Beginner Exercises: Hamstrings

If you’ve read my previous post, you know that there are two major muscle groups that you can focus on during leg workouts. The hamstring, or the back part of your leg, is the focus of this post, and although it may seem obvious, you really need to devote time in your leg workout to developing and strengthening the hamstrings because it is easy to forget them and become quad-dominant. A quad-dominant person will have strong muscle in the front of the legs, but the overall appearance of the leg is not toned because the back of the leg has been neglected. Read on for a few of my favorite exercises you may want to incorporate into your next leg workout.

Hamstring Curls: The best way to do a hamstring curl is by using the machine, and luckily, almost every gym includes a hamstring curl machine. Adjust the machine so that when lying on your stomach, the pad at the bottom lies on top of your legs just above the ankles and below the calves. Grab the handles at your sides and squeeze your core throughout the exercise. Curl the bottom half of your legs upwards while keeping the top of your legs still on the bench. (Motion is similar to kicking your butt). Hold for a second at the top of the motion, then slowly release and lower the weight back down. The exercise is most effective if you do a negative on the release, meaning you are quick to curl upwards and go as slow as possible on the way down. I like to do hamstring curls one leg at a time with a lighter weight, then I increase my weight and do the two legs together.

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Kettlebell Swings: Start the exercise by holding the handle of the kettlebell with both hands, one over the other, and your feet a little wider than shoulders-width apart. Lead with your hips and bend back until the kettlebell is a little behind your legs. Squeeze your legs and glutes and swing the kettlebell through your legs while pushing forward with the hips. Let the weight swing back down as you bend your hips and return to the starting position. Do not try and swing the weight higher than chest-height.

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Stiff Leg Dumbbell Deadlift: The deadlift is the single most important exercise for building and toning the hamstring muscles, but the the stiff leg deadlift with dumbbells is the best for beginners! Start with a dumbbell in each hand and arms at your side. Stand with your feet shoulders-with apart, feet pointed forwards, and a slight bend in the knees. Bend at the waist and lower the dumbbells over your feet until you feel a stretch in the back of your leg. Bring your body back up by squeezing the glutes and the core until you are in the starting position. I cannot stress how important it is to keep your back straight during this exercise. If you have never done this exercise before, do so in front of a mirror so that you are able to see whether or not your back is rounded. Keep your head and chest up the entire time.

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Watch this video for the perfect dumbbell deadlift!

Good Mornings: Start this exercise with a barbell centered on your shoulders and your feet shoulders-width apart, knees slightly bent. Bend at the hips and push them back until your upper body is almost parallel to the ground. Return to the starting position by extending your hips and squeezing your hamstrings and glutes.

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The good morning is another exercise that can be harmful to your back, so make sure to keep your chest up and look forwards. It is important to know the difference between pain and soreness because it is definitely okay to feel sore, but you should not continue to do an exercise if it is hurting you. I have scoliosis, and thus exercises that engage my lower back could be especially harmful. If I am especially sore, I use IcyHot to ease the muscle ache, but if I am hurting then I know I may need to take a rest. Do not push yourself to the point where it may cause injury.

Bulgarian Split Squat: I have mentioned that the Bulgarian split squat is a great exercise for your quads, but it can also be extremely effective for targeting the hamstrings! To switch muscle engagement from the front of your leg to the back, simply stand six inches to a foot further in front of the bench. Increasing the distance between the bench and your front leg creates more room for the extended back leg to stretch, and it is this stretch that signals hamstring engagement. Once again, lower your back knee until it almost touches the floor and push back to the starting position through your heel.

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