What Are Hamstrings And How Do We Curl Them?
Hamstring curls refer to any exercise that involves pulling your heels towards your butt as a result of knee flexion. Do you love tightening the sleeves on your t-shirts by banging out bicep curls? Think of hamstring curls as the same thing for your lower body. They’ll make your lower body stronger, give you resilient hips and knees, and help you build a backside that rivals your favourite fitspo influencer.
You probably know that your hamstrings run down the back of your thigh, but you may not know that they’re a group of different muscles working together. The three muscles that make up this group are biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus.
All three run from the lower portion of the hip bones to just below the knee on the posterior aspect of the leg. The biceps femoris runs down the lateral portion of the posterior thigh, while the semimembranosus and semitendinosus run down the medial side. While the individual muscles can be targeted to a certain extent (more on this in the FAQ section), all three typically work together.
Since the hamstrings are a biarticular muscle group (they cross more than one joint), they are primarily responsible for performing both hip extension as well as knee flexion. This isn’t to say that they absolutely must be doing both actions simultaneously, but simply that they can perform hip extension and knee flexion either in isolation or simultaneously. The hamstrings also work in conjunction with a number of other muscles to perform internal rotation at the hip. This article won’t really cover the hammies as internal rotators, but be aware that they do play a part there.
Step by Step Instructions:
Here’s how I would recommend going through the old reliable seated machine hamstring curls.
- Adjust the height and depth of the foot pad to ensure your legs are almost but not quite straight with the pad touching just above the posterior aspect of your ankles. You want the legs to be as straight as possible without hyperextending.
- Pick an appropriate weight. I recommend doing this now because it will be much more difficult once you’re completely locked in.
- Bring the support pad down so that it rests on your quads.
- Imagine you’re wearing a belt buckle and try to pull that buckle towards your belly button using only your abs. This helps to put your hips into a neutral position, allowing you to complete the curls effectively.
- Firmly grab onto the handles, point your toes to the sky and begin pulling your heels down towards your butt.
- Come as far down as your mobility allows and hold for a second.
- Allow your feet to begin to move away from your body, towards the starting position. This should be slow and controlled the whole time.
- Congrats, you just did a great hamstring curl. Repeat that same rep another 5-12 times.
The 6 Best Hamstring Curl Variations
What’s the first exercise that comes to mind when I say the words “hamstring curl”?
I’m willing to bet you pictured someone using their heels (or calves if they haven’t set it up properly) to feverishly pull a pad toward their butt on an old pulley loaded, metal machine that has a single coat of 30 year old white paint slowly chipping off of it.
I swear I’m not psychic, I’ve just been around gym culture long enough to know that most people think that the old hamstring curl machine is the only option when it comes to sculpting strong hamstrings.
Luckily, I have a few other options that will spice things up and help you reap all the benefits of a hamstring curl.
Glute Bridge Walkouts
Walkouts are exactly what they sound like they would be. Lie flat on your back and enter a glute bridge position. From here, try to keep your hips elevated as you slowly walk your feet away from your body. It should take you anywhere from 4-6 small steps per side to walk all the way out. Most people will have to let their butt hit the ground and slide their feet back to begin the next rep, but feel free to throw it in reverse and walk back up to the glute bridge position if you’re able to. Be sure to maintain a solid, braced core throughout to stabilize your hips and let your hamstrings do their thing.
Stability Ball Curls
Stability ball curls are very similar to walkouts with an added degree of instability. Lie flat on your back with your heels rested on a stability ball that is approximately 2 feet away from your hips. This next part will probably be a bit difficult. Brace your core as if you are about to take a punch and be prepared to feel a bit wobbly. Dig your heels into the ball and bring your hips up into an elevated glute bridge position. Once you have your bearings in this position, allow your legs to slowly extend before using your heels to pull the ball back towards your butt.
If you don’t happen to have a stability ball handy, you can perform the same movement without the element of instability by placing sliders, a towel or slideboard underneath your heels.
Prone Banded Curls
Many of us have gotten pretty good at making due with bands or other household items. If you have a set of bands and something sturdy to tie them around, you can set up a DIY hamstring curl. Tie a band around a pole (or anything that can handle some tension) and lie on your stomach. From here, all you have to do is wrap the band around your heels and proceed to curl them towards your backside. This certainly isn’t the most effective type of curl given the fact that there is very little tension at the bottom of the movement and a significant amount at the top, but it is definitely better than nothing.
Dumbbell Hamstring Curls
Dumbbell hamstring curls are another variation that can be done at home if you have some weight lying around. To complete dumbbell curls, you will need a bench of some sort, a dumbbell, and a friend. Pick an appropriate sized dumbbell (start low if you haven’t done them before) and place it beside the bench.
Lie face down on the bench and wiggle down to one end until your knees are approximately an inch away from the edge. Once set up, you’ll need a friend to place the dumbbell between your feet. Be sure to squeeze the dumbbell hard to lock it in place before bending your knees and pulling the weight towards your butt.
Unfortunately (in this case at least) gravity is a thing. As the shins move towards a more vertical position near the end portion of the exercise, the weight will actually feel lighter because the hamstrings will not have to do as much work as they did in the first half of the exercise. Much like band curls, dumbbell curls should probably be utilized as a last option when nothing else is available.
Hamstring Curl Isometrics
Isometric exercises are a great option for beginner lifters as well as those returning to the gym after an injury. In order to complete an isometric hamstring curl, you’re going to need a bench, chair or other solid object. Position yourself flat on your back and place your feet up on a bench or chair. Our muscles are strongest at their midrange (this is a recording), so your knees should be at approximately a 90 degree angle. Aim to have your thighs at a perpendicular angle to your shins.
Once in position, simply push your heels into the table or chair for anywhere from 10 – 30 seconds to complete the isometric contraction. If this still feels difficult or awkward, you can lie on your stomach with your knees bent and use a friend (or heavy band) to hold your heels in place as you attempt to pull them toward your butt.
Nordic Hamstring Curls
Think of these as reverse hamstring curls, where the muscle has to work extremely hard eccentrically. Nordics can be extremely beneficial for athletes (especially runners) because they challenge the muscle in a lengthened position where injuries commonly occur. We won’t touch on them very much here since they are an extremely advanced exercise, just be aware of the fact that they are an option.
Benefits of Hamstring Curls
Here are some benefits of hamstring curls that will put your mind at ease.
- Posture – Far too many people only work the muscles they can see in the mirror. This trend tends to leave them extremely anteriorly dominant. Their quads, pecs and abs may pop, but their backside is left neglected. Not only can this make us look a bit uneven, it can put us at risk for injuries. The combination of overdeveloped quads and underdeveloped hamstrings can predispose many to anterior pelvic tilt. This posture puts the hamstrings in a chronically lengthened position, leaving them in a disadvantageous position to absorb and produce force effectively and safely.
- Knee Health – Another major benefit of strengthening the hamstrings is the ability to help stabilize the knee joint. Due to the origin and insertion of the hamstrings, they are able to aid in ACL injury prevention. Much like the ACL inside the joint itself, the hamstrings aim to keep the tibia (shin bone) in a safe position in relation to the femur (thigh bone) when quickly decelerating and/or cutting. As you would imagine, having strong, resilient hamstrings is extremely beneficial for field based athletes who perform rapid change of direction.
- “Tight” Hamstrings – Many times hamstrings that are thought to be “tight” are actually loose. Anterior pelvic tilt puts them in a chronically lengthened position making them feel tight, when they are actually stretched 24/7 and in need of a more concentric orientation. Strengthening them through various hamstring curl variations can help pull them back into a more neutral, stable position.
- Building a Sexy Backside – This one is pretty self explanatory. Dedicating time and effort towards sculpting your hamstrings will help build a backside that will turn heads both inside and outside the gym.
Machine Curls vs. Stability Ball Curls
The debate of machine curls vs. stability ball curls has raged on for quite some time. In my opinion, stability ball curls are the way to go for most of the average gym going population for the following reasons:
- The stability ball provides an uneven surface, forcing you to create internal stability by bracing your core. This is a fundamental skill that will transfer over to activities of daily living. Need to carry groceries, grab something off the top shelf or move some chairs around while cleaning? The ability to brace your core will protect your back and make all those tasks much easier.
- Stability ball hamstring curls require much greater degrees of hip extension. Having the hips extended while completing a curl teaches you to complete a full concentric contraction of the hamstrings.
- You have a much wider range of motion available to you since you are not tied into a machine.
Machine curls have their place. The amount of artificial stability provided by the seat and thigh pad allow you to focus less on bracing and more on moving heavier weight. If your only goal is to get some massive hammies, machines may be your best option for isolating and overloading the muscle. With that being said… I still think everyone should master the stability ball curl before attempting to isolate and overload just the hamstrings.
Even though it’s a fairly simple exercise, many people can (and will) make some mistakes that will put a damper on all that hard work. Here are a few things to avoid when building your hammies:
- Trying to max out a hamstring curl – Curls are usually an isolation movement. This means that there is not much benefit and quite a bit of risk when trying to load them maximally.
- Curling when the hips are in anterior pelvic tilt – Since the hamstrings are attached to the hips, people with anterior pelvic tilt can end up with a strange sensation of tightness when their hamstrings are actually in a lengthened position. If your hips are dumped forward and stretching only seems to make your hamstrings feel tighter, you probably need to focus more on gaining strength in both your rectus abdominis and your hammies. Over time, this should return your hamstrings to a more appropriate resting position.
- Using the calves – When completing a hamstring curl, many people tend to point their toes down. This actually activates the claves, taking much of the work away from the hamstrings. To truly isolate the hammies, point your toes towards your shins to disadvantage the calf muscles. This is called dorsiflexion. Your ability to remain in dorsiflexion will rely largely on your hamstring strength as well as the exercise being done. Remaining dorsiflexed for the entirety of the rep will be much more difficult (and somewhat impractical) for exercises such as walkouts that rely on other muscles for stability.
- Failing to use full ROM – See above… Using heavy weight may make you feel cool in the moment, but it actually puts you at a disadvantage if you can’t control them. When the weight is too heavy, you’re only working in the midrange. This is where the muscle is at its strongest. You want to go through the full range of motion in order to challenge the hammies at their fully lengthened and shortened positions as well. Pick a weight that allows you to get a full stretch at the bottom and complete contraction at the top.
How To Program Hamstring Curls
Hamstrings are an accessory exercise. If you’re a healthy individual and happen to have a trainer who has you skipping squat or deadlift variations only to hammer away at hamstring curls…. Run as far away as you can.
You can train the hamstrings either before or after your main lift. Hitting them before the main lift gets blood flowing to the area and prepares them for the hard work to come. Alternatively, hammering away at them after the main lift allows you to focus a bit more on overloading and exhausting the hamstrings. Either way, I’d go with 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps on one of the hamstring curl exercises we’ve touched on here.
If you’re new to the gym, here’s a sample 12 week progression I would give my own clients. This progression will help build hammies that will fill out your baggiest shorts. It will also help keep you injury free while playing whatever sport you dabble in while enjoying a few adult beverages on summer nights.
- Weeks 1 & 2 – Isometric hamstring curls
- Weeks 3 & 4 – Glute bridge walkouts
- Weeks 5 & 6 – Double leg stability ball curl (eccentric portion only)
- Weeks 7 & 8 – Double leg stability ball curl
- Weeks 9 &10 – Single leg stability ball curl
- Weeks 11 & 12 – Seated machine hamstring curls.
Should my feet be together or separated when performing hamstring curls?
Keep your feet at the same separation you would have when standing, walking, etc… You may be able to go heavier with the feet together, but that isn’t really your hamstrings doing all of the work.
Can I isolate the medial and lateral hamstrings?
If you want to turn your big toes towards each other to isolate medial hamstrings or away from each other for lateral hamstrings, that’s fine. Whether this actually does very much is still extremely questionable though. In reality, it probably won’t make that much of a difference for 99.9% of the population, so I would recommend keeping your feet straight.
Should my core be braced when doing hamstring curls?
Yes. Maintaining a braced core throughout will help to stabilize the hips in an appropriate position, allowing you to complete the curls effectively.
Do the hamstrings play a role in internal rotation?
The short answer is yes. Although the hamstrings do the majority of their work in the sagittal plane, their origin and insertion points allow the medial hamstrings to have a bit of say when it comes to internal rotation at the hip. With that being said, their role here is minimal compared to muscles whose main roles are internal rotation.