The 7 Best Compound Hamstring Exercises (2024) - Lift Vault (2024)

Your hamstrings are not just there to help you run down a hill, or prevent you from touching your toes. These muscles are key to most leg movements, including running, jumping, squatting, lunging, and weightlifting. In fact, you use your hamstrings in most athletic activities.

But, it can be tough to tackle the large muscles at the back of your upper legs. Are you struggling to build bigger legs? Or do you simply want to enhance the explosive power in your lower body?

If you’re struggling to strengthen your hamstrings, read on for the 6 best compound exercises that you can start doing today. We’ll also cover the benefits of compound exercises for your hamstrings, your hamstring anatomy, and how you should train these muscles.

Table of Contents

  • 1 6 Best Hamstring Exercises
    • 1.1 1. 45-degree back raise
    • 1.2 2. Stiff-legged deadlift
    • 1.3 3. Romanian deadlift
    • 1.4 4. Good mornings
    • 1.5 5. Glute ham raise
    • 1.6 6. Nordic leg curl
  • 2 Benefits of Compound Hamstring Exercises
    • 2.1 Compound exercises are efficient
    • 2.2 Intermuscular coordination is improved
    • 2.3 Cardiovascular fitness
    • 2.4 Prevents injuries
    • 2.5 Maintain good posture
    • 2.6 Improved functional strength
    • 2.7 Increased athletic performance
  • 3 How to Train Hamstrings
  • 4 Hamstring Anatomy
    • 4.1 Biceps femoris
    • 4.2 Semitendinosus
    • 4.3 Semimembranosus
  • 5 FAQs
    • 5.1 How often should you train your hamstrings?
    • 5.2 At what intensity should hamstrings be trained?
    • 5.3 What rep range should be used for training hamstrings?
    • 5.4 What types of exercises train hamstrings?
    • 5.5 Which squats are best for hamstrings?
    • 5.6 What’s the best way to build hamstring mass?
    • 5.7 Why is it difficult to build hamstrings?

6 Best Hamstring Exercises

  1. 45-degree back raise
  2. Stiff-legged deadlift
  3. Romanian deadlift
  4. Good mornings
  5. Glute ham raise
  6. Nordic leg curl

1. 45-degree back raise

Benefits of 45-degree back raises

This exercise is great for strengthening the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back muscles. The way this exercise is performed removes any stress on the lower back while still engaging the posterior chain muscles.

How to perform 45-degree back raises

  1. Adjust the back extension machine so that the top of the pad is level with your upper thighs.
  2. Keep your spine neutral and hinge at the hips, folding over the pads.
  3. Maintain constant tension for the entire exercise.
  4. Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings and return to the top position where your body is straight.
  5. Optional: You can hold a weight plate or kettlebell to increase intensity.

Check out this video to learn how to to 45-degree back raises the right way:

STOP Doing Back Extensions Like This!

How to program 45-degree back raises

Keep the load light, or moderate if you are more experienced. Start off by just using your body weight. Beginners can do three sets of 12 reps to start. If using a weight, perform 3-4 sets of 5-10 reps, depending on the weight you use and your experience level.

2. Stiff-legged deadlift

Benefits of stiff-leg deadlifts

This exercise primarily targets the hamstring muscles. Thanks to the hip movement, this exercise improves your hip extension and hip flexion, which will benefit other exercises like squats.

The impact on the hamstrings will result in more explosive power, and improve your jumping and running abilities.

Since it engages your posterior chain, it will also improve your posture.

How to perform stiff-leg deadlifts

  1. Prepare a barbell with your preferred weight.
  2. Place the bar over the middle of your feet.
  3. Place your feet hip-width apart.
  4. Push back your hips and hinge forward, until your upper body is parallel with the floor.
  5. Reach your arms down and grab the bar with an overhand grip. Your hands must be shoulder-width apart.
  6. Maintain a neutral spine, keep your legs straight, and check that your shoulders and hips are at more or less the same level.
  7. Evenly spread your weight across your entire foot as you straighten up, pushing the ground away with your feet.
  8. Ensure the bar is traveling straight up as you extend your hips and knees.
  9. Lock your hips and reverse the move, hinging forward as you lower the bar.

If you need some more tips, this video explains in detail how to perform stiff-leg deadlifts without causing injury.

The ONLY Way You Should Be Doing Stiff Legged Deadlifts!

How to program still-leg deadlifts

Start with weights that are 40% of your usual deadlift weight. Once more experienced, this can be increased to 70% (note: weight should always be lighter than your typical deadlift weight). Perform 20 – 20 reps with a moderate load.

3. Romanian deadlift

Benefits of Romanian deadlifts

Romanian deadlifts exercise the entire posterior chain, including the hamstrings, gluteus maximus, adductors, and erector spinae. This exercise also strengthens the core when done correctly. Deadlifts also exercise the hamstrings, but when it comes to Romanian vs conventional deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts come out on top for hamstring strength.

The way this type of deadlift is done places less stress on the knee joint, instead forcing the muscles to extend the hip and help with knee flexion.

However, the main benefit of the Romanian deadlift is that it teaches weightlifters how to lift from the hips and not the lower back, as well as how to maintain the correct squat position.

How to perform Romanian deadlifts

  1. Start in a standing position with your feet directly beneath your hips.
  2. Hold your weight (either a barbell or dumbbell) in front of your quads, with an overhand grip and your hands slightly outside your thighs.
  3. Hinge at the hips, sending your hips back. Maintain a straight, flat back and spine.
  4. Ensure your knees are over your heels and your shins remain vertical.
  5. Lower the weight, keeping your shoulder blades pulled back.
  6. Once the weight drops below your knees and your eyes are facing the floor, move your hips forward and straighten to the starting position.

Looking for more advice on how to build beefy hamstrings? This video is a great guide on doing Romanian deadlifts.

HOW TO DO ROMANIAN DEADLIFTS (RDLs): Build Beefy Hamstrings With Perfect Technique

How to program Romanian deadlift

Start your deadlift workout with 8 – 10 reps per set. Take your time, up to 3 seconds to lower the weight, and another 1-2 seconds to return to standing. You can use light, moderate, or heavy weights for this exercise, depending on your skill level. For heavy weights, stick to 5 – 10 reps. This can be increased with lighter weights.

4. Good mornings

Benefits of good mornings

Good mornings are a great exercise to strengthen the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors. By incorporating this exercise into your routine, you’ll be able to improve your deadlift and squat.

By doing this exercise, you’ll be reducing your risk of injury when doing other hamstring exercises.

How to perform good mornings

  1. Take a barbell and place it firmly on the upper area of your back, above the shoulder blades.
  2. Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
  3. Keep your knees bent slightly.
  4. Hinge forward, keeping a straight back while pushing the hips back.
  5. Tighten your abs as you bend forward with your upper body.
  6. Aim to get your back parallel to the floor. You’ll feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
  7. Extend your hips and bring your upper body back to a standing position.
  8. Squeeze your glutes at the top position.

The video below is an excellent visual aid for performing good mornings to help you strengthen your hamstrings and lower back.

DO THIS for a STRONG Low Back (THE MISSING EXERCISE)

How to program good mornings

Stick to light or moderate weights. With a light load, perform 20 – 30 reps, or reduce to 10 – 20 reps if exercising with a heavier weight.

5. Glute ham raise

Benefits of glute ham raise

The glute ham raise (GHR) is a great hamstring workout for injury prevention. It creates a balance between the hamstrings and the quads, which promotes strength and can increase jumping, running, and squatting power.

This hamstring exercise leads to increased hamstring hypertrophy as it is an isolated exercise of the hamstrings and glute muscles.

How to perform glute ham raise

  1. Set up the machine. Place your feet flat against the back panel and ensure there is still room between your thighs and the front pad. Flex your knees to 90 degrees so that your upper body is vertical.
  2. Cross your arms over your chest.
  3. When you begin the exercise, your heels should be off of the back plate and your kneecaps below the pad.
  4. Extend your knees so that the upper body moves towards the floor. The knees, hips, and shoulders should remain aligned.
  5. Extend your hips and back so that you lean forward over the pad, with your knees completely extended. Your feet are flat.
  6. Continue until your upper body is almost parallel to the floor. Your thighs will move slightly up the pad.
  7. Use your hamstrings (and partially your calves) to pull you back up to the starting position. Flex your knees back to 90 degrees. Your heels should come off of the back panel.

Need more tips? The video below will help you better understand how to maintain your form when doing GHRs.

GHR Killer Hamstring Exercise (Very Underrated)

How to program glute ham raise

This easy exercise can be done repeatedly. Beginners can start with 5 – 15 repetitions. Intermediates should do 20 – 30 reps.

6. Nordic leg curl

Benefits of Nordic leg curls

Nordic leg curls strengthen the posterior chain as well as your lower back, core, and calves. It builds eccentric strength in your upper and lower legs, which can help stabilize your muscles when lifting.

This hamstring exercise can also help to prevent lower back pain and improve flexibility and mobility.

How to perform Nordic leg curls

  1. Set up the leg curl machine, or use a cushion for your knees and a partner to hold down your ankles.
  2. Align your knees and your shoulders, maintaining a neutral spine.
  3. Tuck your tailbone and contract your abs, hamstrings, and glutes.
  4. Keeping a straight spine, lower your torso and thighs toward the ground. Focus on keeping a straight line from your knees to the top of your head.
  5. Lean forward as far as possible. You can use your hands as support on the ground.
  6. For an extra exercise, you can perform a pushup at the bottom of the move.
  7. Squeeze your glutes, hamstrings, calves, and abs, and start to pull yourself back to the starting position.

Check out this YouTube video for how you can easily perform Nordic hamstring curls from home.

Nordic Hamstring Curls for Running Injury Prevention

How to program Nordic leg curls

As this is a bodyweight exercise, you’ll be able to do more repetitions due to the lighter load. Do 20 – 30 reps per set, with the option to use your hands to support you during the exercise.

Benefits of Compound Hamstring Exercises

Compound hamstring exercises have benefits that can be divided into two categories: the benefits of compound leg exercises, and the benefits of training your hamstrings.

Compound exercises are efficient

These compound hamstring workouts not only focus on the hamstrings but other muscle groups too. By working various muscle groups simultaneously, you’re maximizing your time spent working out.

By engaging more muscles, you’re expending more energy and burning more calories, which can be beneficial if your goal is weight loss.

Intermuscular coordination is improved

Intermuscular coordination is the function of multiple muscle groups and joints. When performing compound hamstring workouts, different muscles work together, “communicating” with one another.

For example, when you do a lunge, your hamstrings, glutes, quads, and core work together to perform the motion. This interconnectedness improves your mobility, balance, and control.

Cardiovascular fitness

Compound exercises can contribute significantly to cardiovascular health. Since more muscles are engaged, your heart rate increases more than it would with isolated exercises.

This increased heart rate strengthens the heart muscle, improving its ability to deliver oxygen to all parts of the body.

Prevents injuries

Flexible, strong hamstrings play a key role in supporting the knee and hip joints. By strengthening your hamstrings and the posterior chain muscles, your joints are better equipped to withstand the forces exerted on them when running, jumping, or working out.

The intermuscular coordination mentioned above will also reduce imbalances in the muscles, preventing strains and other injuries.

Maintain good posture

When your hamstrings are weak, your pelvis will tilt forward, which can cause lower back misalignment and pain. This results in a poor, hunched posture.

When you strengthen your hamstrings, you can maintain your pelvis in a neutral position, which will naturally improve your posture.

Improved functional strength

Compound exercises that include the hamstrings, like deadlifts, squats, or GHRs, are similar to movements you’d make in your daily life. Isolation exercises have their place in workout routines, but they do not necessarily increase functional strength as they don’t mimic natural movements.

By strengthening your hamstrings with compound exercises, you become more capable of doing everyday activities, like lifting heavy objects or climbing stairs.

Increased athletic performance

A lot of sports depend on your hamstrings for power. Explosive movements, like jumping, kicking, and running are heavily reliant on hamstring strength.

The compound exercises described above target your hamstrings, which will give you improved explosiveness and improved athletic performance.

As the interconnectedness of your muscles improves, you’ll also have better coordination required for athletic activities.

How to Train Hamstrings

It is best to stick to just one compound hamstring exercise per training session, as the hamstrings have a low tolerance.

Within a week, you could do 2 – 3 different hamstring exercises. One of these exercises should be a hip hinge (e.g. 45-degree back raise or stiff-legged deadlift) and one should be a leg curl (e.g. Nordic leg curls or lying leg curls).

You should do 4 to 16 sets of compound hamstring exercises per week. The amount you do will depend on how frequently you work out, with more training days resulting in fewer sets.

  • If you use a heavy load, e.g. Romanian deadlift, then you should do 5 – 10 reps per set.
  • For moderate loads, e.g. good mornings, do 10 – 20 reps per set.
  • For light loads, e.g. glute ham raise, do 20 – 30 reps per set.

Here’s an example of a weekly workout routine for your hamstrings:

  • Monday: Romanian deadlifts – 3 sets, 5 – 10 reps
  • Wednesday: Lying leg curl or Nordic leg curl – 3 sets, 20 – 30 reps
  • Friday: 45-degree back raises – 3 sets, 10 – 20 reps

You can adjust these rep ranges and the number of sets based on your personal preference and fitness levels.

Your rest times between sets will also depend on the exercise you’re doing. Ask yourself these questions while resting, before you get started on the next set:

  • Are my hamstrings feeling okay?
  • Am I mentally ready to work hard in the next set?
  • Is my breathing normal?
  • Can my glutes and lower back support my hamstrings or do they need more rest?

If you answer yes to these questions, then you’re ready to tackle the next set.

Hamstring Anatomy

The hamstring is a group of muscles that run along the back of your upper leg, from your pelvis/hip to your just below your knee.

The hamstrings consist of three muscles:

  • Biceps femoris
  • Semitendinosus
  • Semimembranosus

These three muscles help you to flex the knee and extend your thigh where it meets the hip. Let’s look at each muscle in greater detail:

Biceps femoris

The 7 Best Compound Hamstring Exercises (2024) - Lift Vault (1)

Biceps femoris muscle. Source: Kenhub

This muscle has two heads (the short head and the long head) and is the most lateral muscle in the back thigh.

The long head is attached to the pelvis, and the short head is attached to the femur. Both are attached at the bottom to the fibula.

The main action of this muscle is knee flexion. It also helps to extend the thigh at the hip and rotates the knee and hip joints. Secondary functions are to externally rotate the lower leg when the knee is flexed and also to externally rotate the thigh when the hip is extended.

Semitendinosus

The 7 Best Compound Hamstring Exercises (2024) - Lift Vault (2)

Semitendinosus. Source: Kenhub

This is a tendinous muscle. The head is attached to the pelvis and it runs all along the back of the thigh, to the tibia.

This muscle helps with knee flexion and hip extension. It aids in rotating the thigh where it connects to the hip and knee joint. It also aids in rotating the lower leg when the knee is bent.

Semimembranosus

The 7 Best Compound Hamstring Exercises (2024) - Lift Vault (3)

Semimembranosus muscle. Source: Kenhub

This tendinous muscle is also attached to the pelvis and the tibia. Similar to the other hamstring muscles, it helps with flexion of the knee and extension of the thigh at the hip. It also aids the rotation of the lower leg once the knee is flexed.

FAQs

How often should you train your hamstrings?

You should train your hamstring muscles on average 2 – 3 times per week, depending on the type of compound exercise you do. Each exercise should consist of 3 sets, and the rep range will depend on whether you are doing light, moderate, or heavy exercise.

That said, two main factors will determine training frequency: muscle growth and recovery. If your goal is gaining muscle, you should aim for 3 – 6 workouts a week. However, when your hamstrings are fatigued, rest for 1 – 2 days before doing another hamstring workout.

At what intensity should hamstrings be trained?

Hamstrings will benefit from weights within the 30% – 80% 1RM (one repetition maximum) range.

Rep ranges can be split into three groups: light (20 – 30), moderate (10 – 20), and heavy (5 – 10). Your hamstrings will benefit from training across all three rep ranges.

What rep range should be used for training hamstrings?

Beginners should focus on the moderate range, as this will balance fatigue and injury risk. Up to 50% of hamstring exercises can be performed in this range. The other 50% can be split between heavy and light exercises.

What types of exercises train hamstrings?

Most lower body and glute exercises will engage the hamstring muscles.

The hamstrings can be exercised with compound exercises. The best hamstring exercises are those that incorporate the other posterior chain muscles and the lower back and core, for a complete body workout.

Good examples of hamstring compound exercises not mentioned above are:

  • Glute bridge
  • Single leg bridge
  • Bulgarian split squat
  • Cable hamstring exercises, like pull-throughs and cable hamstring curls
  • Lying leg curl
  • Sumo deadlift
  • Romanian deadlift alternatives, like single-leg or dumbbell Romanian deadlifts

People who wish to only isolate their hamstrings are most likely doing it for aesthetic reasons, such as to get a specific shape and definition. It is nearly impossible to isolate this muscle group because of how interconnected it is to the joints and other muscles.

To isolate the hamstring more than with the exercises above, you can do a kettlebell swing or a kettlebell deadlift (although even these exercises will engage other muscles to a certain extent).

Which squats are best for hamstrings?

Although standard squats will engage your hamstrings, the best squat for hamstrings is the Bulgarian split squat. Since your legs are wide and your feet point outwards, more emphasis is placed on the hamstrings, and the core also has to work more to maintain your balance.

What’s the best way to build hamstring mass?

The best way to build bigger hamstring mass (and not just strength and endurance) is to do compound exercises. It is difficult to isolate the hamstrings, which is why compound exercises are the only way to really train your hamstrings.

Why is it difficult to build hamstrings?

This mostly comes down to not doing the right exercises. Most people attempt to focus on their legs, but their quadriceps get more load, and the hamstrings are neglected. Some people also lack muscular innervation, which means they can’t feel their hamstring muscles contract.

Genetics may also play a role. Some individuals have long hamstrings, and their muscle fiber composition differs from those with shorter hamstrings or more slow-twitch muscle fibers.

The 7 Best Compound Hamstring Exercises (2024) - Lift Vault (4)

About Kyle Risley

Kyle Risley founded Lift Vault in 2016 to make finding great powerlifting programs easier. Since then, the site has grown to include hundreds of programs for strength, bodybuilding, Olympic weightlifting, and more. He currently lives in Massachusetts and continues to compete in powerlifting.

The 7 Best Compound Hamstring Exercises (2024) - Lift Vault (2024)

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