Mark Coles is a physique coach and owner of M10, a private personal training and performance gym based in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire.
In all my years as a physique coach, I’ve never had a typical person ask me to help them develop their hamstrings. I’ve had athletes ask me to help them improve their speed and strength, of which the hamstrings play a huge part.
I’ve also had many male and female physique competitors desperate to grow a great set of hamstrings. But rarely do average people want to focus on hamstrings development alone. In fact, many people very often leave it out of their programming all together. The hamstrings are not only an aesthetic muscles group: they provide huge support to the knee joint; they’re responsible for a lot of sprinting power in sport; and they play a key role in being able to maintain optimal posture.
The hamstrings provide flexion at the knee joint and extension at the hip joint. This is vital to understand when you design your workouts. If I was to ask someone about hamstrings training, they’d almost always talk about a variation of the leg curl machine. People think that as long as you’re flexing at the knee joint your hamstrings will grow. This is like saying as long as you’re curling a dumbbell, you biceps will grow.
And how many people do you know who can’t grow their arms despite training them twice or even three times a week?
Growing a muscle isn’t simply a case of executing the exercise – it’s about executing it with perfection, maximal tension, and training that muscle to its shortened and lengthened position. You only have to watch people on any leg curl machine to notice that they’re throwing the weight up and then dropping the weight with minimal control. Whilst the hamstrings are a powerful group of muscles, you must be in control of the load at all times. Muscle hypertrophy isn’t simply as case of executing one tempo – your muscles grow and develop as a result of being exposed to a range of stimulus.
In my early days of lifting I was hell-bent on using the squat as my main exercise for hamstrings development. It took me a few years of study and analysis to realise that it wasn’t having the impact that I desired. Breaking down the muscles and their movements further, I started placing the majority of my focus on the leg curl machines: kneeling, lying, and seated.
More recently I’ve taken this one step further and looked into which leg curl machines are right for my biomechanics. We all have varying limb lengths, and as such the recruitment of your hamstrings at certain points of each machine will be different to mine. Many of you really struggle to contract your hamstrings hard at the top of the movement. That’s why so many people lift their hips off the pad because it’s a simple way for your body to make the exercise easier.
Think of your hamstrings as the biceps of your legs. When you train your biceps you should not move any other body part apart from your biceps. The same is true of your hams. Yet watch people perform the leg curl and they’re throwing their body all over the place. So always think of this when you perform any leg curl variation. You want to achieve maximal tension through the full range of movement, and you want to be able to achieve maximal contraction on every rep. To do this you’ll require a lot less load than you’re using right now.
Another favourite exercise for hamstrings development is the Romanian deadlift. The reason for this is for the stretch component. The RDL is yet another exercise people really struggle to perform effectively. It is a very advanced because you have to be able to contract and shorten your hamstrings from a stretched position. A lot of people do RDLs, but they turn it into a lower-back movement right from the start.
If you feel your lower back working then you’re not recruiting your hamstrings. When I coach the RDL one of my key tips into squeeze the floor with your feet and then push the floor away. This fires up the glutes and also enables you to connect with your hamstrings. To start with you won’t be able to use a lot of weight, but focus on tension and contraction to start with.
Shake it up
I don’t think there is a rep, set and tempo scheme I haven’t tried for hamstrings. I’ve done phases of pure power and strength with minimal tension through to super slow reps with maximal tension. In my experience the optimal rep range for maximal muscle hypertrophy of the hamstrings is between eight and 12 reps.
You will of course get strong training in the lower rep ranges, but you will see much less muscle development. It’s important to ensure each set lasts a minimum of 40 seconds and you can ensure this by varying your tempos. Seeing as almost every person I’ve trained is weak in the shortened (contracted) position, I would always ensure a one or two second pause here.
A tempo for 40+ seconds and 10 reps could be 3111. The set would take 60 seconds, with three seconds lowering, a one-second pause in the stretched position, a one-second lifting the load, and then one-second hold in the contracted position. To ensure optimal recovery between sets at this tempo I would take 60 seconds.
Training frequency for the hamstrings is always going to be dependent on how quick you want to see development. When I prolapsed a disk in my back a few years ago, I was training hamstrings three times a through their rehab and then twice a week into the hypertrophy phase. Increasing your training frequency is one of the quickest ways to see muscle development. You would focus one day on knee flexion exercises and then another day on hip extension exercises.
Injuring my lower back was a large learning curve for me. I was forced to reassess my programme design and muscle development. Hamstrings had always been a weakness for me but now they’re catching up nicely with the rest of my lower body. If you’re a physique athlete you will always impress the judges with developed hamstrings.
If you don’t, then appreciate how important they are to optimal posture and injury prevention. You wont improve your deadlift and squat with weak hamstrings, and you certainly won’t improve sports performance.