These are the 10 best hamstring exercises for building stronger legs without squats

Best hamstring exercises: Man on a white background performing a hamstring stretch with left leg and arm extended
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

These are the best hamstring exercises to strengthen your legs without a squat in sight. I don’t know many people who make it their mission to develop sculpted hamstring muscles in the gym. Quads, absolutely — there’s an alarming amount of #quadsquad going around on Instagram, but hamstrings? Sure, everyone wants to target them during leg day strength programs, but aesthetically, they hold less appeal. 

Your hamstrings are located along the backs of your legs, running between your bum and the backs of your knees, and help you to squat, walk, and perform many leg movements. Hamstrings are formed of three separate muscles — the biceps femoris (the outer hamstring muscle), semimembranosus (inner muscle), and semitendinosus (middle muscle). These muscles are more delicate than your quads and subjected more easily to injury — a pulled hammy is the arch nemesis of many athletes, including sprinters and footballers. 

That’s why strengthening your hamstring muscles should be a key component of any leg day program if you want to build stability in your legs. So, grab your weights (I recommend a resistance band or a pair of the best adjustable dumbbells) and add these 10 best hamstring exercises to your workout regime.  

Where are the hamstrings located?  

Hamstring anatomy labeling the three hamstring muscles

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Your hamstring muscles attach at the hips and insert into your knee joints, running down the backs of your legs. Together, the three hamstring muscles help flex and bend the knees (like during hamstring curls), extend your hips, and rotate your hips. 

Unless you regularly stretch and mobilize your hips and hamstrings, these muscles could be neglected and quickly tighten up, limiting your flexibility and range of motion during daily activities and exercise. As you get older, it becomes even more important to give them some love, even just for simple exercises like touching your toes or kicking a ball without pulling a muscle. 

If this sounds like you, put down your foam roller — these three assisted stretches develop flexibility and strength without equipment, and these mobility exercises for hip flexor pain also target the hamstrings. 

Ready to hammer your hamstrings? Here are 10 of the best hamstring exercises you can do anywhere, according to BJ Gaddour from Bodybuilding.com

Remember, always check your form with a personal trainer if you’re unsure, and if you have suffered any injuries, ensure you’re cleared for exercise before starting a new exercise program.

Watch the 10 best hamstring exercises video from BJ Gaddour  

You can use a mix of equipment to perform these exercises. As for which ones to try? I recommend cherry-picking a few to add to an existing leg program and use that as a way to get started with hamstrings.

If you're doing a standalone hamstring session you could choose between five and eight exercises to begin with. You could use all 10, but it might be overkill on your muscles, especially if you’re new to exercise.

“The key to building your hamstrings is to perform an eclectic mix of knee flexion (leg curls) and hip extension (hip-hinging) moves to work both the low and high hamstrings,” says Gaddour. “Moves like stability ball leg curls kill two birds with one stone by training knee flexion while maintaining hip extension, making it the most important move if you had to pick just one.”

Here are the exercises at a glance:

  • Banded leg curls  
  • Stability ball leg curls
  • Band-resisted rolling leg curls 
  • Feet-elevated hip thrusts 
  • Single-arm Bulgarian hip hinges
  • Swings 
  • Glute-ham raises (GHR) & Russian leg curls 
  • Wide-stance landmine sumo hip hinges 
  • Single-arm landmine hip-hinges 
  • Dual landmine hip hinges (parallel & staggered) 

“The hamstrings are a very powerful muscle group that lean more toward fast-twitch muscle fibers (explosive movement), so they respond handsomely to lower (3-6) or medium reps (8-12),” Gaddour adds. “I love doing lower reps with high-tension strength moves like GHRs and hip hinges.” Exercises using single-sided, banded, or bodyweight movement are great for higher reps and add metabolic stress to reach that sought-after “pump and burn.”

Typically, during exercises like a squat, your hamstrings still see the action but act as synergist movers rather than the agonists (quads and glute muscles) that are considered primary movers during the exercise. So forget them (for now) because these hamstring exercises put the hamstring muscles front and center to maximize your leg day gains. 

The workout is heavy on the leg curls, which could cause some strain on the knees in certain positions. If you start to experience knee pain, reduce the load or stop the exercise if it persists. 

a photo of a woman doing a hamstring stretch

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Every exercise can be modified using surfaces or equipment around you. For example, during moves that require you to place your feet on something and pull your feet towards you, you could use a sturdy ball or anything that you can safely glide along the ground. And, if you don’t have kettlebells, dumbbells (or even filled bottles of water) work well.

During the kettlebell swing, remember to keep your back flat and hinge forward at your hips to maximize the contraction in your hamstrings. Maintain a soft bend in your knees rather than squatting, and keep your core engaged — we cover how to do a kettlebell swing properly here. 

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.