Hamstrings are one of the most underrated muscle groups.
…big hamstrings lead to only good things.
They assist us in the deadlift and make our legs look way more impressive, especially from the side. Everyone talks about the quads, and how they’re so important for squats (this isn’t even true) and how the sweep looks amazing — but just like Mario ain’t nothing without Luigi — big quads ain’t nothing without huge hamstrings.
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Just because they’re not easily seen in the mirror doesn’t mean they should receive less attention.
So let’s get building some huge hammies.
1) Vary Your Exercises
When in the gym and training legs I think a lot of people just opt for things like squats, leg press and lunges. Whilst these are not bad exercises, none of them work the hamstrings to a large degree, which when your aim is equal development of the entire leg is a problem.
Lets take a look at the hamstrings:
As you can see the hamstrings are made up of a group of 4 muscles:
- Biceps femoris long head
- Biceps femoris short head
We can then group these into two parts; the medial (semitendinosus and semimembranosus inserting mid-leg) and the lateral (biceps femoris long and short heads inserting lower on the leg). The important thing to notice here is that the hamstring is a bi-articular muscle which means it crosses two joints; the hips and the knee. That’s important because…
The hamstrings can contribute to both knee flexion and hip extension.
- Knee flexion is taking your straight leg (knee locked out) and curling it back towards yourself.
- The easiest way to envisage hip extension is probably….humping, yup I said it.
What exercises work the hamstrings? Those that require them to stretch and lengthen. Stick your butt back and try and keep your knees locked out, feel your hamstrings tighten? You bet. — That’s one excellent way to train your hamstrings, via hip hinge movements where you extend the hips, such as deadlift varieties.
You probably know the other way to work the hamstrings, because there is a machine most people have probably used before; leg curls. When you curl your shins towards your body (flexing the knee) you use the hamstrings, they are the prime mover.
So which exercises are best? — Well I recently asked just this question to Brad Schoenfeld (the Muscle Hypertrophy King) and he answered:
“I don’t really have a “favorite” exercise – maximizing hypertrophy involves working muscles with a variety of movements that ultimately stimulate optimal growth. There are various kinesiological principles that I use to guide program design in this fashion.”
There are no ‘best’ exercises, each exercise has its place in a well designed programme. As Brad points out and as we have talked about before variety is important for muscle growth. If you are doing deadlifts and leg curls year round and nothing else, you’re not maximising your hamstring growth.
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So when it comes to picking your hammy builders make sure not to limit yourself and use a variety of movements, some you could choose from:
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Straight Leg Deadlifts
- Good Mornings (high or low bar)
- Leg Curls (seated, lying, with a ball)
- 45 degree Back Extensions
- Glute Ham Raise
The above are my personal staples, another exercise I enjoy is the gliding leg curl. I saw Bret Contreras performing it and knew I needed to try it. — This is pretty sweet because it works the entire hamstring, as you take the hips through extension and flex at the knee. Give it a shot, I think it works as a great alternative to a leg curl machine.
It’d be a very good shout to pick one hip extension exercise and one knee flexion exercise e.g. Good Mornings and Leg Curls.
So if you want huge hamstrings do not limit yourself to a set number of exercises, make sure to work them through a variety of modalities. 
What about squats???
When we squat the hamstring doesn’t really change much in length, as it is lengthening and shortening simultaneously and acts more as a dynamic stabiliser than anything. — So if you want big legs, don’t limit yourself to squats.
William Ebben in his paper ‘Hamstring Activation During Lower Body Resistance Training Exercises’ concluded:
“…the squat is not an optimal exercise for training the hamstrings” 
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- Pick one hip extension and knee flexion exercise.
- Vary these every 4 to 6 weeks.
2) Provide Stimulating Volume
Traditionally it’s thought there’s a particular rep range for hypertrophy, Brad Schoenfeld in his research has shown this wasn’t the case and showed there to be a benefit from a range of reps.  When it comes to hypertrophy Brad discovered three main mechanisms; mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage.  Which I go into depth over in Get Big Stay Lean.
Whilst all exercises and rep ranges do contribute to each of these mechanisms to differing degrees, each do bias one more than another. For example, mechanical tension is best achieved with heavy loading, which isn’t so easily produced with something like a leg curl. However, leg curls are great for creating metabolic stress when done for higher repetitions.
Therefore, there is no one rep range you should use for hypertrophy, but rather a range that achieves all three of the above mechanisms. Furthermore, Brad has discovered a dose response relationship with volume and hypertrophy, in that more seems to be better, at least to a certain point. — There is an inverted U relationship to volume, and so we want to get to the top of this but not surpass it.
How do we get to the top? — We find our maximal stimulating volumes.
Yes — this is essentially means you choose weights that are heavy enough and provide enough mechanical tension for muscle growth, that can also be performed with sufficient volume.
- How heavy do we need to go to be stimulating? Well past the novice level (who can grow using lighter weights) we need somewhere around 60% to 75% or 6 to 12 reps (there has been evidence to show you can use as little as 40% but the reps required are very high or limbs need to be occluded).
- How much volume do we require? It looks like 40 to 70 reps done 2 to 4 times per week provides sufficient volumes for growth, and this provides a good starting point. 
Lower Body Day
- Squats 4×10
- RDLs 4×10
- Leg Extensions 2×12
- Gliding Leg Curls 2×12
Total Hamstring Volume (reps x sets) = 64
As you can see 64 lands within the total volume required and the rep range used is within 6 to 12 too, if this was done twice per week you would on paper be providing sufficient stimulating volumes for muscle growth. One thing is certain on a volume-equated basis, the current body of evidence indicates that frequencies of training twice a week promote superior hypertrophic outcomes to once a week. 
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The hamstrings are predominantly fast twitch, so low reps would be better???
It is commonly thought the hamstrings are a fast twitch muscle, meaning they respond well to lower reps with heavy loads, because these are what activate the larger muscle fibres. — However, Chris Beardsley summarised the research on muscle fiber types and reviewed 6 studies that proved that the hamstrings were not predominantly fast twitch; one study shows 67% fast twitch composition, while the other five show 55%, 51%, 50%, 44-54%, and 43%. Thus, based on this the hamstrings appear to be an even mix between fast and slow twitch. 
Therefore, we would not want to limit ourself to a certain rep range.
- Train your hamstrings with high, medium and low reps, but focus on the 6 to 12 rep range.
- Provide 40 to 70 reps per workout.
- Train the hamstrings a minimum of twice per week.
3) Not Too Hot or Too Cold
For a second think back to goldilocks and the three bears, and how little locks struggled to find the right porridge to suit her taste.
Some were too hot.
Others were too cold.
As an individual we all have our own needs and preferences, you see what is too hot for goldilocks might have been just right for big pappa bear. He’s bigger, older, more experienced and can take the heat. — Now I haven’t gone mad, we can relate this to our training.
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Just like little locks, we are all different, we respond to training differently. Some of us may respond better to heavier weights and lower volumes, whereas others might need to do loads of lighter work in the gym. It is all about finding the right mix, so our training is neither too hot or cold, most of the time at least.
Mike Israetel coined the term Maximal Recoverable Volume (MRV), this is the most volume you can recover from week to week. Think of this as your sweet spot, it’s not too hot or too cold, it’s just right. — This is where you want to be aiming to train most of the time.
Because if you could do more, and recover, why wouldn’t you? — You’ll see faster results, and gain more muscle in a shorter period of time. So working towards your MRV is important, this is your not too hot or cold training, this is the porridge you can sit down and enjoy.
- Start at the lower end of the volume and frequency requirements (40 reps and 2 times a week).
- Add additional volume until you reach a point you cannot recover.
4) Do More
Pretty much as it sounds, do more.
The body is smart, and it adapts to what you give it, if you keep giving it the same stimulus it won’t bother adapting. It’ll think “ah this is easy, I don’t need to bother building more muscle” — you need to shock it, by doing more.
As you can see above, you need to provide a sufficient stress to disrupt equilibrium; this is generally termed progressive overload, you either add weight, reps or sets (assuming you have your form nailed, which I will come onto). Without an increase in stress the body will have no reason to adapt, and it will not grow, this is known as The Law of Accommodation.
“The constant use of one training stimulus causes it to become habitual, lessoning its effect”
Now doing more as we have outlined can come from weight on the bar and reps/sets — which is better for developing muscle? Well it seems large volumes really drive hypertrophy, sure more weight is good, but more important is to do more total volume, and what drives volume higher adding 2.5kg or adding another set? — Adding another set!
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So we know to keep growing we need to keep doing more.
- Overtime you must continue to progressively overload your body.
- For muscle growth this is best done via volume, which is most easily brought up via sets.
- When recovered look to bring up the number of sets in your routine.
5) Stimulate the Muscle
It sounds simple, you want the hamstrings to grow, you need to make sure you’re stimulating them. However, what is simple on paper isn’t so in practice, often I find people do not ‘feel’ their muscle working, and this is very evident with the hamstrings.
The biggest issue I see is people cannot hinge at the hips, I cringe when I see people performing Romanian deadlifts and basically just squatting up and down, bending their knees excessively and not pushing their butts back. — If you do not have great form, you will not feel the right muscles working, because they’re not. — This needs to be amended to build huge hamstrings.
IMPORTANT: Learn to hip hinge.
The way I used to teach this (when I did in person personal training) was to tell people:
- Stick their butt to the wall behind (imagine a pot of gold and you need to pick it up with your butt)
- Chin to the wall in front (like a horse and carrot, reach forward — no need to hyperextend the neck)
- Whilst locking out the knees (as best you can) and keeping a straight back
This worked like a charm most of the time, however failing that I would get them to stand away from a wall, with their back to it and then ask them to reach back, with their ass, and touch the wall, without bending their knees. — These two cues seemed to work a charm, and if your hamstrings aren’t screaming when you use a deadlift variety then you need to work on your hip hinge.
To quote Mike Israetel:
“Attention to proper technique can make a world of difference in hip-hinge hamstring movements. If you let your back round too much or your knees bend too much, tension is taken off of the hams and transferred to the spinal muscles and glutes respectively. Keep your chest up, back arched, and knees just slightly bent on all stiff legged deads, good mornings, and glute/ham extensions.”
To build big muscles you want to work them at their entire ROM, that means getting a big stretch. So when doing a leg curl let the weight go all the way back and full stretch out the hamstring, and once you have your hip hinge sorted really stretch out the hamstrings.
[bctt tweet=”Attention to proper technique can make a world of difference in hip-hinge hamstring movements” username=”revivestronger”]
In addition I would note that I see a lot of people rush the negative during their hamstring exercises — I don’t have any evidence to support this claim but I really feel like this is a waste especially for the hamstrings. — When doing a Romanian deadlift (RDL) or any other variety please control the negatives, really feel the muscle stretching back and then explode up. — Doing this saw my hamstring growth explode and the DOMS were excruciating (lots of muscle damage was going on).
- Learn how to hip hinge
- Use the entire ROM
- Perform negatives under control
How to Get Huge Hamstrings Programming Example
The above is all great and exactly what you need to get huge hamstrings, but I think I can go one step further and give you a full example of how you might do it in practice.
WEEK 1: RDL – 4×8-10 & Leg Curls 2×12-15 (performed twice per week)
WEEK 2: Increase load on RDL by 5% and add 1 set to Leg Curls
WEEK 3: Add 1 set to RDL (if recovered) and Leg Curls as is
WEEK 4: Add 2.5% to both exercises and perform one drop set to failure
WEEK 5: Deload – reduce volume by 50% (half sets) and reduce intensity by 25% (drop 2 reps)
As you can see we have progressed intensity and sets week 2, then in week 3 we’re looking to see how recovered we are to assess if we can add more volume via sets (working towards our MRV) and then in week 4 we are upping the intensity and volume by implementing an increase in load and a drop set to failure to achieve functional overreaching. Before recovering in week 5 by reducing volume and intensity, to supercompensate and see gains take place. 
At the end of the 5 weeks a great idea would be to change your hip extension and knee flexion exercise, for example you could swap the above out for Good Mornings and Lying Leg Curls. — Remember, what I have shown you is just one example of how you could use the above to programme your hamstring training, there are almost infinite ways to do so.
How to Get Huge Hamstrings?
Vary your Exercises every 4 to 6 weeks
Provide sufficient stimulating volumes
Work towards doing as much as you can, whilst still recovering
Overtime progressively do more
Learn how to use the muscle correctly
(Cheeky add on) — Eat for muscle growth (click here)
Do you need any help with the above? Do you have any questions you need answering? Hopefully it gave you some ideas about how go about getting huge hamstrings.
Join my free facebook group or add me on snapchat (revivestronger) and ask your question there, I will respond asap. Or if you’re after a fresh training programme I have a free 4 week plan using DUP that you can download for free here.
If you liked this you’ll love Secrets to a Bigger Back with Mike Israetel
One more thing…
Do you have a friend who wants huge hamstrings? Share this article with them and let me know what they think.
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- Schoenfeld B.J et al (2014). Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men.
- W. Ebben. (2009) Hamstring Activation During Lower Body Resistance Training Exercises
- Schoenfeld B.J (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. –
- Wernbom, M., Augustsson, J., & Thomeé, R. (2007). The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans.
- Schoenfeld B.J et al (2016). Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
- V, M Zatsiorsky. W, J, Kraemer. Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2006