Q: Hi Denis,
What exercises do you recommend for the hamstrings? I know that leg curls are good. Are there any others? And what kind of sets and reps do you recommend?
. . . George Whitner
A: Hi George,
I like to work legs with free weights; I find they have many advantages over machines, as machines stabilize the lower limb instead of forcing it to work all the muscles in synergy. Personally, in my own programs (at the point I am now at in my development), I mainly use machines for active recovery or non-traumatic phases when designing my leg workouts. Machines are good at the beginning, but you quickly realize you are limited to certain movements that you have to repeat time after time, which is one reason people have trouble developing their leg muscles (especially hamstrings), as they lack variety in their programs. If I have to use machines, I’ll at least try to come up with new exercises where I change the positioning on the machine, or I’ll simply use cables for more versatility. If you have read my article on leg presses, you also know that I use that exercise for hamstrings instead of quadriceps (for which I will use the hack squat instead).
There are so many exercises that can be done with free weights. I even designed many versions of the leg curl with dumbbells that my clients actually “hate” the first time they perform them, but which have proven to be really effective! Nevertheless, the best of all (and my favourite) is without question the stiff-leg deadlift. Few do it correctly, though, and usually end up injuring themselves. People with a history of injuries also fear that exercise as they sometimes experience pain in the lower back, which is a consequence of poor exercise form. All my clients (even those with low back injuries) do deadlifts without pain, as I take the time to teach them the proper biomechanics of the movement when I first train them to do it. You can see a good example of this in one of my videos on SeriousAboutMuscle.com.
First of all, the motion must come from the hips and the hips only, as the back remains straight at all times! A lot of trainees “think” they keep it straight, but they actually need someone to correct them when they are performing the exercise (just as I have to do with each new client). An important note to make here is that what I call a stiff-leg deadlift is actually done with a slight but controlled bend at the knee. I don't want to get into details here, but let's just say that this position has a functional purpose (it's better to keep a slight bend in the joint than to lock it), but the movement still has to come from the hips. There's no need to play that much with the knee angle during the motion; you simply start with knees in that comfortable position and keep them that way, concentrating on going backward and stretching the hamstrings. The biggest mistake people make on the stiff-leg deadlift is seeing the movement as a down-and-up motion instead of back-and-forth. The pelvis has to tilt forward (back straight and moving with the exercise) as the hips are brought backward as far as possible, weight on the heels. Try to visualize that there’s a wall behind you and that you want to reach it and press your buttocks against it. The bar also has to remain close to the body to prevent lengthening of the lever and thus cause vertebral disc pressure. I even suggest my clients wear long pants when training hamstrings so that they don’t fear the bar rubbing against their thighs and keep it in good position. If done correctly, you should feel a profound stretch in the back of the leg before the bar reaches knee level (or slightly under if you’re more flexible). If at some point you felt your back working, you compensated and cheated, even if you didn’t notice it (involuntarily)!
For reps, people tend to go high with 12, 15, or even more. It is true that most of the muscles of the lower limb are more suited to endurance; however, the hamstrings are in particular, since it is a fast-twitch muscle group that plays a big role in power activities, such as sprinting. In this regard, they tend to respond better to heavy weights, faster reps, and the eccentric mechanical stress of stretching. To give you an example: if I use the leg-curl machine, I‘ll try to aim for 6-9 reps, but go very slow on the way down (to increase eccentric stress), take a 1-2 second pause at the bottom (to benefit even more from the stretch stimulus), quickly bring the weight back up (with a little more power than I would normally use to stimulate fast twitch fibres), and finally squeeze the muscle belly at the top for another count of 1-2 seconds (to accentuate peak contraction).
Another reason why a lot of bodybuilders have trouble developing their legs is that they don’t concentrate enough on the movement. They concentrate for arms, chest, and other muscles they “like” to train, but kind of quickly get “rid” of the workout when it’s legs, and they end up hoisting weights for about a hour instead of really thoroughly working the targeted muscle groups. Developing good hamstrings is very important if you compete and want to win contests. It is a fact that great legs help a lot in placing well, something I know myself from experience, as I always placed well even against much bigger or “drug enhanced” bodybuilders, simply because they lacked development, symmetry, and proportions in the lower half of their body. You know when you have enough hamstrings when they look as round and big on the sides as the quadriceps while doing a side pose. They will look even more outstanding if you trained to get to that lower part of the biceps femoris (the outer or lateral muscle of the three hamstrings muscles). That particular one has two heads, just like the biceps brachii on your arm, the smaller one coming out from the femur (thigh bone), which gives it its larger and rounder appearance (if fully developed). Very few bodybuilders have that, but when you step onstage with it, it pays!
Exercises that keep the hip in a fixed position, as most machines do, will put more stress on the distal insertion of the muscles, helping you involve the lower part (especially the biceps femoris) and give you that round muscle belly that goes low down behind the knee. Exercises that use the hip joint like the leg press, the stiff-leg deadlift and other variations will help build the core of the hamstrings, so if you need more mass in the back of the leg, focus on those.
When designing your program, simply select exercises that fit your actual needs. Most of the time I will train my hamstrings just like any other muscle, using as many exercises, and a wide range of sets and reps schemes. Concentrate on good form, experiment and see what seems to work for you. I hope this helps – have a great workout!
. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011