“Mirror, mirror, on the gym wall, when it comes to my leg muscles, am I really working them all?” Odds are if you ask yourself that question come leg day, you might think the answer is a resounding “Hell yeah.” Considering how sore your stems are, how could the answer be otherwise? But even if you exercise your legs till it feels like they’re gonna straight up fall off your body, there’s one key leg muscle that most women overlook while doing their regular rounds at the gym: the hamstrings.
“A lot of people focus on muscle groups they can actually see,” says celeb personal trainer Monica Nelson. “For example, people might focus on their quads but not their hamstrings, or on their arms but not their back, because they can’t see those muscles when they look in the mirror.”
While we’re not knocking on the chiseling power of routine squats and lunges—which mostly target your quadriceps and glutes—those techniques alone aren’t enough to significantly develop your hammies. And if you’re constantly showering certain leg muscles with attention and forgetting to invite your hamstrings to the party, that could spell trouble.
“The hamstring muscles are extraordinarily important in any activity that involves standing, walking or running, [as well as knee flexion and hip extension],” says Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., exercise physiologist and lead running coach for Running Strong in Atlanta. “If the hamstrings aren’t doing their job, someone else is going to have to chip in extra hard. These muscle imbalances can result in injuries [like knee damage, pulled hamstrings or lower-back pain].”
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Not to mention that your gams will look a heck of a lot better in your favorite mini-dress if they’re evenly toned in the front and back. Plus, if you’re hoping to lift your booty, honing in on your hammies will surely help you get there. To find out how to get sleek and sexy hamstrings, we asked a handful of trainers for their go-to moves. These are the techniques they recommended that women add to their leg routine two to three times a week:
Why the pros love it: “This is by far my favorite hamstring exercise,” says Cris Dobrosielski, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, owner of Monumental Results and author of Going the Distance. “Deadlifts address the hamstrings significantly, in conjunction with the glutes and the lower-back extensors.” L.A.-based trainer Mike Donavanik adds: “You’ll also probably be able to lift a lot more weight doing deadlifts compared to any other exercise.”
How to: Grab dumbbells with overhand grip and hold them in front of your thighs. Your knees should be slightly bent. Bend at your hips until your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Pause, then return to the starting position. Repeat the first three steps in three to four sets of eight to 12 reps each.
Pro tip: For a greater challenge, and to help develop your balance and core strength, Dobrosielski recommends trying a single-leg Romanian deadlift. Begin with the same starting position described above, but lift one foot slightly off the ground. If you are holding a kettlebell or dumbbell, hold it in the hand that’s on the same side of the body as the foot that’s planted on the ground. As you hinge forward, keep the resting leg lifted and gradually straighten it as you move it backward, rather than allowing it to hover parallel to the working leg. Lower your lifted leg back to the ground as you return to your starting position. Start off with three sets of five reps each per leg, and slowly work your way up to three sets of 12 per leg.
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Why the pros love it: “The combination of a bridge and hamstring curl is a fantastic posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and lower back) exercise that develops core stability, muscular endurance and definition,” says Dobrosielski.
How to: Lie on your back on a mat. Place your heels up on a stability ball, with your knees slightly bent. Your shoulder blades should be tucked in, neck straight, and face and jaw soft. To form a bridge, firmly press your heels into the ball and slowly raise your back and hips off the ground until your chest, hips, and legs are in a straight line. Holding this position, slowly flex your knees to draw the stability ball in toward your glutes and then pause. Slowly extend your knees back to the bridge position, with just a slight bend in the knees. Carefully lower your back and hips to your starting position on the floor. Keeping the time spent with your back resting on the floor to a minimum, start off by repeating the first five steps for three sets of five reps each. Eventually, work your way up to three sets of 15 reps.
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Light your glutes on fire with these glute bridge variations:
Why the pros love it: “Doing single-leg hamstring curls with a stability ball is a great bodyweight alternative to hamstring curls, especially if you don’t have a TRX or suspension trainer,” says Donavanik. “It can also be done with one [leg lifted] or both [both feet on the stability ball].” Josh Kernen, C.S.C.S., co-owner of Bridgetown Physical Therapy and Training Studio in Portland, Oregon, adds: “Not only does this require good hamstring strength, but it also challenges your core at the same time.”
How to: Lie on your back on the floor, with your feet on top of the stability ball and your hands out to your sides. Position the ball so that, when your legs are extended, one of your ankles is on top of the ball. With one leg extended, lift the other leg off the ball. This is your starting position. Raise your hips off the ground, keeping your weight on your shoulder blades and the foot that’s on the ball. Using the leg that’s on the ball, and without letting your hips drop, flex your knee and pull the ball as close to your glutes as you can, engaging your hamstring. After pausing briefly, carefully return to your starting position, with one leg extended on top of the ball and the other lifted over the ball. Repeat for three or four sets of 15 to 20 reps, then repeat on the opposite leg.
(NOTE: Image varies slightly to directions.)
Pro tip: Keep your feet flexed, pulling your toes toward your shins. If you point your toes, Donavanik says, your muscle engagement will shift to your calves. Kernen also says you can up the ante by bringing your arms in closer to your body for a bigger challenge to your balance.
Related: 7 Simple Exercises That Show Results After One Workout
Why the pros love it: “Like the bridge/hamstring curl combo, this exercise is an amazing tool to strengthen and define the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back,” says Dobrosielski. “In addition, the core stability it requires makes this a full posterior body workout, which means you get a great deal of benefits from just one exercise.”
How to: Lie on your back on a mat, with your knees bent, your feet and knees should be parallel to each other. Firmly press your heels and the middle of your feet into the ground and slowly lifting your back and hips until your chest, hips and legs are in a straight line. Holding this position, slowly raise one bent leg up, until it’s nearly parallel with the ground. Slowly lower that foot back down to the ground and repeat this step with the other foot. Carefully lower your back and hips to the ground. Pause only briefly, and repeat. Start off with three sets of five reps, and gradually progress to three reps of 10.
Pro tip: To give your workout an extra oomph, place a medicine ball between your knees, and try to bring your heels closer to your glutes, which will engage your hammies even more, says Dobrosielski.
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Why the pros love it: “What’s great about it is that it does not require any equipment,” says Kernen.
How to: Lay flat on the ground, with your head resting on your arms. Slowly bend your knees and bring your feet up off the ground until your legs make a 90-degree angle. Be sure to engage your hamstrings as you do so, using the muscle to bring your feet towards your body. Repeat for two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps.