Hamstring Exercises (Beyond Deadlifts & Hip Thrusts)

by | May 31, 2023 | Blog

I love a good deadlift or hip thrust variation. They can be phenomenal for training your hamstrings.

AND they are not the only ways to strengthen your hamstrings.

Over the years, I have found most of my clients benefit from including additional hamstring work that includes strengthening their hamstrings with a bent knee as well.

Let’s talk about why that is first, and then we’ll get into the progressions that I like to use, followed by a few additional accessory exercises for those who need a little more work “finding” their hamstrings.

First things first: What are your hamstrings?

The group of tissues that are located from the bottom of the back of your pelvis, down to the back of your knees, as highlighted below.

There are technically 3 of them: semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris.

Fun fact about your hamstrings: not only do they attach to the bottom of your pelvis (your ischial tuberosities to be exact) which means it helps control pelvis movements, but they also attach to part of your knee joint capsule and one of your knee ligaments (the LCL)!

When you strengthen your hamstrings, especially when you stress the parts behind your knee, you’re also stressing & strengthening parts of your knee joint. Yet another reason we love direct hamstring work.

What do the hamstrings do?

When the muscle fibers contract concentrically (AKA shorten) they can:

  • Flex (bend) your knee
  • Rotate your knee
  • Extend your hip
  • Tilt your pelvis posteriorly

They also work to prevent motion and control the opposite motions listed above at your hip and knee as well. This is what we usually mean when we say “stabilize”.

You can see now why it can be beneficial to directly target our hamstrings – better pelvis control, stronger knees, and stronger hips. Wins all around!

Most hamstring exercises like deadlifts and hip thrusts target your hamstrings through hip extension + pelvis movement. But many people struggle with the strength & control needed to do these exercises using only hip and pelvis movements. So they borrow from their low backs. Because our bodies are smart & efficient and they will get the job done expending the least amount of energy possible.

And THIS is why we like to add additional hamstring work like the exercises listed below.

Where to start?

My favorite trajectory of exercises for clients who need some targeted hamstring work (especially those with low back or SIJ pain during deadlifts or running, those who need some help learning how to use their hamstrings to tilt their pelvises or those who have nagging knee issues) is as follows:

Start with long lever glute bridges with a posterior pelvic tilt.

Progress to physio ball or slider hamstring curls.

Progress to harop curls.

Progress to nordic hamstriong curls (assisted, eccentric phase only first).

Keep in mind, this progression can take months or even years. Be patient, but don’t be afraid to progress even if you haven’t “perfected” the exercises.

(Strength training is equal parts patience & progressive overload).

Additional Accessory Work

Some people struggle with these exercises, which can look like significant hamstring cramping, feeling low back strain, or struggling to control their pelvises during the exercises listed.

For those people, additional accessory work may be necessary to help them connect to their hamstrings, hips, and knees better, or to help them perform these movements without pain.

Here are a few beginner accessory or mobility exercises I like to use in conjunction or sometimes as a pre-requisite to the exercises listed above:

  • 90-90 hinge point training for the lumbar spine in supine
  • Knee flexion lift-offs
  • Spine segmentation (beginning in quadruped, progressing to standing in a hip hinge position to feel the hamstrings posteriorly tilting the pelvis as you move into spine flexion in a more upright position resisting gravity).

Need help with your own programming?

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A photo of Dr. Jen Hosler standing with a barbell instructing the deadlift.

Hi, I'm Dr. Jen Hosler.

I’m a bookworm, science nerd, and coach of all things movement (physical therapist and strength & mobility coach). You can catch me sleeping in & having a slow morning, doing CARs & lifting heavy things, or sipping a glass of wine on my time off.

Through a blend of strength & mobility training, I’ll help you master your movement & build a more resilient body that won’t hold you back from all the activities you love doing.

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