If you’re on a mission to sculpt lean leg muscle, improve muscle definition, build strength or get the contoured leg look, you’ll need to add hamstring exercises into your strength routine.
Sure, strengthening your quads and glutes is also a top priority, which is when squats, deadlifts and hip thrusts shine, but various lower body exercises are crucial for building your legs. Do you give your hamstrings the same attention as you give your squats?
Below, we cover the 10 best hamstring exercises to sculpt leaner legs without leg curl machines in the gym. Grab the best resistance bands and read on for more.
Hamstring exercises: Benefits
The hamstrings run down the backs of your legs and help you squat, walk and perform lower-body exercises. Three muscles — the biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus — form the hamstrings, which must be strong to keep you stable and support hip extension and rotation and knee flexion.
Strong hamstrings keep you stable and mobile and help you move efficiently. Building flexibility in these muscles also helps you perform daily tasks and reduces the likelihood of injuries as you get older. Alongside developing your core and glutes, the hamstrings also protect the lower back from injury and pain.
7 best hamstring exercises to build stronger legs without weights
You don’t need weights to do these hamstring exercises, but using dumbbells, resistance bands or the best kettlebells adds extra resistance for muscles to work through, helping to build mass and strength and improve definition if done regularly — a principle called progressive overload.
1. Nordic curls
This is one of the toughest moves to master and hits the core muscles, hips and hamstrings hard. Start kneeling with a yoga mat or padding underneath both knees and secure your feet against a wall or similar. Engage your core and keep a tall spine. Slowly lean forward with control without rounding your back, pause, then slowly return to the starting position.
Avoid pushing your bum back. If you can, lower your chest to the floor, place both hands down, then push away explosively back to the starting position. You could also attach a resistance band around your hips and secure it behind you or hold a weight in both hands to make the move harder.
2. Inchworm walkouts
Our writer recently did the inchworm exercise every day for a week if you want to learn more about this hamstring exercise.
Stand with feet hip-width apart and softly bend both knees. Place your hands on the ground in front of your feet, then begin walking both hands forward into a plank position, keeping your arms and legs as straight as possible. Pause, then reverse the steps back to the starting position.
3. Prone banded leg curls
Start by lying on your stomach. Loop a resistance band around a pole (or similar immovable object) behind you. Step one foot through the band, resting it just above the ankle and extend the other leg on to the floor. Extend the banded leg away from you, then curl the leg toward your bum, bending the knee. Keep both hips square.
It’s a much more accessible leg curl variation to regular hamstring leg curls.
4. Good Mornings
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Place your hands behind your head and pull your shoulder blades together. Engage your core. With control, lower your chest toward the floor with a straight back until you feel a stretch down the hamstrings. Everyone has different levels of mobility, so this won’t be the same for everyone. Pause, then drive back to standing and squeeze your glutes.
You could stand on one end of a resistance band and loop it over your upper back to make the move harder or add a barbell. Check out more about barbell rows vs good mornings here. Either way, good mornings hit the posterior chain muscles, including the lower back, glutes, core and hamstrings.
5. Staggered-stance RDL
During a staggered-stance RDL, you can zone in on one leg at a time. Start standing on your left foot, then place the ball of your right foot on the floor hip-width apart in line with your left heel. Engage your core and keep a flat back, then hinge forward at the hips and send your bum behind you, lowering your chest toward the floor. Pause, then drive up to stand and switch sides.
You could also hold a weight close to your chest, a weight in each hand (see the video above) or rest a barbell across your upper back to make the exercise harder by adding load. See more on how to do a Romanian deadlift here.
6. Supine hamstring curls
Lay on your back with your feet pressed against the floor hip-width apart. Place sliders underneath both feet. You could also use a dish towel, t-shirt or similar — we recently discussed the pros and cons during the alligator drag ab exercise fitness challenge if you want to learn more.
Drive your hips toward the ceiling and engage your abs. With control, slide both feet away and extend your legs without dropping your hips. Keep your core engaged. Pause, then drive both feet toward your bum.
7. Elevated single-leg glute bridges
Place a box or bench in front and lay on your back. Rest your left heel on the edge of the box and extend your right leg away from you into the air. Drive your hips toward the ceiling, squeeze your glutes and push through your heel. Pause, then slowly lower your bum to the floor. Switch sides.
Add a weight to your hips for extra load or an activation band above your knees to further engage your leg muscles. Here’s how to do a glute bridge and single-leg glute bridges in more detail. The example above should be done from the floor, and once you've nailed the hamstring exercise, progress to the box.
The best way to target the hamstrings during workouts is by programming a mix of knee flexion (think leg curls) and hip extension (think hip hinge) exercises. To do the best hamstring exercises, combine each move into a circuit, or pluck a few to add to your existing routine.
To perform as a circuit, start with 45 seconds of the first exercise, then take 15 seconds of rest. Move to the next and repeat. Complete 4-5 rounds, or as many as you desire.