Wilderness Sports Conditioning
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More Training Info > Hamstring Exercises
Q: Can you suggest hamstring exercises I can do other than deadlifts? I have access to ankle weights, a stability ball, dumbbells, step, and a barbell at home, but I have a hard time getting proper form on deadlifts.
A: Ah, you've touched on one of my favorite--and one of the more controversial--subjects. While the stiff-legged deadlift (shown, below) is, in my opinion, one of the best hamstring exercises you can do, I'll agree that it can be a little tricky to learn at first, especially if you don't have a knowledgeable trainer helping to verbally, physically, and visually cue you when you first try them. We've got several suggestions, but first, a little background information: hamstrings cross two joints (hip and knee) and are involved in both extending the hip (i.e. getting you back to a standing position when you bend forward at the hips, as in the picture above) and flexing the knee (i.e. lifting your foot towards your butt.) All standing deadlift, squat, and good morning exercises engage hamstrings, lower back, and glutes to varying degrees. Since hamstrings are one of the largest muscle groups in the body, and are comprised predominantly of faster-twitch (sprint-type) muscles fibers, they really respond better to heavier weight for fewer reps (hence try to work in the 5-8 reps range, with a heavy enough weight so that you can't eke out any repetitions beyond 9 without compromising form). If you lie on your back with feet propped up on a step, as in most aerobics classes or videos, and do 100 bridges, lifting your hips into the air, you're actually building local muscular endurance, but not doing nearly as much for those powerhouse muscles as you could.
1) The stiff-legged deadlift (shown, right) is an excellent hamstring, glutes, and lower back strengthener which also will feel great if you have tight hamstrings. If you are a climber who does overhanging routes, you will love what this does for your heel hook; runners will love this for extra sprint power or hill work; hikers love what this does for uphill climbs. Use light dumbbells at first, until you master form, but move up to substantial dumbbells as you can. Keep a straight back, hinge forward at hips, and keep a 20 degree bend to knees so the IT band (on the sides of your legs) works in conjunction with your glutes and hamstrings so you prevent strain in the hamstrings. If you feel this primarily in your lower back, check your form in a mirror and make sure your back stays flat.
2) Forward step-up on a high bench: This one is functional (i.e. sport specific) for climbing, scrambling, hiking, and everyday stair climbing. It also allows you to train one limb at a time, so you can work out any imbalances that might have been developed on machines at the gym. Add dumbbells, weight-filled backpack, or barbell across your shoulders to increase the intensity. If your step is not high enough, find a steep hill near your home or stairs and walk up and down the hill, leaning slightly forward, or take two steps at a time. However, remember, the longer you walk, the more you are training muscular ENDURANCE, not strength per se. If you train this exercise stepping forward off the step or bench, then, just as though you are going down steep hills, you switch the muscle focus to the quadriceps.
Stability Ball Leg Curl
3) Using your stability ball, lie on the floor with feet up on the ball and arms at hips to brace you. With legs fairly straight, and on an exhale, lift the hips up as high as you can. This works lower back, glutes, and hamstrings, but if you really want to engage hamstrings, keep your hips in the air and then bend at the knees, bringing feet up on top of the ball and roll the ball in toward your butt--voila, a home version of the leg curl you might do at a gym. Reverse the sequence and lower hips back to floor. Work up to doing 2 sets of 6-8 reps, and then when done, to stretch the muscles worked, place one ankle across the other bent knee and draw both knees in toward the chest.
1-Leg Bench Hamstring Curl
4) You can also perform any combinations of leg curls with ankle weights--lying on the ball, lifting one leg up to your butt, or standing with hand against the wall--but because these involve lifting ankle weights as your primary resistance (in addition to the weight of your leg), you probably won't be able to maximally challenge the hamstrings. A better option might be performing bridges, with feet on the floor, on your step, or back against the ball. To make these more challenging (and quite possibly be a good place for advanced beginners to start) try this one-legged bench hamstring curl, propping one ankle across the knee or holding one leg up in the air, as shown, and doing bridging one leg at a time. Try this on the ball as a way to increase intensity.
Questions? Contact a Body Results Outdoor Conditioning Coach. Hope these give you some ideas. Best bet would be to have someone critique your regular or stiff-legged deadlifts so that you can do them properly.