Hamstring Training: Breaking it Down

With the boring stuff out of the way, let’s start laying the foundations for a high-octane hamstring training programme. Today we’ll be looking at how to break it down to ensure that you get the most balanced and complete development.

There two types of exercises we’ll be considering; compound (multiple joint exercises) and isolation (single joint exercises).

Compound Exercises

It’s all about triple extension exercise here; squats, deadlifts, Olympic lifts, etc., the staples of any training programme. As the first part of this series alluded to, the hamstrings have two functions during these movements. Firstly, they co-contract with the quadriceps to help stabilise the knee joint and, during the concentric phase, they provide a hip extension torque to assist the glutes. When people focus their attention on hamstring development they tend to only think about the isolation exercises and what they can ‘add-on’ to their regular programme. Modifying or coaching these compound movements to emphasise the contribution of the hamstrings is a very useful technique and one that should not be overlooked.    

  • Increase Hip Flexion 

Increasing hip flexion during the eccentric phase will increase the amount of hip extension required to complete the concentric phase. More work for the muscles means a greater potential for adaptation. This is best implemented during squats; focus on pushing the hips back as far as possible and shifting your weight towards the heels.

Increasing forward lean during the squat also increases hip extensor torque – just don’t go crazy with it and turn it into a good morning. This means, for hamstring activation, low bar squats > high bar squats > front squats.

  • Increase Knee Flexion 

Increasing knee flexion means that the hamstrings have to provide control over a greater range of motion. More work for the muscles = greater potential for adaptation. This can be implemented through the use of full squats, deep catches during weightlifting movements and single leg squat exercises.

Remember that the key for the hamstrings is getting the weight back towards the heel. Whilst ‘knee-over-toe’ single leg exercises do increase knee flexion they also shift the weight forward. Performing these types of exercise from a deficit is a better option for increasing knee flexion.

Isolation Exercises

We can break down our direct hamstring work into three categories of exercise based on the articulation. Any eccentric-only exercise would be classified by its opposing movement. For example, Nordics train the hamstring’s ability to eccentrically control knee extension and would therefore be classed as a knee flexion exercise.

  • Knee Flexion 

These are your typical bodybuilding exercises. Often sneered upon by the functional training brigade but, as we’ll talk about in the next part of the series, they serve an important role when utilised correctly.

Examples: leg curl variations, glute ham raises, Nordics.

  • Fixed Hip Extension

The fixed prefix means that the foot/feet are in contact with the floor whilst the hip is being extended. I’m seeing these pop up more and more in the ‘Men’s Fitness’ type programmes, so maybe their importance is starting to become more accepted by the mainstream.

Examples: stiff-legged deadlifts, good mornings, 45o ‘back’ extensions.

  • Free Hip Extension/Hip Hyperextension 

These are classified as hip extension exercises where the feet/foot is not in contact with the floor. As the hip can be extended behind the torso in these exercises, flexibility allowing, they facilitate strengthening in a greater range of motion. Definitely an underutilised category.

Examples: reverse hypers, low pulley hip extensions, quadruped hip extensions.


In the next part of this series we’ll be looking at the execution of some of these isolation exercises and starting to piece together a plan of attack for your training.

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1 comment

  1. Ted

    I love training hamstrings.

    For some bizarre reason, good mornings hurt my knees, I never learned why. LOL

    Good article series, Sean!

    All the best,

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