Tight Hamstrings? Try These Simple Exercises for Improved Flexibility and Strength

Do you ever wake up with tight, stiff legs and wonder why? Or maybe, during yoga class, you find it difficult to touch your heels to the ground in downward-facing dog. Either way, you could probably benefit from practicing a few basic hamstring exercises to improve leg strength, flexibility, and mobility.

tight hamstrings? try these simple exercises for improved flexibility and strength

A personal trainer shares and explains how to do the best hamstring exercises for strong, flexible legs, including glute bridges, kettlebell swings, and more.

What are the hamstring muscles?

The hamstring muscles are located along the back of the thigh and connect to the hip and just below the knee, explains Denise Chakoian, C.P.T., personal trainer, cancer exercise specialist, and owner-founder of CORE Fitness in Providence, Rhode Island. “These muscles make it possible to extend the leg back and to bend the knee,” she adds.

Hamstring exercise benefits

Your hamstrings play an important role into your daily life and workouts—they stabilize the knee joint and help maintain hip and torso positioning, Chakoian says. “Most often, the quadriceps get over developed from weakening hamstrings. This could lead to a risk of injury to the knee joint, as well as the hamstrings themselves,” she adds.

To prevent those injuries, give leg day some hamstring love by adding Chakoian’s below recommended exercises to your rotation.

Hamstring exercises

Chakoian says these exercises are best done over 15 to 20 reps for three sets of each. “You can do it circuit style or do three sets and move on to the next,” she says.

Hamstring curl

Chakoian says this exercise is “the single most essential way to target the hamstring.” In a traditional gym, it’s one you can perform using a hamstring curl machine (in which you lay face-down and curl legs up and back), however, she says the equipment can cause unnecessary stress on the muscle due to restricted movement in the rest of the body. So, Chakoian recommends trying a curl using a 45 to 65 centimeter exercise ball instead.

“Lie down on your back and place your heels up on the ball where your legs are in full extension. Lift your hips up in a bridge position, pull your legs in toward your chest at a 90 degree angle, and then extend them back out,” she says. Make sure to go slow so the ball doesn’t move or slip, and remember to engage and stabilize your core.

Deadlift

A deadlift is done either with a dumbbell in each hand, or with a longer bar that is weighted, explains Chakoian. Holding your weight of choice, with feet hip distance apart, hinge from your hips until you feel a stretch in the back of your legs. “The weights or weighted bar would go towards your ankles, your back is flat, and then using your hips, drive back up to full extension,” Chakoian adds.

Single leg deadlift

A single leg deadlift is slightly more challenging, as it requires good balance and core control. Chakoian says it can be done without any weights, or you can add one or two dumbbells, but she recommends starting with only bodyweight and working your way up.

“Place your left foot in line with the chest line, then place the dumbbell in your right hand; start to extend your right leg back and up, like an airplane pose, and hinge from your hip on the left side and bend that left leg about 45 degrees,” she explains. “Then, return to standing position while trying to keep your right leg off the floor on the way up.” Do the same movements on the opposite sides, changing the leg and the arm holding the single weight.

Bungie stretch

Wrap a resistance band around a secure machine or stationary object that can withstand your bodyweight, and find an all-fours position on the ground with the band behind you. Place a foot into the band strap, keeping your non-moving, stabilizing leg and hip in line with your chest. Then, curl the resistance band into your glute and extend back out. “The key to this is maintaining stabilization in the leg and knee on the ground, and also keeping resistance on the moving leg,” says Chakoian.

Glute bridge

Lie down on your back with your feet on the floor, knees bent. With arms at your sides, use the foundation of your hands and feet to slowly lift your hips and glutes off the floor, pressing your hips up to engage the hamstrings. Chakoian recommends holding this position to really strengthen the hamstrings.

Single leg bridge

Assume the same position as you would for a regular glute bridge, with legs bent at 90 degrees. Place your hands on the floor by your side and begin to lift the hips up to the ceiling, and extend one leg straight up in the air, holding it there, says Chakoian. If you have tight hamstrings, you can keep the lifted knee slightly bent for less strain on the quadricep, she adds.

“Slowly lower down the glute towards the floor and drive the hip back up, only targeting the hamstring that is not extended in the air,” she says. This one is a bit more challenging and requires balance and stability in the grounded foot and leg.

Sumo squat

The sumo squat is different from a traditional squat because it also acts as a hip opener, “targeting more of the hamstrings and adductors,” says Chakoian. “Place your feet hip distance apart, then turn your hips and feet open at about 45 degrees. Start to make your way down towards the floor sitting your hips down, pressing your heels into the floor. Then drive up using your hamstrings, glutes, and core to a full upright position.” If you want a bit more heat, she recommends holding a weight or kettlebell at chest-level.

Kettlebell swing

Start with feet hip distance apart, and using both hands, hold a kettlebell that is challenging but not too heavy, advises Chakoian. Start to hinge at the hips, glutes and hips pointing straight back, legs bent no more than 45 degrees. Swing the kettlebell up to chest height, then back down between your legs. “At the top end, your hamstrings will contract, and the spine should stabilize without pressing your hips too far forward,” Chakoian says. (For more, see our coverage on how to use a kettlebell).

“Paper plate” curls

Using paper plates or gliding disks, lay on a hardwood floor face up, and place your heels on the plates. Lift your hips up into bridge position, and slowly pull both plates or discs in near your glutes, then extend out to a straight leg position “as best you can,” says Chakoian. “To challenge this further, only do one leg at a time.”

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