Even the best athletes can succumb to hamstring strains. Well, strains — defined by a muscle being stretched too far — can happen in any muscle. The hamstrings, however, are heavily involved in almost all athletic movements. They help athletes sprint, drive, juke, spin, and jump. And when one is pushing the limits of their performance, injuries can happen.
A proven way to prevent hamstring strains (and strains in general) is to strengthen the susceptible muscle. Strength training is not a magic bullet and the only form of prevention/treatment, but it can help. A 2016 study in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine asserted that resistance training could help to increase lean bone mass, tensile strength, and lean muscle mass, “that could aid in the prevention and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal injuries.” (1) Below, we’ll outline three unique hamstring exercises that you can use to help strengthen the muscle to help prevent strains possibly. Also, we’ll dive deeper into the function of the hamstrings.
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3 Exercises to Strengthen Your Hamstrings
Your hamstring’s job is to flex your knee to bring your heel towards your butt, so strains generally happen during knee flexion (not extension). As such. it’s been shown that eccentric knee flexor exercises reduce the risk of hamstring strains because of improvements in eccentric knee flexor strength and the length of the biceps femoris. (2)
Here are three exercises that will directly and effectively target your hamstrings to build strength and resilience. As a bonus, these moves should help improve your deadlift and squat strength, too.
Nordic Hamstring Curl
Start by kneeling on both knees and secure your ankles under a loaded barbell, a pair of dumbbells, a workout bench, or have a partner hold your legs. Keep your chest up, and then slowly lower yourself towards the floor while keeping your back in a neutral position. Actively flex your back muscles to help maintain a rigid spine. Keep lowering yourself forward under control, and then catch yourself with your hands once you can no longer support your own bodyweight. Use your hands to push yourself back up and then repeat.
This is an eccentric-only exercise, meaning your muscle is only being worked during the lowering phase. It is a challenging move to do. That said, it’s also very scalable. If you can only lower yourself a few inches before your hamstrings give out, then that’s fine. Gradually build up to a longer lowering phase. It’s also effective. The Nordic hamstring curl has been shown to decrease the risk of hamstring injuries by 51 % compared with those who didn’t do it. (3)
Though it’s a bodyweight exercise, the Nordic curl is taxing. Perform this as an accessory exercise after your squats and deadlifts. Start with two to three sets of six to 10 reps, resting for one to two minutes between sets.
Eccentric Hip Extension Hamstring Curl With Sliders
Lie down on your back with your legs bent at 90 degrees and your heels underneath your knees. The heels should be on a pair of workout sliders. Squeeze your glutes to raise your hips and lower your heels away from your body until your legs are fully extended. Then, lower your hips back down to the ground and flex your hamstrings to bring your heels back underneath your knees.
The bodyweight hamstring curl trains your hamstrings as a knee flexor and a hip extender, strengthening your hamstrings two ways. This exercise is easier than the Nordic curl and is a good exercise to start with when you’re looking to improve your eccentric hamstring strength — which, again, is the type of strength you want to focus on to help prevent hamstring strains.
Because these aren’t as taxing as Nordic curls or weighted hamstring exercises, you can perform them as a superset with other lower body exercises. Or, pair them with an upper-body move like dumbbell presses as a superset. Do three sets of 10 to 12 reps.
Romanian Deadlifts with Band Resistance
This Romanian deadlift variation has you loop a resistance band around the center of a barbell. Throughout the movement, the band adds resistance and another layer of instability as you fight against the added tension. When you’re setting up this exercise, loop the band around the bar first and then load it with plates. Take a few steps back until the band is thoroughly taught. Then, perform Romanian deadlifts.
Adding extra resistance will improve your hinge technique and hamstring strength. The band forces you to engage your upper back, lats, and to sit back into your hip hinge, forcing your hamstrings to do more work as a hip extensor. While the other two exercises eccentrically strengthen your hamstring from the floor, this one does so from an upright position where hamstrings strain is more likely to occur.
This makes for a fantastic accessory exercise on deadlift or squat days. Do two to four sets of six to 12 reps. Rest for one minute between sets. Reduce the weight you normally do Romanian deadlifts with by about 10 percent to account for the added band tension.
Hamstring Anatomy And Functions
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles on the posterior thigh. They are made up of the biceps femoris (long and short head), semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. They originate on the posterior lower pelvis, and they insert medially and laterally below the knee on the fibula and tibia. (Except for the biceps femoris short head, which originates from the lower femur.)
The main functions of the hamstrings are
- Hip Extension: squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts
- Hip Hyperextension: glute kickbacks
- Knee Flexion: squats and hamstring curl variations
The Hamstrings Role During Squats And Deadlifts
Peak hip extension is needed when you’re in a deep squat. It’s defined as a place where the hamstrings can’t help much because the knees and hips extend at a similar rate and the hamstrings aren’t in a good position to extend your hips. (4)(5) The main role of the hamstrings in the squat is concentric and eccentric knee flexion.
When you’re pulling from the floor, the quads are needed for the first part of the pull. After that, your hamstrings work mainly to extend the hips. The hamstrings act as your ‘brakes’ during the eccentric portion of your deadlifts, making eccentric hamstring strength important for good form and leg strength.
More Hamstring Training Tips
Strong hamstrings will benefit your squats, deadlifts, and performance on the sporting field. Adding one of the above three exercises into your routine will only help your performance and possibly prevent a hamstring strain. Here are a few more hamstring-focused articles you can read.
- Shaw, Ina & Shaw, Brandon & Brown, Gregory & Shariat, Ardalan. (2016). Review of the Role of Resistance Training and Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine. 1. 1-5. 10.29011/2575-8241.000102.
- Hales, M. E., Johnson, B. F., & Johnson, J. T. Kinematic analysis of the powerlifting style squat and the conventional deadlift during competition: is there a cross-over effect between lifts? The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 2009 23(9), 2574-2580.
- Matthew N Bourne et al. An Evidence-Based Framework for Strengthening Exercises to Prevent Hamstring Injury. Sports Med. 2018 Feb;48(2):251-267. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0796-x.Wesam Saleh A Al Attar et al.
Escamilla RF, Fleisig GS, Lowry TM, Barrentine SW, Andrews JR. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of the squat during varying stance widths. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Jun;33(6):984-98. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200106000-00019. PMID: 11404665.
Hales ME, Johnson BF, Johnson JT. Kinematic analysis of the powerlifting style squat and the conventional deadlift during competition: is there a cross-over effect between lifts? J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Dec;23(9):2574-80. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181bc1d2a. PMID: 19910816.
Featured image from Dr. Joel Seedman’s YouTube channel