15 Hamstring Exercises So Good You’ll Actually Look Forward to Leg Day

Build a stronger lower body—with whatever equipment you’ve got.

15 Hamstring Exercises So Good Youll Actually Look Forward to Leg Day

Katie Thompson

Your glutes and quads shouldn’t always be the stars of your lower-body workouts: Adding some hamstring exercises into the mix will make sure you’re training efficiently and, most importantly, keeping your bottom half as strong and balanced as possible.

A lot of leg moves naturally engage those back-of-the-leg muscles to some extent, but strength training that specifically targets your hammies can be even more beneficial. Need some inspo? Below, we’ve rounded up some of the best hamstring exercises out there that are worthy of your next leg day. Some use external resistance like barbells, dumbbells, or even resistance bands, and others you can do with just your bodyweight. But before we get into them, let’s talk about why you should even care so much about building strength there in the first place.

What are your hamstrings, and what do they even do?

Your hamstrings are actually made up of three separate muscles—the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus—all of which run along the backs of your thighs. Together, they are crucial part of your posterior chain, or the muscles that run along the back of the body from head to toe. They help you extend your hips and flex your knees, movements which allow you to do everything from standing upright and bending forward to walking, running, and jumping, Dane Miklaus, CSCS, CEO and owner of Work training studios in Irvine, California, and Meridian, Idaho, tells SELF.

Why are strong hamstrings so important?

One of the benefits is greater power, especially in those movements mentioned above, like sprints and jumps. Plus, training your hamstrings helps you work toward a better balance, which is important both during strength training and in everyday life.

That’s because lots of people tend to be quad-dominant, Miklaus explains, meaning that their quad muscles (which run along the front of the thighs) are way stronger than their hamstring muscles. It makes sense, considering we spend most of our time moving forward, which engages the front of the legs more than the back. But while it’s normal for your quads to be a bit stronger than your hamstrings, a large imbalance between the muscle groups can set the stage for knee injuries or knee pain down the line, especially if sprinting, jumping, lunging, or squatting are regular parts of your routine.

“If you are not stabilizing at the knee appropriately—and that’s a big part of what your hamstring does, it helps keep the knee joint in place—you risk a greater incidence of injury when your quads are way overdeveloped and the hamstrings are too weak,” he explains.

Plus, thanks to too much inactivity throughout the day—think long days sitting at your desk or in your car for your commute—your hamstring muscles tend to tense up, Miklaus says. This tightness can contribute to lower back pain. So moving them regularly, like with hamstring-focused leg exercises, can keep those muscles loose, which can help ward off that discomfort, he says.

What are the best hamstring exercises you can do?

The best hamstring exercises are those that incorporate hip extension (think hip hinge, like if you were deadlifting) or knee flexion (like with a glute bridge, where your hamstrings fire as your heel applies force to the floor), says Miklaus. These types of compound exercises target your hamstrings and work them in a functional way—meaning, you’re moving similarly to how you would in everyday life and engaging other muscles around them, too.

To really isolate your hammies (meaning, hammer on those muscles and only those muscles), leg curls—which really hone in on knee flexion—are your best bet. The leg curl machine at the gym works great for this, but you can also do hamstring curls with your bodyweight, known as Nordic curls, or using a resistance band, stability ball, or gliders.

Even leg exercises that you’d traditionally consider quad-dominant moves, like squats or lunges, can also work the back of your legs. That’s because when you lunge or squat, your hamstring muscles have to turn on to keep your leg stable and to help you stand back up, he says. Variations like the reverse lunge and sumo squat will fire up your hamstrings more than the OG exercises.

So what’s the best way to add them into your workouts?

If you want to create a well-balanced leg workout, add two or three of the following hamstring exercises to each routine. Before you get started with a hamstring workout, make sure you warm up properly, Miklaus says. That can mean a few minutes of walking on a treadmill incline, climbing stairs, or riding a bike—movements that wake up your hamstrings specifically. Then do a few easy sets of the exercises you choose, but with lighter weight than your working sets or with just bodyweight. (And if you notice any tightness in the back of your legs following your workout, there are some great hamstring stretches you can try to alleviate the discomfort.)

Here are some great hamstring exercises to include on your next leg day.

  • Romanian Deadlift

    • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, and your arms relaxed by the front of your quads, with a dumbbell in each hand. This is the starting position.
    • Hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees slightly as you push your butt way back. Keeping your back flat, slowly lower the weight along your shins. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor.
    • Keeping your core engaged, push through your heels to stand up straight and return to the starting position. Keep the weight close to your shins as you pull.
    • Pause at the top and squeeze your butt. That’s 1 rep.

    The deadlift is a hip-hinge movement pattern, meaning your hamstrings and glutes are the main drivers here.

  • Katie Thomspon

    Single-Leg Deadlift

    • Stand with your feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your legs. This is the starting position.
    • Shift your weight to your left leg and, while keeping a slight bend in your left knee, raise your right leg straight behind your body, hinging at the hips to bring your torso parallel to the floor, and lower the weight toward the floor.
    • Keep your back flat. At the bottom of the movement, your torso and right leg should be almost parallel to the floor, with the weight a few inches off the ground. (If your hamstrings are tight, you may not be able to lift your leg as high.)
    • Keeping your core tight, push through your left heel to stand up straight and pull the weight back up to the starting position. Bring your right leg back down to meet your left, but try to keep the majority of the weight on your left foot.
    • Pause there and squeeze your butt. That’s 1 rep. Complete all your reps on one side, then switch sides.

    The single-leg deadlift, which works your hamstrings and glutes, requires a lot of balance. If you struggle with that, use one dumbbell instead of two, and lightly touch a wall or sturdy object to keep yourself steady.

  • Katie Thompson

    Kickstand Deadlift

    • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
    • Place one foot a foot-length behind the other, heel elevated (as shown above), so your stance is staggered. You’ll be working your front leg.
    • Hinge at your hips to lower your body. Push your butt far back and keep your back flat. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor.
    • Keeping your core tight, push through your front heel to stand up straight. Keep the weights close to your shins as you pull up.
    • Pause at the top and squeeze your butt. That’s 1 rep
    • Complete all your reps on one side. Then switch sides and repeat.

    The kickstand deadlift is a deadlift variation that focuses on unilateral, or single-leg, strength. Because your back foot remains on the ground for balance, keeping yourself steady is not as tricky as it is with the single-leg deadlift—making this move a great stepping stone to help you get there!

  • Katie Thompson

    Kettlebell Swing

    • Make a triangle with a kettlebell and your feet, with your feet at the bottom of the triangle and the kettlebell about a foot in front of you at the top of the triangle.
    • With a soft bend in your knees, hinge forward at your hips, push your butt back, and grab the handle with both hands. Tilt the bell on its side, handle toward your body.
    • Hike the bell high up in your groin area (your wrists should touch high in your inner thigh) and thrust your hips forward aggressively so that at the top of the swing, you are essentially in a standing plank, looking straight ahead, squeezing your core, glutes, and quads.
    • Once the bell reaches about chest height (and not above shoulder height), hinge forward at your hips and push your butt back again, letting the bell drop on its own as you do. You should not feel like you’re using your arms to lift anything. Let your eyes, head, and neck follow so that you don’t strain your neck. This is 1 rep.
    • When you’re done with all of your reps, perform a back swing to safely put the weight down: Bring the bell through your legs, but instead of thrusting your hips forward to bring it to shoulder level, place it back on the floor.

    Along with building posterior chain strength, the kettlebell swing also trains explosive movement.

  • Meiko Arquillos

    Single-Leg Hamstring Curl

    • Loop a resistance band around the soles of both feet. Lie face down on a mat with your legs extended and arms folded in front of you.
    • Engage your glutes and curl one leg up toward your butt. Make sure to keep the other leg stationary.
    • Slowly lower the leg back to the starting position. This is 1 rep

    This unilateral exercise really isolates your hamstrings while stretching the front of the hips and quads.

  • Katie Thompson

    Bulgarian Split Squat

    • Stand with your back to your “bench.” With your left foot on the floor a few feet in front of the bench, place the top of your right foot on the bench, shoelaces down.
    • Place your hands behind your head and engage your core. You can also clasp your hands at your chest or leave them at your sides if that feels more comfortable.
    • Bend your knees to lower down into a split squat. Your left knee should ideally form a 90-degree angle so that your thigh is parallel to the ground, and your right knee is hovering above the floor. (Quick position check: Your left foot should be stepped out far enough that you can do this without letting your left knee go past your left toes—if you can’t, hop your left foot out a bit farther away from the bench.)
    • Driving through your left heel, stand back up to starting position. Continue performing reps, and switch sides when they’re completed.

    The Bulgarian split squat puts more of an emphasis on the hamstrings than the OG split squat, and it adds in some extra stability work to challenge your core. It’s a more advanced move, so make sure you’ve mastered a split squat with both feet on the floor before trying it.

  • Katie Thompson

    Weighted Glute Bridge

    • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, resting them right under your hip bones. This is the starting position.
    • Squeeze your glutes and abs and push through your heels to lift your hips a few inches off the floor until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.
    • Hold for a second and then slowly lower your hips to return to the starting position. This is 1 rep.

    For extra hamstring activation, bring your feet slightly farther away from your butt, Miklaus says. Make this exercise easier by using just your bodyweight.

  • Katie Thompson

    Marching Glute Bridge

    • Lie faceup with your knees bent and your feet hip-width distance apart.
    • Engage your core so your low back presses against the floor. From this engaged position, lift your hips, squeezing your glutes at the top. Hold here.
    • Lift your right foot off the floor, bringing your knee toward your chest and stopping when you’ve hinged your hip to about 90 degrees.
    • Replace your foot on the floor and immediately lift your left foot off the floor to repeat on the other side.
    • Continue to march, alternating your feet, all while maintaining lifted hips.

    The dynamic nature of the march brings on an extra cardio challenge to this single-leg strength exercise.

  • Katie Thompson

    Single-Leg Glute Bridge

    • Lie on the floor faceup with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hands at your sides. Engage your core to press your low back against the floor.
    • From this position, lift your right foot off the floor and extend your leg.
    • Push off your left foot, engage your core, and squeeze your glutes as you lift your hips and do a glute bridge.
    • Slowly lower your hips back to the floor. That’s 1 rep.
    • Do all of the reps on one side, then repeat on the other.

    Again, if you really want to zero in on hamstring strength, move the foot on the floor slightly farther away from your butt.

  • Katie Thompson

    Good Morning

    • Stand with your feet hip-width apart with your hands at your ears. For an added challenge, you can place a weighted bar or barbell on your back.
    • Keeping a soft bend in your knees, hinge forward at the hips and push your butt back as you fold your torso forward. Stop when your torso is just above parallel to the floor.
    • Drive your hips forward as you lift your torso back up and return to the starting position. Squeeze your glutes at the top. This is 1 rep.

    This exercise really smokes your posterior chain muscles, including your glutes, erector spinae, and lower back muscles, as well as your hamstrings.

  • Katie Thompson

    Reverse Lunge

    • Start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. This is the starting position.
    • Lift your right foot and step back about two feet, landing on the ball of your foot and keeping your heel off the floor. Bend both knees until your left quad and right shin are approximately parallel to the floor. Your torso should lean slightly forward so your back is flat and not arched or rounded. Your left knee should be above your left foot, and your butt and core should be engaged.
    • Push through the heel of your left foot to return to the starting position. That’s 1 rep.
    • Do all your reps on one side, then repeat with the other leg.

    While lunges are more knee-dominant, the reverse lunge hits your backside muscles more, since your hamstrings and glutes need to fire for stability.

  • Katie Thompson

    Sumo Squat

    • Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned out about 45 degrees. Hold one weight with both hands on one end so it’s hanging vertically. This is the starting position.
    • Bend your knees and push your hips back as you lower down into a squat.
    • Drive through your heels to return to standing and squeeze your glutes at the top. That’s 1 rep.

    Make this exercise easier by using just your bodyweight. While the squat is more of a knee-dominant exercise, the wider stance here encourages your inner hamstring muscles to fire more.

  • Meiko Arquillos

    Standing Glute Kick-Back

    • Loop a resistance band around your ankles and keep a soft bend in your knees. Put your hands on your hips. You can also stand in front of a wall to touch lightly for balance.
    • With your glutes engaged, slowly extend one leg out behind you. Make sure you don’t arch your back. Carefully bring your leg back down. This is 1 rep.
    • Complete all your reps on this leg. Repeat on the other leg.

    This move is meant to target the glute muscles on the moving leg, but it also requires a lot of hamstring engagement. Make it easier by removing the band; make it harder by using a stronger band.

  • Katie Thompson

    Hip Thrust

    • Sit on the floor with your back to a bench (or a sturdy step or even your couch). Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground, hip-distance apart. Rest your upper back on the edge of the bench and place your dumbbells on your lap. (You can use one or two, depending on size and comfort of the weights.) This is starting position.
    • Drive through your heels to lift your hips up toward the ceiling, keeping your upper back in place against the bench.
    • Pause and squeeze your glutes at the top.
    • In a slow and controlled motion, lower your butt back toward the ground. This is 1 rep.

    Like with the bridging exercises, moving your feet farther from your butt will hit your hammies a little harder, says Miklaus. If dumbbells feel too easy, you can do this with a barbell. Too hard? Do this exercise with just your bodyweight.

  • Katie Thompson

    Donkey Kick

    • Start in an all-fours position, with your wrists under your shoulders, knees under your hips, and core engaged.
    • Kick your right foot up and toward the ceiling, engaging your glutes and using your hamstrings to pull your foot upward.
    • Keep your core engaged, so you stay stable and don’t tip to the left; and stop lifting before you arch your low back. Remember: This is a strength move, not a flexibility exercise.
    • Return your leg to the starting position. This is 1 rep.
    • Do all your reps on one side, and then repeat on the other leg.

    As you lift your leg, keep your entire backside engaged so that you get the most from your glutes and hamstrings. To make it harder (and naturally engage the hammies more), place a light weight in the crease of your knee and squeeze your leg to hold it in place.

    Demoing the moves above are Anise Armario (GIF 1), creator and teacher of the Movement at Dancewave in Brooklyn and a powerlifter and strength coach with Queer Trans Strength NYC; Francine Delgado-Lugo (GIFs 2, 7), cofounder of FORM Fitness Brooklyn, who uses strength training to help people cultivate self-love and body confidence; Gail Barranda Rivas (GIF 3, 9, 12), a certified group fitness instructor, functional strength coach, Pilates and yoga instructor, and domestic and international fitness presenter; Nikki Pebbles (GIFs 4, 8), a special populations personal trainer in New York City who also holds a master’s degree in psychology specializing in body image and leadership; Hejira Nitoto (GIFs 5, 13), a mom of six, a certified personal trainer, and fitness apparel line owner based in Los Angeles; Alex Orr (GIF 6), a non-diet NASM-certified personal trainer and CNC, and host of The Birdie and the Bees podcast; Jo Murdock (GIF 10), a registered yoga instructor, dancer, and fitness instructor; Heather Boddy (GIFs 11, 15), a group fitness instructor and creator of the Geeknasium workout program; and Jowan Ortega (GIF 14), a personal trainer, sports performance coach, and partner at Form Fitness in Brooklyn.


Christa Sgobba is a writer and editor who joined SELF in November 2019 and is now SELF’s director of fitness and food. She’s an ACE-certified personal trainer, and previously held print and digital positions at Men’s Health, Runner’s World, and Bicycling, where she covered health, fitness, nutrition, and pro sports…. Read more

SELF does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, and you should not take any action before consulting with a healthcare professional.

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