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Why Hamstring Training is the Key to Lower Body Development

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hamstring1s1111Being that you and I are serious lifters, I can all but guarantee one thing: your hamstring development is lacking. 

I get that it can seem tough to inject exercise variety into your workouts when it comes to your hamstrings; stimulating your hammies isn’t easy for anyone. I also get that training your hamstrings is near the bottom of the list of muscles that you enjoy training. 

I know this because 9.86 lifters out of 10 have hamstrings that are either: 

  1. Non-existent.
  2. Overwhelmed by their quads.
  3. Draped into invisibility by lengthy shorts (aka non-existent).

Creating a balanced and impressive physique means that you can’t neglect any one muscle.

Unless you want to flaunt an impressive torso while displaying it upon a pair of bent chopsticks, you need to train your hamstrings. 

Hamstrings, along with calves and forearms in some cases, are muscles many lifters hate to train, and yet, they’re often what they need to train in order to bring balance to their stature as they continue to fill out their physique. 

Let’s give your ‘strings the respect they desire and build a set of hammies that really HANG.

The Hamstring Training Mistakes We All Make

1. Saving them for last.

The Prioritization Principle dictates that whatever needs the most work, you train first, and saving your hamstring work for the end of your session slaps that principle square in the face. Don’t handcuff your hamstring mission by training them at the end of your session. In attacking them after you smash your quads, you achieve the following:

A. Indirect hamstring fatigue.

B. Loss of energy and focus.

C. Loss of optimal hamstring connection and contraction.

By the time you get to your glute-ham raises and lying leg curls, you’re spent. You don’t even have the energy left to pick your shaker bottle up off the floor, let alone get some productive hamstring work in.

Train what needs the most work first.

You’ll generate the greatest training effect by hitting your hamstrings first thing, which has the added benefits of:

A. Pumping your hamstrings and glutes full of blood.

B. Creating more stability and “pop” for your later lifts.

C. Warming up your joints for the session to come.

2. Favouring a partial range of motion.

Next time you’re at the gym, I want you to take a quick look around. Look at anyone who might happen to be training legs (hamstrings in particular).

I’ll bet my remaining macros that the first dude you see on the leg curl isn’t moving into the stretch position. He likely only curls the weight up 1/2-2/3s of the way, as well. Don’t be this guy.

You won’t be able to build an impressive set of hamstrings by using a partial range of motion. 

I’m not against using partial reps and a shortened range of motion by any means, though I do ensure that there are also plenty of sets that use the full range of motion. This is something that’s often neglected – and leaves precious, coveted gains on the table.

3. Opting for the “easy” exercises.

Let’s face it Glute Ham Raises and (proper) stiff legged deadlifts are fucking hard.

Now, raise your hand if your hamstring work consists of two different leg curl variations.

You should be raising your hand. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love leg curls. Yet, there are many other awesome hamstring exercises that provide a great training stimulus. And also inject variety and flavour into your session.

  • Glute Ham Raises
  • Russian Leg Curls
  • Good Mornings
  • Sumo Deadlifts
  • Stiff Legged Deadlifts
  • Swiss Ball Leg Curls

Use the above list and all their associated variations. There is no reason that your hamstring work should only consist of lying and standing leg curls.

In executing these movements, you’re able to train your hamstrings in both its functions: hip extension and knee flexion.

4. Prioritizing excessive loading over quality tension.

This is a point that will apply across every body part. Quality tension is paramount to the load you use. Your body doesn’t have the slightest clue how much weight is on the bar, and it never will.

All it knows is what it feels, which is the only way that it can gain strength with more efficiency and skill. 

If you’re jerking the weight around or if you’re doing whatever it takes to move 147% of your 1RM, I can guarantee that your muscles aren’t feeling shit. And thus, it will not achieve any tangible hypertrophy.

Take a step back, swallow your ego, and hit each rep with pure focus and tension.

How the Hamstrings Grow and Develop

Over the years, I’ve experimented plenty with hamstring work in myself and my clients. I’ve since distilled hamstring work down to 4 training practices, all of which have proven to be effective at thickening and strengthening the hamstrings.

Integrate these principles into your sessions over the next 6 weeks. I can guarantee you’ll see some noticeable gains in both size and strength.

1. To achieve hamstring growth, train them with priority.

Like I said above, begin your leg days with hamstring work. Your entire session will feel much, much better, and on top of that, you’ll actually create a tangible stimulus in your ‘strings.

2. Hamstrings grow best when you use low to moderate rep ranges.

The muscles that make up your hamstrings respond best to low to moderate rep ranges (think 4-8). I suggest doing most of your work in this range while jumping into 12-20 rep work on occasion.

3. Hamstrings respond well to plenty of time under tension.

If there’s a muscle that can handle almost everything you can throw at it, it’s your hamstrings. Throw the book of intensification techniques at them and watch what happens. Your ‘strings will respond quite well to high-intensity work coupled with adequate training volume. For this step, try anything from this list:

– Slow controlled eccentrics. 

– Rest-pause sets.

– Drop sets.

– Isometric holds.

– Forced reps.

– Applied manual resistance.

4. Hamstrings don’t need a ton of weekly volume.

That said, they do need quality volume.

So long as you keep your training intensity high, you won’t need to throw a ton of volume at them. Aim for 12-14 hard working sets per session, and 20-26 per week if things are getting serious down there.

Hamstring Training Adjustments for Greater Gains

This may come as a shock to some, but you need to actually be training your hamstrings, and not just your quads.

Indirect stimulation is great for a maintenance phase, yet it’s a far cry from coming close to the gains you’ll get from a direct training approach.

The following adjustments are great if you’re looking to add serious size to the back of your legs.

1. Tackle them both first AND last in your session.

This has the advantage of being able to stimulate them while you’re fresh. Then come full circle at the end of your session and squeeze every last drop of blood into those ‘strings.

2. Despite what I said earlier about rep ranges, consider the context.

There is great training value in roaming into high rep ranges from time to time. Doing so allows you to stimulate the entire spectrum of muscle fibres. More muscle fibre stimulation = more gains.

3. Jack up your training frequency.

Take your hamstring training frequency from once every two weeks, to twice per week.

4. Insert intensification.

Use some of the intensification techniques from above to level up the effect of your session. Create greater oxygen debt. Shove more blood into your hamstrings and thrash your muscle fibres.

Hammering Your Hamstrings: A Sample Session

A1. Lying Leg Curls

These serve to pre-pump your hamstrings. Focus on hard contractions and jamming blood into your hammies.

Reps per set: 15, 12, 10, 10, 10, 6 (6 sets).
Tempo: 2121.
Rest: 60 seconds.

B1. Glute Ham Raises or Russian Leg Curls

Focus on maintaining hip extension. Control the eccentric slowly. Then contract hard all the way through the concentric and squeeze your glutes at the top.

4 Sets, 6-8 reps per set. 
Tempo: 30X0.
Rest: 90 seconds.

C1. Leg Press

For max hamstring stimulation I recommend a high, outside of shoulder foot placement here. Focus on 3 seconds descents, a quick pause, then explode into a strong contraction.

Working in sets of 15, add weight to each set until you hit a tough 15.
At that point cut your load in half and perform 2 sets of 30 reps.
Tempo:
30X0.
Rest: 90-second.

D1. Seated Leg Curls

The icing on the cake. Pyramid up in weight each set, with your final set hitting muscular failure.

6 sets of 6 reps. 
Tempo: 3012.
Rest: 75 seconds. 

E1. Good Morning Variation or Romanian Deadlifts

Execute these nice and light. Focus on stretching out your hamstrings. If you’re lower back comes into play too much, stop there.

3 sets of 12 reps. 
Tempo: 4211. 
Rest: 60 seconds. 

The Final Reps

As you move through the session above, my challenge to you is three-fold:

1. Ignore your load the first few times you go through this. Focus on maintaining hip extension where relevant and creating intense contractions.

Doing so will move you closer to a developing an incredible mind-muscle connection with your hamstrings. As that develops, the speed at which your hammies grow stronger and larger will multiply, leaving you with hamstrings that are the envy of other lifters.

2. Focus on the execution of each rep, not the set as a whole. Put another way, treat every single rep as its own set. This will help you to maximize and squeeze every ounce of stimulation from each rep.

3. Regardless of using the sample session or not, take the tips from earlier in the article and put them into practice for 4-6 weeks.

I can’t promise that they’ll change your life, but I can promise that you’ll come out the other end with larger, stronger hamstrings that aid in creating that x-factor within your physique.

About the Author

Alex is a self-proclaimed anti-meathead and part-time nerd. When he's not working towards Greek God status or learning how to better serve his clients, he can be found exploring how to further crush life, perfect his flair in the kitchen, or pull the perfect shot of espresso. You can learn what he's all about at MASSthetics .

  • Emily Ammon

    Very well done, Alex. Big hammies are sexy as hell, why are they so neglected?!

    • Alex Mullan

      Thank you!

      Because the aren’t a “mirror muscle,” are a challenge to train, and few lifters give them the same appreciation as they do arms or chest.

      I’m glad you liked it :)

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