The hamstrings — the muscles that run down the back of your thigh — don’t get much attention or glory. They’re not “beach muscles” and the exercises that target them aren’t very popular, so there’s a chance you don’t think much about them. However, you use them when you run, walk, bike, squat and in most other movements that involve the lower body. Keeping them strong helps prevent injuries.
“Out of sight, out of mind” seems to be the most common attitude toward hamstring training. But they are a major muscle group. You have four hamstrings muscles on each leg. Three of the them cross two joints: the hip and knee. It’s hard to see them in a mirror, so you can’t tell if they’re prominent or underdeveloped.
Your hamstrings are probably weaker than other leg muscles if you’ve neglected them, so training them might be uncomfortable. If you decide you want to train your hamstrings, you’ll find they’re not a very easy muscle to work. Sometimes, they feel tight or even cramp up during training.
However, you should push past the discomfort and take care of these frequently forgotten muscles. Hamstring injuries are one of the most common sports injuries, according to a study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science. Strengthening them helps prevent injuries and rounds out your physique, even if they’re not as exciting to train as other muscles.
Here, six exercises to work the back of your thigh for more strength and injury prevention:
VALSLIDE HAMSTRING CURLS
You’ll need carpet sliders or a towel for this exercise so your feet can slide on the ground.
The move: Lie flat on your back with your heels on the sliders and legs out straight. Pull your heels in toward your butt and bridge your hips up at the same time. Keep pulling your feet in and thrusting your hips up until your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Your body should form a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Slowly lower your hips and kick your feet out until you’re lying flat on the ground again.
You can make this exercise easier if it puts too much strain on your hamstrings. Start in the top position with your hips up and knees at 90 degrees. Slowly lower your body to the ground by straightening your knees. To get back up, keep your butt on the ground and slide your heels in so your knees are bent. Then thrust your hips up into a bridge and repeat.
This exercise targets the biceps femoris, which is the hamstring muscle that runs down the outside of your leg. Regular deadlifts simply aren’t as effective at hitting this part of the hamstring. As opposed to a regular deadlift, where you start with the weight on the ground, you start a Romanian deadlift standing straight up with the weight in your hands.
The move: You can use dumbbells or a barbell for this deadlift variation. Stand straight up and slowly stick your butt back and shift your weight into your heels. Slowly reach the dumbbell or barbell down the front of your legs until you’re slightly past your knees. Bend forward from your hips, not your back. If your back rounds it can cause injury. Stand back up, keeping your arms straight, to complete the repetition.
The RDL works both hamstrings at once, but most people have imbalances between limbs. To keep your hamstrings equal you should work them one at a time using single-leg deadlifts.
The move: Start standing with a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand. Kick one leg back straight and lean forward, keeping your back straight. The leg you’re standing on should be slightly bent. With your arms hanging straight down, keep leaning over until your hands are slightly past your knees. Stand back up to complete the rep.
PARTNER HAMSTRING CURLS
Working your hamstrings is much more fun with a friend, so grab a gym buddy for this exercise. It may seem simple, but this is one of the most challenging hamstring exercises you can do. This exercise activates the hamstrings as much as sprinting, according to a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. If you’re an athlete trying to prevent hamstring injuries, try this exercise.
The move: Kneeling on a pad, have your partner grab your ankles to hold your feet down. Hold your arms out in front of you. Lean forward, maintaining a straight line from your knees to your head. Move slowly and under control until your hamstrings can’t hold you up any longer. Relax your legs and land on the ground with your hands, then push yourself back up like you’re doing a pushup. Don’t try to use your hamstrings to come back up unless the exercise is too easy. To gain leverage, you’ll have to push up into your partner’s hands with your legs. They should have their full weight on your legs.
TRX HAMSTRING CURLS
Hang a TRX suspension trainer from a secure fixture so it’s hanging straight down. The handles should be about a foot off the ground.
The move: Lie on your back and put your heels in the straps. Your legs should be straight. Pull your heels in toward your butt and, at the same time, lift your hips into the air. Stop when your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees, then kick your legs out and lower your butt back down to the starting position.
MODIFIED BACK EXTENSIONS
If your gym doesn’t have a back extension machine, you can use a Swiss ball for this exercise.
The move: To use a Swiss ball, press your feet flat against a wall with your toes touching the floor. Lie with your hips on the ball, stomach side down. With your back straight, lean forward by bending at the waist over the ball. Then, press your hips into the ball and dig your heels into the wall behind you to lift your torso back up. Keep your hands behind your head throughout.