Best Hamstring Exercises to Strengthen & Tone Those Legs for Summer

With spring front and center and summer right around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about shedding the sweatpants and slipping on those summer shorts. If there’s a little too much jiggle in the back of those upper legs, then devoting some time now to hamstring exercises may just save the season.

Thankfully, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) has done the work for us. All we have to do is get our butts – and hamstrings – into action. ACE conducted extensive research to develop a comprehensive hamstring exercises protocol in conjunction with the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. They identified the top nine exercises that isolate the hamstring muscle group on the back of the thigh.

Here are the top exercises they isolated for hamstring strength and conditioning. For general strength training, perform 2-4 sets of 8-12 reps at a weight that allows for smooth, proper form.

Prone Machine Leg Curl

hamstring exercises

Prone Machine Leg Curl

Laying face down on the leg curl machine, position back of legs under the resistance pad. Heels should be just below the resistance pad.

Hold onto the handles to stabilize your body and gently pull the heels toward the glutes until knees are at a 90-degree angle. Slowly return to starting position.

Seated Machine Leg Curl

This exercise hits the same muscles as the prone version. It may be more appropriate for those who experience lower back issues or require a bit more stability. Sit on the machine with the back of your lower leg on top of the padded arm. Lower the lap pad and secure against the thighs.

Grip the handles for stability and slowly contract the hamstring muscles to until knees are at a 90-degree angle. Pause and release slowly back to the starting position.

Romanian Deadlift

This exercise is done with a barbell, starting with feet hip-width apart and a slight bend in the knees and back straight. Start by lifting the barbell up and to the front part of the thighs.

At full extension (guard against hyperextending the knees), hold for a couple of seconds and slowly release the barbell back to the ground in a smooth, controlled movement. Press heels into the floor, maintaining a neutral spine throughout the exercise. 

Kettlebell Swings

hamstring exercises

Kettlebell swings.

Exercises using kettlebells are commonplace these days, and basic two-handed swings do a great job of working the hamstring muscles. Choose a weight that feels easy to begin with.

Start by gripping the handle of the kettlebell with both hands, feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent.

Bend forward with a straight back until the kettlebell is between the legs. With an explosive movement, push the hips forward and wing the kettlebell in front of your body until it is shoulder height. Quickly push the hips back and return to the starting position.

Single-Arm/Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

This exercise will require balance and stability before attempting. If you’re not quite ready for this, stick with the standard Romanian deadlift. This exercise can be done by holding a dumbbell or a kettlebell.

To begin, balance on one leg holding the dumbbell in the opposite hand. Keep the standing leg soft at the knee and extend the balance leg back. Slowly lean forward from the standing hip while keeping the opposite arm (holding the dumbbell straight). Continue to lower as far as you can and slowly return to the upright position. Do all reps for one leg, switch legs, and complete the set.

Machine Glute-Hamstring Raise

This exercise is for more advanced exercisers and requires considerable core and back stability. Begin by positioning yourself on the glute-hamstring developer machine, face down with feet firmly against the back footplate and ankles between rollers. Fold arms in front of body.

With torso perpendicular to the floor and knees bent, lower the torso down until you’re parallel to the floor. Contract the hamstrings and core to raise back to an upright position. Guard against hyperextending the lower back. 

Stability Ball Hamstring Curl

hamstring exercises

Stability ball hamstring curl.

These exercises are my go-to favorites for shaping the back of the hamstrings. Start by lying down on a mat or exercise floor with a stability ball under the heels. Make sure the stability ball is sized properly for your body by ensuring your knees are at a 90-degree angle when heels are placed on top.

Brace your core and raise the hips in a straight line from the shoulders, arms extended at your sides. Slowly bend your knees and pull the stability ball toward your hips until the soles of your feet are on top of the ball. Hold isometrically for a couple of seconds and roll the ball back out again with control. 

Glute-Hamstring Raise

This version of the glue-hamstring raise is done from a mat on the floor and requires a partner to assist. Begin by kneeling on a mat with knees bent at a 90-degree angle and arms crossed in front of your body.

Your partner secures your ankles as you lower your torso forward toward floor. Go down as far as you can comfortably, then contract the hamstrings and core to return to the upright position. 

Reverse Hip Raise 

For the Reverse Hip Raise, all you need is a bench and lower-back strength. Lay face down on the bench with the edge of the bench at your hips, legs extended behind you. Grip the bars under the bench for stability. Gently life the legs up, knees together until legs are parallel and back is straight. Slowly lower the legs to the starting position.

If you’re crunched for time, ACE researchers found three of these exercises effectively stimulate the hamstring complex and can be used interchangeably: kettlebell swings, single-arm/single-leg Romanian deadlifts and machine prone leg curl. Keep these in your arsenal, and choose one or two other exercises from the list to round out training and strengthen the backs of your legs.

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