10 Exercises for Healthy Hamstrings

As a follow-up to our blog post "Ditch the Hamstring Pain and Never Look Back", here are some of our favourite exercises to develop hamstring strength—in both their lengthened and shortened positions—while also enhancing mobility. Give each of them a try, but know that we wouldn't recommend doing ALL of these exercises back to back on a regular basis. It's best to choose the ones that give YOUR body the best bang for its buck, and start there for now. 

Isometric Exercise: The length of the muscle won't really change, but its fibres are in a constant state of contraction. This is a great place to start for those with weak or injured hamstrings.

1) Legs Up the Wall

Move up to the wall from a sideways-facing seated position and lay back until the legs and hips are against the wall. Elevate the pelvis and walk the feet up the wall until you are balanced across the shoulder blades. Avoid placing any pressure on the back of the neck; if necessary, use a blanket underneath the shoulders to create space between your neck and the floor.  Dorsiflex the ankles so that the heels press into the wall with soles of the feet turned to the ceiling and toes pulling back toward the shins. Hold this position for minimum 30 seconds, contracting the hamstrings as well as the glutes to feel the whole back line of the body lighting up.

Concentric Strength Exercises: Working the hamstrings in their shortened state - vital for yogis who spend so much time lengthening the hamstrings.

2) Inverted Hip Thrust

Lie with the feet on the wall so that knees are bent at 90 degrees with spine in neutral (inward curve of lower back intact), lift the hips into extension and bring one foot off the wall so that the leg is pointing up. Maintain this position while you bring the hips back down to the floor. Repeat 10-15 reps on each side.

3) Running Man

Lie face-down with the legs wide and contract the quads to straighten the knees. Activating the hamstrings and glutes, lift the legs only as high as they'll go without the lower back moving into further extension (it should remain neutral). Repeat 10 leg lifts and on the last rep keep the legs up and bend the knees to draw the heels to the bum. Repeat that action 10 times and then rest. The same movements can be repeated with legs together, varying your foot position: toes pointed or flexed, turned in, out or in neutral. Each variation will target different muscle fibres of the hamstrings.

4) Hamstring Curls

Hamstring curls can be done using a machine at the gym, or by placing something under the heels like a blanket or foam roller. In this example we've used a stability ball to support the feet. Start by elevating the hips into full extension, then pull the ball toward you without letting the hips drop. Experiment with different positions, turning the toes in or out vs. keeping them neutral, or by pulling with pointed rather than flexed feet. In each variation, try to keep the arms relaxed - keeping them close to your sides, or even elevating them off the floor, will increase the difficulty.

5) Kneeling Squat

People often underestimate the importance of using their hamstrings in a squat - they think it's all about the quads! In this kneeling variation, we isolate the hamstrings in a similar way to a hip thrust. Starting in the sitting position, squeeze the glutes and hamstrings and use that contraction to drive the hips forward and up. Feel free to incorporate weight here, holding dumbbells, a heavy sandbag or even using a barbell if you're comfortable supporting it on your back. Your spine should remain in neutral throughout the movement.

Eccentric Strength Exercises: Loading the muscles in their lengthened position in order to gain strength through full range of motion. This work will bridge the gap between the activation drills done in the above section, and the yoga postures many are accustomed to doing as passive stretches. 

6) Lean-Aways

Come into a tall kneeling position with the knees and feet hip distance apart. With a partner holding down your ankles/shins (or even feet for extra stability), maintain a slightly tucked pelvis (posterior tilt) and lean forward. Pause at the point where you feel the hamstrings contract—they may even cramp here, which isn't a problem! Cramping just means you tuned into your muscles in a new way and your nervous system has responded by going into overdrive. Walk it off and try again. This movement can be done for reps, going back and forth 15-20 times, or for a longer hold like 30 seconds. Try different positions to target the different compartments of the hamstrings: knees wide, feet together, or knees narrow and feet wide.

7) Standing Good Morning/ Wide Leg Good Morning

This movement will help to refine your hip hinge. In the standard version, feet are about hip-distance apart with knees unlocked. Think of cork-screwing the feet into the ground to activate external rotation in the hips. Tip the pelvis forward FIRST before letting the spine move. The spine remains neutral (curves intact, no rounding) and is carried by the movement of the pelvis. In the bottom position (parallel to the floor), keep the hamstrings and glutes engaged (SQUEEZE!) and tilt the pelvis back to an upright position. To increase the load, reach your arms overhead, hold a weight into the chest or a light barbell on the back. Repeat 10-15 reps, holding for a count of 10 on the last one. The same can also be done in the wide-leg variation. Remember this feeling the next time you're doing standing forward bends in your yoga practice!

8) Seated Good Morning

Building on the standing variation, this movement will help to refine the hip hinge in a seated position. Set yourself up on a chair, bench or stability ball so that the hips are above the knees. With the legs and feet in external rotation, dig the heels into the floor and feel the hamstrings and glutes contract. Let the pelvis move first, tipping it forward before the spine begins moving toward the floor. Stop at the point before your back wants to round out, squeeze the backs of the legs, and use that strength to drive the hips back to their upright position. In the bottom position of this movement, you should feel the hamstrings both stretching and contracting - this is eccentric strength!

9) Single Leg Good Morning

Incorporate balance in your standing good morning while isolating single leg strength. Standing with one foot elevated, squeeze the knees together and KEEP THEM THAT WAY as you hinge forward to 90 degrees. Pause for a moment in the bottom position before driving into the supporting heel and returning to an upright position. Aim for 10 reps on each side, with a 10-count on the last rep each time. You can also load this movement, using weight like a kettlebell held toward the chest, once you feel that the bodyweight version is no longer challenging.  Try using this as prep work before single-leg balance postures like half moon and notice if you're able to find more hamstring activation in the pose.

Isometric Finisher: Fine-tuning the neuromuscular connection with your new hamstrings!

10) Hamstring PAILs/RAILs

PAILs and RAILs are a core concept of Functional Range Conditioning.  PAILs and RAILs refer to Progressive Angular Isometric Loading and Regressive Angular Isometric Loading, respectively.  These movements are designed to:

  1. Teach the nervous system how to control progressively wider ranges of motion 
  2. Prepare the body’s tissues to function with control in newly acquired ranges

Start by resting one foot on a ledge, bench or similar surface where you can comfortably lean the chest slightly forward (this could mean simply having one foot resting a stair...baby steps!). Keeping the legs active, trunk engaged, push down into the step or bench with your lifted leg. Maintain tension for 10-20 seconds - this is your PAILs contraction. Follow this with your RAILs contraction: keep the body in a brace position (all limbs engaged, trunk strong) and lift the elevated leg in its lengthened position, pulling it in toward you. Try this in an upright position first, and then begin working in the same bent-forward position as your PAILs contraction. Keep the leg lifted for 1-20 seconds. This aspect of the exercise will contract the quads (which may cramp up at first), strengthening the muscles that help to stabilize the hamstrings in their lengthened position. After each set of PAILs/RAILs, take a moment to relax the leg into its deeper range, and then start again. Perform 3 sets per leg.