To get the most out of your lower-body workout, adding in a number of hamstring exercises are a great way to make sure you’re training efficiently—and keeping your routine balanced.
Strong hamstrings (the muscles that run along the back of your thighs) are important, since 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 and running, Dane Miklaus, CSCS, CEO and owner of Work training studio in Irvine, California, tells SELF.
But many people tend to be quad-dominant, he explains, meaning that their quad muscles, which run along the front of the thighs, tend to be way more developed than their hamstring muscles. While it’s normal for your quads to be a bit stronger than your hamstrings, a large imbalance between the muscles can set the stage for knee injuries down the line, especially if movements like 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 tighten up, Miklaus says. This tightness can contribute to lower back pain. So moving them regularly, like with dedicated hamstring exercises, help keep those muscles stretched and elastic, which can help ward off the back pain, he says.
So what are the best hamstring exercises to work those muscles? It all comes down to those that incorporate the movement patterns of extending your hip (think with a hip hinge, like if you were deadlifting) or flexing your knee (like with a glute bridge, where your hamstrings fire as your heel applies force to the floor), says Miklaus.
Even exercises that you’d traditionally consider quad-dominant moves, like squats or lunges, can also work your hamstrings too. 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 (which require more activations of your glutes and hamstrings than a forward lunge) and a sumo squat—the wider stance forces your inner hamstring muscles to fire more—would be your best bets for hamstring training.
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 to get your blood flowing—movements which warm up your hamstrings specifically—before doing a few warm-up sets of the exercises you choose, but with lighter weight than your working sets (or with just bodyweight). Here are some easy hamstring exercises to include.
1. Dumbbell Deadlift
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, and your arms relaxed by the front of your quads, with a dumbbell like these ($53, amazon.com) 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 one rep.
2. Dumbbell Single-Leg Deadlift
- Stand with your feet together, holding a weight in each hand in front of your legs. This is the starting position.
- Shift your weight to your right leg, and while keeping a slight bend in your right knee, raise your left 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 left 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 right heel to stand up straight and pull the weight back up to the starting position. Bring your left leg back down to meet your right, but try to keep the majority of weight in your right foot.
- Pause there and squeeze your butt. That’s one rep. Do all your reps on one leg, and then repeat with the other leg. (If you struggle with balance on single-leg deadlifts, these tips can help.)
3. Dumbbell Kickstand Deadlift
- Stand with your feet together, holding a weight in each hand in front of your legs. Step your right foot forward and rise onto the ball of your left foot, using it like a kickstand for balance. This is the starting position.
- While keeping a slight bend in your knees, hinge 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 should be almost parallel to the floor, with the weight a few inches off the ground.
- Keeping your core engaged, push through your planted foot to stand up straight and pull the weight back up to the starting position. You should feel the move primary in your front leg.
- Pause there and squeeze your butt. That’s one rep.
- Do all your reps with your right leg forward, and then repeat with your left foot forward.
4. 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, and rest 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 one rep.
For extra hamstring activation, bring your feet slightly farther away from your butt, Miklaus says.
5. 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.
6. 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 one rep.
- Do all of the reps on one side, then repeat on the other.
For greater hamstring activation, move the foot on the floor slightly farther away from your butt.
7. Barbell Hip Thrust
- Sit on the floor with your back to a bench. 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 slowly lift or slide the bar over you legs and rest it in the crease of your hips. The plates (if you are using them) should be resting on the floor.
- Drive through your heels to lift your hips up toward the ceiling, keeping your upper back in place on the bench.
- Pause and squeeze your glutes at the top.
To hit your hamstrings more than your butt, move your feet farther away from your body, says Miklaus.
8. Kettlebell Swing
- Make a triangle with a kettlebell ($32, amazon.com) 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 one 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.
9. Dumbbell Good Morning
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding one dumbbell horizontally at your chest. Crisscross your arms to hold it more securely. This is the starting position.
- 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 one rep.
10. Dumbbell 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 one rep.
11. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge
- Start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms resting along the sides of your legs, palms facing in. 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 one rep.
- Do all your reps on one side, then repeat with the other leg.