How to Build Curvy and Strong Hamstrings
The hamstrings are one of the most important muscle groups of the lower body, both aesthetically and functionally. Aesthetically speaking, a well-developed set of hamstrings gives the line of the leg a curvy, athletic look characteristic of dancers, illuminating your commitment to a healthy and fit lifestyle. Functionally, strong and flexible hamstrings improve any movement involving the lower body and support good knee and hip dynamics, protecting these joints as well as, by extension, the low back.
Happily, you don’t need to spend a ton of time isolating the hamstrings themselves to define, build and tone this important muscle group. Instead, you should prioritize the major lower body lifts such as deadlifts, squats, and lunges while adding just a couple specially-selected hamstrings exercises to really accentuate these muscles.
Many of the exercises in my best hamstrings workout are also killer for the glutes, quadriceps, calves, and core. Pay attention to detail and proper execution, put in the work, and I guarantee my workout will get great results for you. In this article, I’ll go over an effective and efficient lower body workout that puts the prime emphasis on the hamstrings. Since you’ll be working the rest of the lower body as well, you’ll be getting a lot done and wasting very little time.
When you work your hamstrings, you need to be cognizant of some major pitfalls that I see all too commonly. The first one is NOT ensuring proper hamstring flexibility, which can wreak havoc all up and down the kinetic chain. Stick with me and I will help you get awesome results while avoiding these detrimental oversights.
I’ll start with going over basic hamstring anatomy, move to tips and guidelines that will help you get the most out of your hamstring training specifically and lower body training in general, as well as (of course) the best hamstrings workout itself and all the details you will need to maximize each exercise as well as perform each move safely.
Basic Hamstring Anatomy
Your hamstrings comprise the bulk of your rear thighs. Fun fact…the muscle group is named “hamstrings” because the tendons of these muscles on a pig are used by butchers to suspend a slaughtered pig. You might be surprised to learn that the each set of hamstrings is actually made up of three distinct muscles: semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris, the last of which has two distinct parts in and of itself. As a complex muscle group, you need to ensure a balanced hamstrings workout by doing the right exercises.
The hamstrings muscle group crosses two joints, both the hip and the knee. For this reason, the hamstrings have two main actions: extending the hip as well as flexing the knee. Hip extension is straightening the hip from a bent position, just like you do in a squat, leg press, or deadlift. Knee flexion is pulling the meaty back of the calf toward the meaty back of the hamstring, just like you’d do if you were to try to kick your own self in the butt.
Tips and Guidelines for the Best Hamstrings Workout for Women
Familiarize yourself with all of my tips and guidelines listed below to make sure you are approaching your strength training in a smart way, avoiding common mistakes, and preventing injuries.
- For maximum progress, work your legs/hamstrings 2 to 3 times per week
- Just like any other muscle group, give yourself 48 hours rest in between legs workouts. For example, a MWF schedule is great but a MTW schedule does not allow enough rest time
- When going through this workout, perform each exercise at least twice and up to four times depending on your energy and fitness level
- If you’re a newbie or are returning to regular exercise after having some time off, your first order of business MUST be to train your muscles and connective tissues for endurance
- To accomplish the endurance phase of training , focus on higher reps at a lower weight for the first month to two months of training
- High reps/low weight = about 15 reps per exercise at a weight that will produce a good burn throughout and a feeling of fatigue toward the last few reps
- Once the endurance training has been going well for a month to two months, cycle into the next phase by dropping your rep range to 8-10 reps and upping your weight volume; this is referred to as strength level
- If you’re going it alone without the assistance of a trainer, an easy scheme to keep the gains coming is to cycle yourself between endurance level and strength level every month to two months
- Always err on the light side when choosing a weight if you are unsure of an appropriately challenging starting point
The Best Hamstrings Workout for Women: Overview
Here is a complete overview of the exercise and set structure of the best hamstrings workout for women. You can copy/paste from this portion to make an easy reference guide for the gym. Make sure to follow the workout in the order written, starting with a warmup, moving to the major lifts, then the isolations, then the cooldown. Check out the tips & guidelines section for information on rep range recommendations, as they will vary based on your phase of training (endurance = 15 reps in each set, strength = 8-10 reps per set at relatively heavier weight).
- General Cardio for 5 minutes
- Active Warmup: 15 bodyweight squats, 10 lateral lunges each direction, 15 bodyweight calf raises
- Deadlifts – 2 to 4 sets
- Squats – 2 to 4 sets
- Lunges – 2 to 4 sets
- Stiff Leg Deadlift – 2 sets
- Hamstring Curl Machine – 2 sets
- BURNOUT: Hamstring Pull Ins on the Stability Ball – 2 sets of 15 + 15 sec hold
- Foam Roll Hamstrings, Stretch Hamstrings, Hips, Low Back, and Quads – 30 seconds each
Details on the Safe & Effective Execution of each Best Hamstrings Exercise
So now you have seen the overview of the best hamstrings workout for women…let’s make sure you understand each and every detail on the proper form for each exercise.
WARMUP: General Cardio for 5 minutes
No matter what type of workout you’re about to embark upon, it’s always best practice to put yourself through a five minute general cardio warmup before starting. The purpose of this type of warmup is to pump blood to all of your muscles and connective tissues, thus priming these structures for the more difficult work to come next. Following the general cardio warmup, do the following active warmup, which contains moves that are more specific to the types of movements you will be doing in the workout proper.
ACTIVE WARMUP: 15 bodyweight squats, 10 lateral lunges each direction, 15 deadlift toe touches
Start with 15 slow squats using only your bodyweight as resistance. This gets your hip and knee joints warmed up. Next, perform 10 lateral lunges to each side. To do a lateral lunge, start with a wide stance and lean your center of gravity over one side, sinking into a squat over just one leg at a time. Keep your knee directly over your ankle, neither letting it come forward excessively nor point off to the side. You’ll feel a good stretch in the opposite inner thigh as well as a contraction for the hips, hams, and quads on the working side. Finally, do 15 deadlift toe touches: starting from a tall stance, sit back into your hips and keep your back flat as you allow your knees to bend slightly while you touch your toes, then use your hamstrings, hips, and low back muscles to pull yourself back up to the tall starting stance.
If you know you have tight hamstrings or hips, you will benefit by doing some foam rolling and stretching of those problem areas before you begin the workout. Foam roll hamstrings and hips and stretch these areas for 30 seconds each. If you have normal range of motion and no real tightness or corrective posture issues to work on, you can save yourself time and skip the foam rolling and static stretching until the end of the workout.
As you read in the tips & guidelines section, how many reps per set is dictated by the phase of training you are in at the time. If you are just starting out, work at the 15 rep range with a weight volume that will fatigue your muscles by the last couple reps of your set; if you are going into strength phase, work at 8-10 reps with a heavier weight that will wear you out by the end of that shorter set.
1) Deadlifts – 2 to 4 sets
Deadlifts should be the cornerstone of any lower body training program. They’re great for the hamstrings, as well as the glutes, calves, low back, and grip.
How to do a Deadlift:
Use a barbell, kettlebell, or two dumbbells for resistance. Start by setting up your resistance on the floor in front of you. Get yourself as close in to the resistance as you can; if it’s a barbell, the bar should cross over top of your shoelaces. If it’s a kettlebell, it should sit right between your feet. Keep your back flat as you sit into your hips and bend your knees, grasping your resistance. Ensure that your knees are DIRECTLY above your ankles. If you let your knees come forward, you will rob power from your hips and never be able to deadlift as effectively or move as much weight. Tighten your core as you grasp the weight. Straighten your hips and knees at the same time as you come all the way up to standing , pushing your hips forward and pulling your core in to “lock out” your hips completely to finish the rep.
2) Squats – 2 to 4 sets
Squats are another fundamental movement that targets hamstrings strongly as well as emphasizing quads, glutes, and core. While a deadlift is a pulling movement, a squat is a pushing movement, targeting the muscles and movement pattern in a different way. Neither deadlifts nor squats are superior; both moves are part of a balanced and effective lower body training program.
How to do a Squat:
Before you add resistance to your squat, make sure you have great form and full range of motion for the bodyweight version. Start standing tall with feet hip width apart or ever so slightly wider. Keep your chest tall and your core firm as you reach back behind yourself with your hamstrings, sitting into your hips as if you’re aiming your butt for a low chair back behind you. Once you reach the bottom range, push the floor away as you straighten your hips and knees, tightening your core and glutes as tight as you can to rise up to tall, straight posture. A full range squat requires that at the bottom of the movement, the crease of your hips drops slightly below the level of the tops of your knees. If your flexibility, strength, and balance does not allow for full range quite yet, don’t force it. Focus on practicing with body weight as well as stretching the hamstrings, hips, and calves and you will be able to go full range with time. Once you have full range and can stabilize your core and keep your chest upward even at the bottom, add resistance by adding a barbell in front or behind your shoulders, a kettlebell held at your chest, or dumbbells held on your shoulders or at your sides.
3) Lunges – 2 to 4 sets
Lunges are excellent for the quads, hips, and hams, and should be included in every lower body training program. Deadlifts and squats target both the right and the left side of the body equally, sometimes letting one or the other overcompensate for weakness on the other side. Lunges cut through any illusions you may have as to being totally symmetrical and allow you to work the strong side and the weak side equally to bring better balance to your muscle development and coordination.
How to do a Lunge:
Take a long yet narrow split stance with both sets of toes pointing straight ahead. If your balance is a little off at first, do your lunges next to a stable object you can hold on to until you get used to the movement. Keeping your core pulled in, sink straight down toward the floor, bending both knees evenly. At the bottom of your lunge, your back knee should hover above the floor but not touch, and you should be able to visualize a straight line running from the crown of your head all the way down to that bottom knee. Even at the bottom, torso and hips should be straight and not bent forward or backward. If you’re unsure of the quality of your alignment, checking in a mirror from the side is helpful. As you stand up out of the lunge, press your weight into the front foot, focusing on weighting the heel more than the forefoot. Make sure your knee does not cave in toward the midline of your body. Consciously contract the glutes and hip muscles to make the movement happen; otherwise the quads will try to take over, making the movement less productive and less stable. Once you have the form perfected with bodyweight, add resistance in the same way described for squats.
4) Stiff Leg Deadlift – 2 sets
The stiff leg deadlift or SDL is a deadlift variation that places special emphasis on the hamstrings. You will need to choose a significantly lighter weight for the SDL compared to the standard deadlift at the beginning of the workout. The SDL relies heavily on the hams, a muscle group with relatively less power when compared to the glutes, which drive the regular deadlift.
How to do a Stiff-Leg Deadlift:
Choose lighter weight than you would for a regular deadlift. A barbell, kettlebell, or two dumbbells are all good choices for resistance. As you dip down into the SDL, bend your knees WAY less than would for a regular deadlift. This exercise is sometimes erroneously called “straight leg deadlift”, which is inaccurate because your legs should have a slight bend at the knee throughout. Other than that, all the form guidelines in the regular deadlift section also apply to this lift. Flat back, nearly horizon-level gaze, upper body approaching parallel to the floor at the bottom, knees directly above the ankles and NEVER coming forward at any point in the movement.
5) Hamstring Curl Machine – 2 sets
The hamstring curl machine should be used at the very end of your workout after you have finished all the more demanding lifts. It’s a great way to target the hamstrings themselves and give them some extra work to encourage faster development.
How to use the Hamstring Curl Machine:
Depending on what brand and line of equipment your gym carries, the hamstring curl machine can require you either to lie in the machine prone on your belly or to sit up in a seated position. Read the directions on the particular machine you will be using. Before you start, tense up your core, pulling your abdominal muscles in toward your spine. When using a machine, it’s easy to forget this important maneuver that protects your low back and makes the movement more effective. Consciously contract your hamstrings while you pull your heels in toward your butt, squeezing them tight at the top position and allowing them to stretch in the bottom position before moving to the next rep.
6) BURNOUT: Hamstring Pull Ins on the Stability Ball – 2 sets of 15 + 15 sec hold
To really polish off your hamstring workout and ensure that your hams are fully fatigued, finish up with two sets of hamstring pull ins on the stability ball. This exercise will really burn you out right, ensuring tight and toned hams; it also gives your core a last blast for the day.
How to do Hamstring Pull Ins:
Get a tall stability ball. Lay supine on your back and place your heels on the ball with legs fully extended. Push into your heels to rise up to a straight line from your ankles down to your shoulders. Pull in your core and feel the stability in this position, then pull your heels in toward your butt, keeping your core pulled in and actively contracting your hamstrings. When you reach the end range, hold for a beat, then push your feet back out to the starting position. Complete 15 reps, then hold the starting straight-leg position for 15 burning seconds before you gently let your hips rest back down to the floor.
Foam Roll Hamstrings, Stretch Hamstrings, Hips, Low Back, and Quads – 30 seconds each
When you use the foam roller, you’re taking advantage of the same principles behind a deep tissue massage…for free! Simply place the foam roller under whichever body part you would like to target, then drop your bodyweight down onto the roller and gently roll back and forth, hunting for any spots that feel particularly tight or tender. Most folks will find a couple of these spots throughout their hamstrings. Linger on the tight spots for about 30 seconds. Utilize this technique on your glutes, quads, and calves as well.
After you have finished rolling out the tight spots, perform a static stretch for each area. For example, a nice relaxing stretch for the hams is to sit with one leg extended straight and one knee bent with the sole of your foot touching the thigh of the straight leg. Orient your hips and upper body so that the midline of your upper body is aligned with a straight line running down the long bones of that straight leg. Keeping your chest tall, push your bellybutton down toward the thighbone and hold, feeling a good stretch all along the back of the straight leg and into your hip and low back as well. Hold for at least 30 seconds to let the hamstrings release. Be sure to do each stretch on both sides of your body, even if you feel that one side is tighter.
Best Hamstrings Workout for Women: The Bottom Line
Thanks for checking out my best hamstrings workout for women article. These are the exercises and tips I have followed to go from flabby, nonexistent hams to the strong set of hamstrings I myself am proud of to this day. Did I miss any of your all-time favorite hamstring exercises or lower body building tips? Let me know in the comments below!