Hamstring strengthening exercises work to strengthen the backs of your thighs, help to transmit power between the knees and hips and help support your lower back. People often overlook hamstring strengthening work, concentrating instead on the front of the thighs (quads), but it is important to do both. There are three hamstring muscles on the back of the thigh, semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris.
The main function of the hamstrings is to bend the knees, important in activities such as running, jumping and climbing stairs. They also help to control actions such as kicking, working as the brakes when you swing your leg, and help rotate the lower leg to control foot position as you walk. The other function of the hamstrings is to work with the glutes to help extend the hips in activities such as standing up from sitting, squatting and jumping.
So let’s look at some simple yet really effective hamstring strengthening exercises that you can do at home. They get progressively harder! Start with one set of 10 reps of each exercise unless otherwise stated. As you get stronger, add in another set of 10 reps, and then another until you are up to 3 sets of 10 reps.
These hamstring strengthening exercises are the perfect place to start if you are just starting out with strengthening work or are recovering from an injury.
Why Do This: This hamstring strengthening exercise is the perfect place to start, especially after an injury as it doesn’t require any knee movement. It is very easy to control how hard you work the hamstrings by changing how hard you push the heel down
Starting Position: Lie flat on your back or propped up, with your knee slightly bent and your heel on the floor/mat
Action: Press the back of your heel firmly down. You should feel the muscles in the back of your thigh tightening. Hold for 5-10 seconds and relax
Top Tips: If you prefer to do this exercise in sitting, perch on the edge of a chair with the leg to be worked stretched out in front of you with just a small bend in the knee. Push the heel down into the floor and feel the hamstrings contract
Why Do This: This exercise gets the hamstrings working as the knee bends, making it functional but without putting much force through the muscles or the knee
Starting Position: Stand upright holding on to a chair or table for balance
Action: Lift your foot back behind you bringing it up towards your glutes as high as you can. Hold for 3 seconds and slowly bring the foot back down to the floor
Notes: 1) Make sure you don’t lean forwards as you lift the leg, keep upright
2) Don’t let the leg come forwards as you lift it up, your knees should stay in line with each other so the hip doesn’t bend
Progression: Add an ankle weight or wear a shoe to work the muscles harder
Alternative Position: If you prefer to do hamstring strengthening exercises lying down, lie on your stomach with your legs stretched out. Slowly lift your foot, bringing it towards your glutes and then lower down. Progress in the same way as in standing
Why Do This: Using a ball with hamstring strengthening exercises is a great way to activate the hamstrings, work them harder and gain more control around the knee
Starting Position: Stand, holding onto a table or chair with a soft, inflated ball in the crook of your knee, leg bent behind you
Action: Squeeze the ball by bringing your heel towards your glutes and hold for 3 seconds, then relax
Progression: Start as above but as you hold the squeeze on the ball, bring your whole leg forwards until your hip is at a right angle (90) and then back behind you as far as you can without moving your upper body. Keep the squeeze on the ball throughout
Theraband is a specially designed elastic band that provides graded resistance to exercise. It is available in a range of resistance levels (each a different colour) so it is very easy to gradually progress the hamstring strengthening exercises, so the same exercise can be done just with different resistance levels as you get progressively stronger. Make sure you can happily do the beginners exercises before you try these, particularly if you are recovering from an injury, and start with a low resistance band, such as tan or yellow. Theraband is a really effective, yet simple and cheap tool to make hamstring strengthening exercises more challenging and fun.
Starting Position: Tie one end of the theraband to something sturdy directly in front of you such as a table leg. Fasten the other end of the band around your ankle and sit in a chair with your leg out in front of you
Action: Slowly slide your heel back, bending the knee. As the tension increases through the theraband, you should feel the hamstrings working harder. Hold for 3-5 seconds and slowly bring the foot forwards
Starting Position: Tie the theraband so it forms a loop and hook it round the foot of your good leg and the ankle of the leg you want to work. Lie on your stomach with your legs out straight
Action: Bring your heel towards your bottom pulling against the theraband as far as you can. Hold for 3-5 seconds and slowly lower the leg
1) The more tension (i.e. the less slack) there is in the band when you start, the harder you will work the hamstrings
2) It is actually harder work for the hamstrings to control the movement on the way back (i.e. as you return to the starting position) so make sure you bring the foot back slowly rather than letting it just flop back
3) Start with a low resistance band (tan/yellow) when you first start these hamstring strengthening exercises. Once you can do 3 sets of 10 reps, progress on to the next colour band but be aware you may need to reduce the number of reps you then do to start with
Why Do These: These bridging exercises are all great, progressive hamstring strengthening exercises that also work the glutes. The glutes and hamstrings work together with activities such as running and climbing stairs so it is really good to work them both together. These hamstring strengthening exercises get progressively more challenging so start at the beginning and work through as able.
Starting Position: Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Your feet and knees should be hip distance apart – a good way to do this is to start with the feet together, turn the toes out making a “V” shape and then follow with your heels. To check the distance between your knees, you should just be able to fit your fist between your knees. Tighten your abdominal muscles slightly to engage your core and stabilise your lower back
Action: Clench your glutes and slowly lift your buttocks up off the floor as high as you can without arching your back – you are aiming for there to be a diagonal line from your knees down to your hips. Hold for 3 seconds and slowly lower
Starting Position: As with the simple bridge
Action: Lift up into a bridge position as with the simple bridge but as you hold the bridge position, lift one foot off the floor and extend the knee as shown. Hold for 3-5 seconds, bring the foot back down, and then lower the buttocks to the floor
Watch Points: Keep your pelvis/hips lifted up and level throughout – don’t let them drop down on either one or both sides
Progressions: 1) Keep up in the bridge position throughout, alternating from side to side which leg you stretch out. Gradually build up the number of reps you do between each time you fully lower your buttocks down to the floor
2) Change the starting position so one leg is extended out off the floor, then perform the bridging action using only one leg
Having a foam or air roller underneath your feet as you do these hamstring strengthening exercises makes your hamstrings and core work much, much harder – beware of cramp – it’s a good idea to make sure you have stretched the hamstrings out before doing these.
You will probably need to start with a lower number of reps with roller hamstring strengthening exercises than with the simple bridging exercises.
Simple Bridge With Roller: Exactly the same as the simple bridge above but performed with the roller under your feet
Single Leg Bridge With Roller: Again, as with the single leg bridge above but performed with the roller under your foot
Another great progressive set of hamstring strengthening exercises. You need a large inflated gym ball for these exercises. Stage one is suitable for beginners.
Starting Position: Lie on your back with your feet and lower calves resting on a gym ball, knees straight, arms crossed over your chest
Action: Slowly curl the ball towards your body, bending your knees and then slowly roll the ball away.
Top Tips: 1) You are aiming for a smooth, fluid movement rather than letting the ball roll side to side - imagine you are lying on a beach and you are trying to move the ball up and down the same line in the sand
2) Having your arms crossed over your chest stops you from stabilising through your arms, thus working your core and hamstrings more. If you are feeling wobbly, rest your arms down either side of you for balance
Starting Position: As with stage one but then lift your hips up off the floor, keeping them raised in a bridge position
Action: Maintaining the bridge position, curl the ball towards you as close as you can, hold for a moment and then slowly roll the ball away until your legs are straight, then lower your hips down
Progression: Perform the exercise without lowering the hips after each repetition – keep them lifted throughout
Top Tips: As with stage one
Starting Position: Lie on your back with both feet up on the ball as in stage one. Lift your hips up off the bed into a bridge position (as with stage 2) and then lift one leg up off the ball completely
Action: Keeping one leg lifted, curl the ball towards you, hold for a moment and then slowly roll the ball away until your knee is straight. Lower the other leg down to the ball, then lower your hips to the floor
Progression: Carryout the exercise as above but without lowering the lifted leg or hips between reps
Why Do This: With these Nordic hamstring strengthening exercises you are working the hamstrings eccentrically – strengthening them as they lengthen rather than as they shorten (as with most other exercises). Studies have shown this to reduce the risk of hamstring injuries. It is a challenging exercise so less reps are required – start with 5 reps and then build up to 10
Starting Position: Kneeling with your feet firmly anchored, either under something stable or held down by someone. You may want to place a small cushion on towel underneath your knees for comfort
Action: Slowly lean forwards as far as you can – when you start losing control, allow your body to fall, bringing your hands down to control yourself and then quickly push yourself back up to the starting position
Top Tips: 1) You are aiming to control the movement with your hamstrings for as long as possible before you fall, attempting to get as close to parallel to the floor as you can
2) If you don’t like the sensation of falling forwards, either lean as far forwards as you can while in control before coming back up, or do the exercise in front of a wall and place your hands on the wall when needed
3) It is really important your keep your back in a neutral position throughout this exercise – make sure you don’t bend at the hips
It is always a good idea to do stretches alongside hamstring strengthening exercises. Muscle work most efficiently when they have the right combination of strength and length. You can find a whole range of stretching exercises in the hamstring stretches section.
It is also important to work the other muscle groups around the knee and hip along with hamstring strengthening exercises to ensure a good balance throughout the leg. Visit the knee strengthening exercises section for loads more exercises that can help.