5 Simple Hamstring Exercises (Plus 2 Great Stretches) to Strengthen and Lengthen the Backs of Your Legs

These hamstring moves will leave you strong, flexible, and injury-free.

You don't often hear anyone talking about how hard they hit their hamstrings at the gym. When we think of apps like Apple Fitness Plus, hamstring exercises don't necessarily come to mind (although you can definitely use it for them). Leaving hamstrings out of your workout, though, is a big mistake, because they help you perform so many daily functions—in and out of the gym. The hamstrings are a group of three muscles—the semimembranosus, the semitendinosus, and the biceps femoris—that run along the back of your thigh from your hip to just below your knee and are mainly responsible for extending the hips and flexing your knees. They're the muscles that allow you to walk, run, squat, bend your knees, or tilt your pelvis, says Matty Maggiacomo, a Peloton Tread and Strength instructor. And they are always in need of some TLC.

When hamstrings are weak, they can cause knee pain and increase the possibility of strain, says Maggiacomo. A lot of times, this weakness stems from muscle imbalance, when your quads, the muscles that run the length of the front of the thigh, are more dominant than your hamstrings. This phenomenon is typically more prominent in women than in men.

When your muscles are imbalanced in this way, "you'll have a hard time achieving proper form for exercises, and it will have an adverse effect on your running form if you're relying solely on the quads for stability and power," Maggiacomo explains, noting that you want to make sure you're working the quads, hamstrings, and glutes equally to address muscle imbalances.

Signs of Weak Hamstrings

Your muscles can always benefit from a great strength-training session, but you may need to pay special attention if yours are on the weaker side. A few clues to help gauge if your hamstrings aren't strong enough or activating like they should? "A decreased range of motion with forward bending, achiness in the back of the leg that hasn't fully resolved, or a low-grade ache just under the buttocks," says Julie Ann Aueron, Doctor of Physical Therapy with Tru Whole Care.

"A 'normal' hamstring length is when a person can lie down on their back and, keeping the knee straight, flex the hip 90 degrees," Aueron says, noting that not many people are able to achieve this without consistent work on the hip capsule. "Another key factor to look at is how the pelvis rotates, and how the lumbar spine participates. This is incredibly relevant with hamstring function since the hamstring muscle group actually connects onto the pelvis." In other words: Daily stretching is key.

How to Address Weak and Tight Hamstrings

There are tons of exercises you can do to zero in on those hamstrings. According to research from the American Council of Exercise, which looked at nine exercises (kettlebell swings, single-arm/single-leg Romanian deadlifts, Romanian deadlift, prone leg curl, reverse hip raise, glute-hamstring raise with a machine, glute hamstring without equipment, stability ball hamstring curl, and seated leg curl) there were three moves that were most effective in firing up and strengthening the backs of the legs the most quickly. According to the study, which examined 16 people between the ages of 20 and 25, those top three exercises for hamstrings include:

  • kettlebell swings
  • single-arm/single leg Romanian deadlifts
  • prone leg curl.

Working to make your hamstrings stronger isn't your only issue of concern either. Super-tight hamstrings (or really, shortened hamstrings) should also give you pause. This can happen easily if you neglect stretching (especially after a workout) or if you spend copious amounts of time sitting, which keeps the hamstring in a contracted and shortened position.

If you're ready to take your hamstrings to the next level, try incorporating these seven moves—five strength-based ones and two to help those tight back-leg muscles find relief—from Maggiacomo into your exercise routine. And know this: If your hammies are happy, you will be too.

5 Hamstring Exercises That Don't Require Equipment

Hamstring Exercises: Good Mornings illustration
Illustration by Kailey Whitman

1. Good Mornings

Stand with your feet directly underneath your hips and place your hands lightly behind your head with elbows wide. Slowly bend forward while hingeing at the hips, engaging your core, and keeping your spine neutral (don't curl over or arch back). You should feel a stretch in the hamstrings. Return to standing position and repeat for several reps.

Hamstring Exercises: Bodyweight Squat Illustration
Illustration by Kailey Whitman

2. Bodyweight Squats

Stand tall with your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart, a slight bend in the knees, and toes turned slightly outward. With your core engaged and chest lifted, slowly send your hips back while bending your knees. Lower down until your quads are as close to parallel to the floor as possible. Drive into your heels to rise back up to standing. Repeat.

Hamstring Exercises: Floor Bridge Illustration
Illustration by Kailey Whitman

3. Floor Bridge

Lie face-up on the floor with your knees bent, feet firmly planted on the floor, and arms relaxed at your sides. Slowly, squeezing up through your glutes and pressing your feet into the ground, press your pelvis up to the ceiling. You want to create a diagonal line from your shoulders to your knees with your weight shifted into your shoulders, not your neck, as you squeeze through your glutes and hamstrings. Slowly lower your butt back down to the floor and then repeat.

Hamstring Exercises: Donkey Kicks Illustration
Illustration by Kailey Whitman

4. Donkey Kick

Start on your hands and knees with wrists underneath shoulders and knees underneath hips. With core tight, slowly kick your right leg behind you, extending fully through the leg and straightening the knee. Bend knee and return that leg back to starting position. Repeat on the other side.

For more on how to do basic donkey kicks, head here.

Hamstring Exercises: Standing Marches Illustration
Illustration by Kailey Whitman

5. Standing Marches

Stand tall and drive one knee up to hip height. Hold for a split second, lower your foot back to the ground, and repeat on the other side. Continue alternating at your own pace.

2 Easy Ways to Stretch Your Hamstrings

Hamstring Stretch: Standing Forward Fold illustration
Illustration by Kailey Whitman

1. Standing Straight-Leg Hamstring Stretch (or Forward Fold)

Stand with your feet directly beneath your hips and slowly bend forward while keeping your spine neutral (don't curl your back), sending your hips behind you. It's totally OK to have a slight bend in the knees. Reach your hands toward your toes and hold, breathing deeply while feeling a stretch down the backs of the legs (don't worry if you can't touch your toes/the ground!).

Hamstring Stretch: Downward Dog illustration
Illustration by Kailey Whitman

2. Downward Dog

Begin on all fours with your knees hip-width apart and hands directly below your shoulders. Press back into your heels to straighten your knees and draw your tailbone up to the sky. Keep your head, neck, and spine aligned as you press back, feeling the stretch in the backs of your legs. Return to starting position.

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