swooping posterior thigh will create a far more well-rounded leg as opposed to solely focusing on developing the quadriceps at the front of the thigh. The muscle separation that comes with well-developed hamstrings and quadriceps will also create the illusion (or reality) of a leaner leg.
Hamstring exercises can be grouped into those that are hip-dominant movements and those that are knee-dominant. Implementing both types of movement will ensure greater development in both size and strength. Examples of hip-dominant movements include Stiff-Legged Deadlifts (SLDL) and Romanian Deadlifts (RDL). These deadlift variations stretch the hamstrings at the bottom of the movement.
Knee-dominant movements include seated leg curls, lying leg curls, and sumo leg press. With the leg curl variations, in particular, think of your hamstrings as the biceps of the legs – hence the name biceps femoris – these exercises will enable you to squeeze and contract the hamstrings against heavy resistance.
Other moves to work the hamstrings include glute-ham raises and sumo squats. I would recommend working your hamstrings with knee-dominant movement prior to training quads. In this case, sumo squats may be redundant in comparison to a slightly narrower-stance squat that will hit the pre-fatigued hamstrings and glutes anyway. We will explore this concept in greater detail in part two.
Volume, Work Load, and Tension for Massive Hamstrings
Hamstrings respond well to a variety of rep-ranges and intensity techniques such as drop sets and partial reps. Just as with the quadriceps, it is not just about hammering the muscles into oblivion and hoping for the best.
Training volume can be kept slightly lower than that of the quadriceps; however, the hamstrings will respond well to a cyclical approach. Using the intensity techniques we will explore in Part Two, volume can be kept relatively low for the first few weeks, gradually increasing until we reduce the workload to enable the body to recover with a deload phase.
Drop sets and partial reps are highly-effective ways of working the hamstring muscles beyond failure, but hip-dominant exercises are simply not safe to take to complete failure as the lower back will begin to compensate for hamstring and glute fatigue. With exercises such as stiff-legged deadlifts, we can still apply intensity techniques such as reverse drop sets.
So far we have discussed the muscles of the hamstrings, the insertion points of each muscle, and the function of the hamstrings. You also learned about some of the best exercises to perform to best develop mammoth hamstrings. We noted that the hamstrings are made up of four muscles, the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, the biceps femoris – long head, and the biceps femoris – short head.
Now we will discuss useful exercises and techniques that can be used to get the most out of your hamstrings training. The hamstrings can be an oft-overlooked body part; however, you should be aware that you definitely need to train the hamstrings to develop a pair of well-proportioned and strong legs. Your hamstrings will certainly take a beating when you train your quads with exercises such as squats and leg press, but they must also be targeted directly to stimulate the most growth (similar to what we discussed about training the triceps).
It is important to understand the function of the hamstring muscles when formulating a training routine. Jumping into the leg curl machine for three sets of eight reps and calling it a hamstring workout simply ain’t gonna cut it. Muscular development isn’t just about moving as much weight as possible. As we will explore below, the hamstrings respond well to being squeezed hard with leg curl movements, and being stretched out with deadlift movements.
Great Hamstring Exercises
We will focus on three primary movements to train hamstrings.
#1 Leg Curl Variations
These can be performed in the lying or seated position, depending on what equipment you have at your disposal. If you have access to both then you should cycle between them every 2 – 3 weeks. Rep ranges will be slightly higher on the seated version. Adopt a narrow stance and try to keep your toes pointing forward without flexing your feet back as you curl. Typically, leg curls are to be performed for sets of anything from 10-30 reps.
#2 Deadlift Variations
Stiff-legged and Romanian deadlifts are highly effective hamstring-building exercises. Use 25lbs plates so that you can enhance the stretch position at the bottom of the movement. Keep your feet narrower than shoulder-width and really hit the stretch position hard; you do not need to come all the way up before going back down again. I would recommend using wrist straps, if you have them, and these are also great performed with dumbbells. Perform sets of 8-12 reps.
#3 Sumo Leg Press
Ideally performed on a plate-loaded leg press, these are to be performed with your feet high and very wide on the platform. Go deep on these, and feel the pull on the hamstrings at the top of the movement. Do not be afraid to go heavy on these, even for high reps. Perform sets of 10-20 reps.
It is important to cycle volume so that you do not become over-trained too quickly. It is a good idea to begin by training hamstrings with five or six work sets per week before gradually increasing by one set per week, culminating with 10 sets or so. At this point, it would be wise to scale it back and allow your body time to recover.
Below is a sample hamstrings workout. Perform two or three exercises and employ the intensity techniques mentioned below. This workout will leave you hobbling around sore for a couple of days…that’s a promise!
Example Workout – 8 Sets (Moderate-High Volume)
#1 Seated Leg Curl
Do two to three warm-up sets of 25 reps.
Increase the weight with each set:
- 1 set of 15-20 reps
- 1 set of 10-12 reps
- 1 set of 8 reps
- 1 set of 30 partial reps
Focus on keeping your form tight and squeezing hard at the bottom. Think of your hamstrings as the biceps of the leg and curl as you would with a preacher curl, contracting hard. On the set of eight reps, finish the set and then drop the weight by one or two plates, then immediately crank out 30 partial reps. The weight will only be moving slightly but your hamstrings will be on fire. Gut it out and make sure you complete all 30 reps.
#2 Sumo Leg Press
Do two warm-up sets.
Increase the weight with each set.
- 3 sets of 15-20 reps
Use the warm up sets to find the correct foot positioning. These are supposed to be performed heavy, so don’t worry if you need to use your hands to push on your knees to grind out the final few reps. As you increase the weight each set, your reps should decrease and will probably look something like this: 20, 17, 14.
#3 Stiff-legged Deadlift
2 warm up sets.
1 reverse drop set (explained below).
Your hamstrings will be warm and pumped at this stage so you will not need to warm up too much. Find a weight that you would normally use for 10-12 reps and then perform six reps, rack the weight, add 10lbs, perform six more reps, add 10lbs, and so on. Aim for a minimum of 24 reps – or four mini-sets. This is total hamstring annihilation, and your lower back will be nicely worked too. Remember not to rush the sets and concentrate on using good form.
Recovery Injury Prevention
The hamstrings respond well – albeit painfully – to foam rollers and rumble rollers. This will help break up all of the knotted fibers and dead tissue that builds up in the muscles after hard training. If you do not use a deadlift variation, end your workout by stretching out each leg for one to two minutes each, allowing more space for the muscle to grow into as well as making it easier for blood and nutrients to enter the muscle tissue.
As we have discussed, hamstring training is crucial if you want to develop a pair of legs that are impressive not just from the front, but from the sides and back also. The strength and leverage that you gain from training your hamstrings will also translate to greater strength in your quadriceps and back training, so bear this in mind next time you want to skip a hamstrings session! Train your hamstrings and train them hard. You will be very sore but you will not be disappointed.