7 Hamstring Curl Variations to Spice Up Your Next Leg Day

No leg curl machine? No problem.

It’s leg day, and you’ve decided to give the backs of your legs the love they deserve. Unfortunately for your hammies, everyone else in the gym has had the same idea. You have a training schedule to stick to, and you don’t have the time — or the patience — to wait around for the hamstring curl machine to finally open up.

Don’t worry — you can still give your hamstrings the love, attention, and growth they need. There’s more than one way to curl a hamstring, whether you’re using resistance bands, core sliders, dumbbells, or even your own bodyweight

A person performs a prone hamstring curl while wearing neon yellow shoes.
Credit: Burnt Red Hen / Shutterstock

Whichever you choose, your hamstrings can still get those isolated contractions they need to grow to their max potential. Although hamstring curls are traditionally performed on a machine, there’s no reason you can’t deploy one — or more — of these hamstring curl variations to spice up your leg training. 

Best Hamstring Curl Variations

Standing Hamstring Curl

If you’re new to isolating your hamstrings, don’t worry. You don’t have to curl absurd amounts of weight or balance on different implements to practice the move — and get a bit stronger in the process.

The standing hamstring curl lets you improve your balance and get used to the range of motion hamstring curls demand of you. Especially if you have a history of knee or foot injuries, you may be unaccustomed to bending your knee all the way through its range of motion — or even straightening it at the end. This move can help with that.

Benefits of the Standing Hamstring Curl

  • This move is a great introduction to the range of motion required by most hamstring curls.
  • You’ll be able to improve your balance due to the unilateral nature of this move.
  • The standing hamstring curl can be modified to be performed in a prone position if standing isn’t accessible to you.

How to Do the Standing Hamstring Curl

Stand tall and balanced on both feet with your feet roughly hip-width apart. If balance is challenging for you, widen your stance slightly. You can also stand in front of a wall or stable chair and use your fingertips to help with balance. Root down into your left foot. Bend your left knee and raise your left foot. Bring your left foot as close to touching your left glute as you can. Slowly lower. Complete all reps on one side before switching.

Resistance Band Hamstring Curl

The resistance band hamstring curl provides a steady amount of resistance throughout the entire range of motion. This increases the time your muscles will spend under max tension. That bodes well for your muscle-building potential.

You can perform this variation seated with the resistance band anchored in front of you. Alternatively, you can do this lying down prone on your stomach, with the resistance band anchored behind you. Either way, make sure the band is secure before continuing.

Benefits of the Resistance Band Hamstring Curl

  • The accommodating resistance provided by the band gives you a consistent resistance throughout the range of motion.
  • You’ll spend more time under increased tension relative to a more traditionally-weighted version of this lift, increasing your hypertrophy potential.
  • This lift can be performed seated, prone, or even standing to make it accessible in multiple modes.

How to Do the Resistance Band Hamstring Curl

Secure a resistance band around a low anchor behind you. With the other end of the band, secure the loop around your ankles. Lie down on your stomach facing away from the anchor. Check for stability. With control, contract your hamstrings to bring your feet up toward your glutes. Hold at peak tension for a beat. Lower with control. Repeat for reps.

Stability Ball Hamstring Curl

You’ll be lying on your back this time and using a stability ball instead of weights to challenge your balance and hamstring strength. 

The stability ball hamstring curl allows you to bring your glutes into the challenge, as well. You’ll also be using your core to keep your upper body stable while your lower body rises.

Benefits of the Stability Ball Hamstring Curl

  • By lying on your stomach and raising your hips, you’ll be recruiting your glutes more heavily than other hamstring curl variations.
  • Using a stability ball increases the instability of the movement, which challenges your balance.
  • Since you’ll be unsteady on the ball, you’ll have to recruit more muscles as stabilizers to help with the move, particularly during the eccentric phase.

How to Do the Stability Ball Hamstring Curl

Lie on your back with your feet up on a stability ball. Extend your legs up and out so your knees are straight with your feet on the ball. Press your upper back into the ground to stabilize your upper body. Squeeze your glutes to keep your lower back from hyperextending. Bend your knees and bring the ball toward your glutes with your feet. Reverse directions when you reach maximal contraction. Repeat for reps.

Dumbbell Hamstring Curl

Grabbing yourself a weight bench and a dumbbell can help up your hamstring game when the curl machine is all occupied. You’ll perform a prone hamstring curl, but with a dumbbell secured between your sneakers.

Use light dumbbells for this, but make sure they have significantly sized handles to make sure you can keep a firm grasp on them between your feet. You don’t want to drop anything on your glutes.

Benefits of the Dumbbell Hamstring Curl

  • The dumbbell hamstring curl will require you to move slowly and carefully in order to avoid any accidents — this will have you paying close attention to form.
  • Squeezing your feet together to keep the weight secure will increase muscle activation throughout your lower body.
  • Because you’ll be squeezing harder than you normally might, you won’t need to use as much weight to get a solid muscle-building stimulus.

How to Do the Dumbbell Hamstring Curl

Secure a dumbbell between your feet. Lie face down on a bench with your lower legs off the end. Move your feet around to make sure the weight is secure. Bend your knees to bring your feet toward your glutes. Make sure you’re squeezing your feet together the whole time. Reverse the movement. Repeat for reps.

Core Slider Hamstring Curl

Core sliders aren’t just for your core. You can use them for a wide variety of moves, including push-up variations and dynamic planks. In this case, they also come in handy for bodyweight hamstring curls.

You’ll once again be developing a strong sense of balance and improving your proprioception. This move will require you to also heavily recruit your glutes to keep you stable.

Benefits of the Core Slider Hamstring Curl

  • You’ll need to recruit your glutes to keep your lower body, back, and core stable throughout this variation.
  • The core sliders encourage you to actively press your feet into the ground, which increases muscle activation across your entire lower body.
  • This variation will help improve your balance and understanding of the way your body moves in space.

How to Do the Core Slider Hamstring Curl

Lie on your back with your feet on the ground and your legs extended. Secure a pair of core sliders underneath your feet — specifically, under your heels. Press your heels down into the ground, bend your knees, and squeeze your glutes. Slide your heels toward your glutes with control. Reverse slowly. Repeat for reps.

Isometric Hamstring Curl

The isometric hamstring curl might not look like you’re doing much, but in reality, you’ll be firing up your hamstrings very intensely.

Make sure you’re adequately warmed up for this one, especially if you’re unused to training your hamstrings exclusively. You’ll find that you can apply a lot of force, and not being adequately warmed up might lead to cramping.

Benefits of the Isometric Hamstring Curl

  • By not moving, you may be able to apply even more force than you would be able to using a wide variety of unweighted hamstring curl options.
  • The more forcefully you’re able to contract your hamstrings, the stronger you might be able to make them.
  • You’ll practice honing your mind-muscle connection with this move, as it’s entirely about you and your muscle contraction rather than any movement.

How to Do the Isometric Hamstring Curl

Lie on your back in front of a weight bench. Bend your knees to about 90 degrees and place your ankles on the bench with your toes facing the ceiling. Without actually moving, contract your hamstrings — hard. Your glutes might raise a little bit, but your idea is to bear down on your heels and calves — contracting your hamstrings — to create as much tension as possible without actually moving. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds. Relax, rest, and repeat.

Nordic Hamstring Curl

The Nordic hamstring curl is perhaps the most difficult variation out there, because you’ll be deploying all of your bodyweight into essentially a free fall. The only thing between you and face planting will be your hamstring strength — and your hands held at the ready.

Only perform this move when you’re sure that you have a stable base and when you’re very accustomed to heavy, isolated hamstring work.

Benefits of the Nordic Hamstring Curl

How to Do the Nordic Hamstring Curl

Kneel down facing away from your anchor point. Secure your ankles underneath and around a low bar secured in a Smith machine. Make sure the bar is covered with a sturdy and stable bar pad. With your hands ready to catch you by your chest, lower your torso as slowly as you can toward the ground. Use your hamstrings to slow your descent as much as possible. When you reach the ground, explosively push yourself back into the starting position with your hands. Repeat for reps.

Hamstring Training Tips

Training your hamstrings isn’t rocket science, but it’s not easy, either. Keep in mind these top tips for building strong hammies.

Focus on the Eccentric

Your muscles tend to be stronger eccentrically than concentrically. The more time and effort you spend in the lengthening (eccentric) portion of your lifts, the more muscle you stand to build.

By focusing on the eccentric movements with your hamstrings, you’ll be able to effectively develop some pretty powerful thighs. Moves like the Nordic hamstring curl and the stability ball hamstring curl are especially good at focusing on the eccentric.

Warm-Up Thoroughly

The last thing you want to do when training your hamstrings is go in cold. It’s all too common for a lifter to dive into hamstring-focused work and pull a muscle. Many people’s hamstrings are both neglected in training and very tight, leading to a bad combination when it comes to potential injuries.

Warming up your hamstrings thoroughly with standing hamstring curls, glute bridges, and single-leg bodyweight Romanian deadlifts with a partial range of motion are great ways to do this. 

Build Up Weight Gradually

Don’t be tempted to go full force right away. Even if you know you have the capacity to go heavy, don’t neglect your ramp up sets. Start light and add weight in increments instead of jumping right into — or right near — your working weight.

It may feel a bit tedious, but it’ll be worth it. You’ll ultimately be able to lift more — and more safely — when your hamstrings are primed and ready for action.

How to Program Hamstring Curl Variations

You’ll program hamstring curls and their variations the same way you’ll program pretty much any accessory movement. But first, you need to figure out where they belong in your program.

When to Train Your Hamstrings 

Many lifters choose to perform hamstring curls on leg day, after they do their squats. Others opt for hamstring-focused exercises on deadlift days, since the hamstrings are heavily recruited in deadlifts and deadlift variations

Choose what works best for your body. If you know your hamstrings are completely shot after deadlifts, you might want to spare them from too much extra volume that day. Then again, some standing hamstring curls after deadlifts might be a good way to kick off your recovery

On the other hand, if you tend to neglect your hamstrings, you might want to train them more often. In that case, integrating them into leg day might be more helpful.

Hamstring Curl Sets and Reps

With hamstring curls and their variations, you may want to go for higher reps with slightly lower or moderate weights. Try three sets of 12 to 15 reps. This higher volume will help give your hamstrings a pump without going so heavy that it will eat into your bigger compound work. 

You’ll also be adding extra volume that your hamstrings might not get otherwise. Feel free to perform more reps — between 15 and even as many as 25 — for standing hamstring curls and other low-intensity bodyweight variations.

Vary Your Curls

Hamstring curl variations might not be the first thing you think of when it’s leg day, but they’re a pretty important part of every lower body program. Whether you’re looking for a more powerful deadlift or trying to build muscle in the backs of your legs, hamstring curl variations can get you closer to where you want to be. Choose your fighter — or a couple — and get curling.

Featured Image: Burnt Red Hen / Shutterstock