4 hamstring exercises you can do at home

Focus on your hamstrings

For many people, lower body strength training means a lot of squats and lunges, with maybe a few machine-oriented exercises for good measure.

It is not wrong to assume that these exercises target and strengthen all major muscle groups of the lower body. The problem is, they don’t engage all those muscles equally.

The most popular leg strengthening exercises tend to focus more on the quadriceps, the group of four strong muscles on the front and side of the thigh. They are less effective for hamstrings, the group of three muscles at the back of the thigh.

That can throw you off balance a bit when it comes to the major muscle groups in your thighs.

Unfortunately, when opposing muscle groups (like the quads and hamstrings) are out of balance, you’re more prone to injury.

The good news? A few hamstring-focused exercises can help you correct a quad-focused workout routine. You can even do them at home.

Injuries are often due to imbalances

A squat-heavy workout isn’t the only thing that can lead to an imbalance between the quads and hamstrings. Modern life prepares you for muscle imbalances. Most people spend their days at a desk, in the car, and on the couch.

Due to this constant sitting position, your hips are in flexion for most of the day. When your body gets used to holding a specific position, it adapts.

“Because of our lives, the hip flexors become very tight and the hip extensors weak,” says David Rosales, co-owner of Roman Fitness Systems and a personal trainer certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. “This causes the pelvis to tilt forward excessively as the tight hip flexors pull on it.”

The result: hamstrings that are lengthened and strained. Usually they are relatively weak compared to the quadriceps.

So when you transition from your seated, hip-flexed position to an athletic effort that requires your hamstrings to engage and extend your hips (like a sprint), your hamstrings may not be able to handle the sudden stress and movement.

This is when strains, sprains, and tears usually occur. “Most people think they need to stretch their hamstrings more, but often this makes the problem worse,” Rosales says. In fact, a 2016 study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine found that there was no association between hamstring flexibility and hamstring injuries in amateur soccer players.

So more likely stretching isn’t the solution. Reinforcement is almost certain.

“Strengthening the hamstrings through hip extension not only helps prevent hamstring injuries, but also helps move the pelvis backward, allowing you to use your powerful hip extensors more efficiently during exercise,” Rosales says.

Easy hamstring exercises to do at home

There are many exercises that can help strengthen the hamstrings. Focusing on hip extension is critical.

In a 2018 study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, researchers compared nine different hamstring exercises. The kettlebell swing, single-leg dead lift, and prone position were the most effective ways to target the hamstrings.

These exercises encourage hip extension of the working leg, and both the kettlebell swing and single-leg dead lift can be easily performed at home. (Prone leg curls are usually done at a gym.) But these aren’t the only options.

Consider adding the following exercises to your routine.

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

Single Leg Glute Bridge

As the name suggests, the glute bridge targets the glutes, also known as your butt. But it also requires hamstring engagement to push your hips up and away from the floor in powerful extension. It’s a great option if you don’t have any equipment. This single-leg version requires even more hamstrings to strengthen hip extension.

Start on your back on the floor. Bend your knees and keep your feet flat on the floor, about hip-distance apart. Lift your right foot off the ground. Your right knee and hip should be bent about 90 degrees.

Inhale from this position and tighten your core, glutes and hamstrings. As you exhale, forcefully press your hips up and extend them fully. You power the movement with your left glute and hamstring. Slowly lower your hips back to the floor.

Complete eight to 12 reps with one leg before switching sides. Complete two to three sets per leg.

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift Exercise

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

The dumbbell Romanian dead lift is another glute and hamstring-focused exercise that helps train hip extension.

Start standing with your feet about hip-distance apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your legs. Roll your shoulders back and check that you maintain good posture.

Keep in mind: movement comes from pushing your hips back. Your torso remains straight and aligned from your head to your hips throughout the movement. Your chest and shoulders should not “round” toward the floor.

Inhale, tighten your core and roll your shoulders back. Press your hips back and keep your legs almost completely straight (just a slight bend at the knees) so that your torso tilts toward the floor.

Continue to slowly and steadily push your hips back and tilt forward so that the dumbbells can “graze” the front of your legs as you lower them.

When you feel a stretch down the back of your thighs, tighten your hamstrings and glutes. Use these large muscle groups to “pull” your torso back to standing while fully extending your hips.

Perform 10 to 15 reps. Complete two to three sets.

One Leg Deadlift Exercise

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

Dead lift with one leg

The single-leg deadlift targets each hamstring and glute separately, which can help correct any side-by-side strength differences between each leg.

Stand up straight, feet hip-distance apart, knees slightly bent and torso tight. Make sure you maintain a perfect posture. You can hold a dumbbell between your hands, or one in each hand, to add resistance. You can also perform the exercise without resistance.

Step back with your left foot and extend your left hip out behind you. The ball of your left foot will rest lightly on the floor. This is the starting position.

Engage your core. The goal is to keep your torso completely straight as you perform the exercise. Inhale, tighten your right glute and hamstring and tilt your torso forward from your right hip while simultaneously lifting your left leg behind you.

Try to keep your hips level as you tilt forward — you don’t want your left hip to start rotating up toward the ceiling. The dumbbell should graze the front of your right leg as you lower it to the floor.

The final position should resemble a “T” somewhat, with your torso and your back leg level and extended straight in opposite directions, perpendicular to your right leg. If you can’t bend that far forward, that’s okay. Tilt forward only as far as you feel comfortable.

When you feel a stretch down the back of your right leg, tighten your right hamstring and glutes further and use them to “pull” your torso back to the standing position.

Perform eight to 12 reps on one leg before switching sides. Complete two to three sets per leg.

Dumbbell Kettlebell Swing Exercise

Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C

Dumbbell/kettlebell swing

This exercise can be performed with a dumbbell or a kettlebell, depending on what you have on hand. To perform the hip extension, you need to engage your core, glutes, and hamstrings.

Remember that this exercise is performed with momentum, but that doesn’t mean it’s uncontrolled. Keep a sharp focus on your abs and core to protect your back. And avoid using your shoulders and arms to move the weight; the swing should come from your hip extension.

Stand up straight, your feet about shoulder distance apart, your toes pointing slightly out. Hold a dumbbell vertically between both hands (or hold a kettlebell by the handle). It will extend straight down.

Bend your knees slightly, inhale and engage your core to keep your torso straight. Press your hips back so that the dumbbell can swing slightly between your legs.

Engage your glutes and hamstrings and forcefully press them forward, extending your hips. This will also stretch your knees.

As you push your glutes and hamstrings forward, allow the barbell to swing forward naturally.

Immediately reverse the movement, pushing your hips back and bending your knees slightly so that the dumbbell can swing back again. Continue this forward-backward swing, powered by your hips.

As you go along, you’ll notice the momentum building up and the swinging motion getting bigger.

The goal is to get the momentum to the point where the barbell naturally swings to about shoulder height, all powered by your hips.

Perform the exercise for 30 to 45 seconds. Rest and then repeat two to three times.

After your workout, you can cool down with these stretches.

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