A 2014 study that investigated the relative muscle activity of the hamstring group and selected surrounding musculature during the leg curl, good morning, glute-ham raise, and Romanian deadlift (RDL) found that hamstring activity was maximized in the RDL and glute-ham raise. So, the researchers concluded that “individuals who seek to maximize the involvement of the hamstring musculature should consider focusing on the glute-ham raise and RDL.” (1)
Another 2014 study compared the stiff- legged deadlift and the lying leg curl exercises where movement originates at the hip versus the knee to investigate whether they will result in differential activation of the hamstring muscle complex (2). The results of this study showed that the lying leg curl elicited significantly greater normalized mean activation of the lower lateral and lower medial hamstrings compared to the stiff- legged deadlift, which tells us that different regions of the hamstring complex can be regionally targeted through exercise selection.
The takeaway from the above research is that a comprehensive hamstring workout should incorporate both types of hamstring exercise: Where movement is focused at the hip joint, and where movement is focused at the knee joint.
With this in mind, below is a list of my top 5 hamstring exercises in each category.
Top 5 Hip Dominant Hamstring Exercises
1. Romanian Deadlift
Since most people are not training for a powerlifting meet, but most of the deadlift info out there has a powerlifting bias, meaning it’s for competitive lifters, I wrote THIS article that talks about deadlifts and deadlift variations as they relate to those of you who aren’t in the gym to be competitive powerlifters.
2. One-Leg One-Arm Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Check out THIS recent post I did showing you a simple tweak on the one-leg one-arm RDL exercise I developed and use to help clients and athletes improve the glute recruitment of this great exercise.
3. Dumbbell Anterior Lunge
The is one of my favorite lunge variations, which I learn back in the late 90’s from Gary Gray.
4. 45-Degree Hip Extension
Although this exercise is commonly referred to as a 45-degree back extension, we want the motion to occur via hip extension—hence the name used here.
5. One-Leg Hip Lift
This is a more hamstring dominant version of the hip thrust because your foot is elevated instead of your shoulders.
Top 5 Knee Dominant Hamstring Exercises
1. Glute-Ham Roller Leg Curl
The Glute-Ham Roller was developed by my friends at Sorinex Exercise Equipment (who sponsor me as a speaker at some live events, but do not pay me to endorse products – no affiliate stuff here).
2. One-Leg Stability-Ball Leg Curl
The small tip on doing stability-ball leg curls, aside from extending your hips as you bend your knee, is to not use a very large ball. Using a larger ball makes things more awkward on your neck at the top of the range of motion. Not to mention, using a smaller ball is more challenging as it creates a longer level-arm (moment arm) than using a larger ball.
3. Nordic Hamstring Curl
This exercise requires either a partner or suitable gym equipment (as shown in the images below) or a glute-ham raise apparatus to securely lock your lower legs in place.
4. Machine Seated Hamstring Curl
Check out this article I did covering 5 Machines That Are Better Muscle-Builders Than Free Weights.
5. Machine Lying Hamstring Curl
Some coaches and trainers are worried about losing the stability challenge of free-weight exercises. But that’s why you also do free-weight training in the first place. This is why the machines versus free weights is a silly argument. Do both so you get all the benefits that one tool might miss. Avoiding one of these tools, however, could leave your training deficient.
- McAllister MJ, et al. Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jun;28(6):1573-80.
- Schoenfeld BJ, et al. Regional Differences in Muscle Activation During Hamstrings Exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jun 24.