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Even for people who exercise regularly, it might be easy to forget about the hamstring muscles located in the back and top part of the legs or the thighs. We tend to take our hamstrings for granted until we experience a cramp or injury in the area. However, paying proper attention to these leg muscles during any normal exercise routine can lead to better overall fitness. Proper hamstring strengthening exercises not only help assure muscle fitness but also help prevent injury in the muscle group.
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What do Hamstrings do Anyway?
The hamstrings are made up of three muscles: semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris. The hamstrings are positioned under the gluteus maximus (or butt muscles) and help support your posture and stance. If you’ve ever pulled a hamstring muscle, the first thing you may have noticed was that you weren’t able to straighten your leg or stand on it properly; the second thing you probably noticed was that you couldn’t stand up straight. Like many muscles surrounding the body’s core, hamstrings work with other important muscle groups to help provide overall support, balance and strength for the entire body. Hamstrings also drive the movements for legs and hips and are responsible for the momentum behind jumping and running.
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Importance of Stretching
First, I want to point out that it’s hard to talk about hamstring exercises without mentioning the importance of stretching exercises. You really can’t have proper strength without flexibility for any muscle. It’s true you can gain strength without stretching, but as muscles strengthen, they tighten up without regular stretching. After a while, a wrong turn or jolt can easily pull or injure a tight muscle. So, stretching is an essential part of overall hamstring strengthening.
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Start a Stretching Routine
Typical stretching exercises for the hamstrings include forward bend with straight legs from a standing position or a sitting position. Also, from a lie-down position, gently pull one leg straight up in the air toward you until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings. Alternate legs but remember to hold a stretch for at least 15 seconds, if not longer, to allow the muscles to ease and fully stretch out. During this stretch exercise, keep your leg straight out in front of you (not to the side), gently pull it toward your chest, and keep your back flat on the floor with abdomen muscles engaged for support. Any variation of these types of exercises (e.g., using a ballet bar) will stretch out the hamstrings and will enhance strengthening exercises for the hamstrings.
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Stretching and Strengthening Hamstrings Through Yoga
The interesting thing about yoga is it not only stretches muscles in the body, but it also strengthens them. Some even consider it to be a form of aerobic exercise; however, with or without sweating and breathing hard, yoga builds muscles while also elongating them. Ballet dance and pilates work in very much the same way. So, if you find going through a stretch routine on your own every time you exercise just too tedious or boring for you, try yoga, pilates, or ballet classes instead. Keep in even better shape as you naturally incorporate hamstring strengthening exercises with stretching.
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Simple Strengthening Exercises for the Hamstrings
Any deliberate and repetitive exercise you can do involving the back part of your upper leg (thigh) will strengthen your hamstrings. Also, keep in mind that when you engage the gluteus maximus (butt muscles), typically you are also employing your hamstrings since they are all connected. For instance, by just tightening your gluteus maximus area, you automatically tighten your hamstrings. Tightening and releasing these muscle groups repeatedly (e.g., 20 to 50 reps at a time) will strengthen the entire area. It will also help you maintain a firm and shapely backside. Bending and kicking or lifting your leg behind you during aerobic exercise, such as in group exercise routines, will strengthen hamstring muscles. Hamstring curls, which simply involve repeatedly bending and lifting the lower part of the leg behind you are a great form of exercise that targets the hamstrings too. These can be performed while standing or while lying down flat on your stomach. Remember to keep your back straight and core engaged at all times. Squats automatically incorporate hamstring strengthening exercise. Most forms of dance integrate both types of movements in typical dance steps. Lastly, running and jumping of any kind naturally build up hamstring muscles (e.g., tennis, basketball or jogging).
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Weight Training for Hamstrings
Hamstring exercises of any type mentioned above are intensified with ankle weights, which you can buy in any sporting goods store, superstore, or online. However, a few of the typical weight machines found in your local gym are specifically designed for hamstring strengthening, such as the hamstring curl machines. These machines call for standing, sitting, or lying down while lifting adjustable weights. Most gyms these days also provide a variety of aerobic exercise equipment, so besides running on a treadmill or gliding on an elliptical machine, you can typically utilize stair stepping machines as well. These come in different forms or types and are great for the hamstrings.
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Leg and Back Safety
Although hamstring strengthening exercises are an important part of any fitness routine, it’s crucial to follow a few simple rules for safety. First, remember to prevent injury, never lock your knees during the exercises. (This rule applies to most forms of exercise.) Second, mind your knees—for instance, when you’re performing squat exercises, keep from extending your knee past your front toe. Third, always engage your core (abdominal muscles) and maintain an appropriate posture while performing hamstring exercises.