Want to Build 3D Legs? Try These Top 4 Hamstring Exercises

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By Jason Rickaby- CEO and Founder PhD Nutrition.

As a young kid entering the gym at 17 years old, it was a different world than it is today. I began lifting weights in 1994, back in a dungeon-like, spit and sawdust style sweat box in inner city Bradford. It was freezing cold in winter (no radiators in this gaff) but that didn’t stop the windows getting opened as the steam rose off the big guys squatting and deadlifting up on the platform (or what passed for a lifting platform back then).

Once I plucked up enough courage to come out from the corner of the gym, where I was very comfortable performing 20 sets of barbell curls, I began to be educated in the world of proper weight training. Back in 1994, this gym didn’t have bands, battle ropes, sleds or TRX systems- they had a ton of iron resting on an old weight rack that was straining with the multitude of different sized plates and dumbbells that didn’t have the weight inscribed on them with nice writing, you had to literally count the plates to work it out (unless someone has chalked it on).

Fast forward to 2017 and the world of weight training is like the night to 1994’s, day. There’s a gym on every corner, awareness of fitness and resistance training is at an all-time high and it’s now cool to say you train legs, whereas it just used to be damn hard work. I guess that mass participation brings along a number of great things with it. It brings fresh ideas, new ways to do the same thing, it brings awareness and it brings along (in this case) a whole host of more aware, healthier and generally more “able to function” young people.

There is no negative to that. However, one of the downsides to the growth in awareness and facilities (to a purist like me) is that there are just more people not maximising their time in the gym. Whilst the sought after look in 2017 is to be lean with a great six pack and great upper torso, there still exists the underbelly of the weight training world, the serious trainers who want to build a complete, balanced, powerful/functional physique. These are the guys who want 3D legs and to whom squatting is “fun after the nervous flutters have subsided”.

Hamstring Training separates the men from the boys.

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I was lucky to be given brilliant advice when I began training with weights as a 17 year old and that was to “keep things basic”.  I was an athletically built kid who wanted to build muscle. One of the great foundations I was given was to always train legs as hard as you train chest and back and never to ignore your hamstrings. Hamstring development was the best area of my physique during my competitive natural bodybuilding years, but when I began, I had very little muscle mass there. Unlike the genetically gifted, I had to graft for every inch of hamstring muscle I built and I like to think I learnt a lot from those days. So without further ado, here are my best 4 hamstring exercises to give your legs the 3D look, increase strength, boost your power and stability and drive your lower body muscle functionality. The first point to remember is that in order to deliver maximum development of the hamstrings, you have to train through the hip joint and the knee joint. Lifters who only train through one motion are not only risking a lack of gains, but also an imbalance in power and functionality.

1-      Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs)

RDLs are my single favourite hamstring exercise. I’ve always preferred these to traditional bent knee deadlifts and whilst they target different areas, once you have mastered the RDL, you can shift some decent weight. I look at RDLs in the same way modern users look at kettlebell swings and if you use great form and pick a weight you can shift for higher reps (15-20), then for me it’s a far better exercise and just as explosive. For higher rep work, you shouldn’t need lifting straps, if going heavy then maybe you do. I never liked them but equally was never so strong that I needed them. I used to work up to sets of 20 reps with 80kg on the bar. Absolute hamstring torture.

2-      GHR (Glute ham raise)

GHR was an exercise I didn’t learn until maybe 5 years into my gym career and at that stage, we just hooked our heels under the lat pulldown pads and tried our best to be able to do 1 rep without a slight push off the floor. Nowadays there are some amazing GHR machines about with nice comfy pads that make the exercise easier to do without eliminating any of the effectiveness. Work up to 10 reps and then add some weight by holding a plate across the chest.

3-      Sprinting

Sounds bizarre maybe but like lifting heavy weights, sprinting requires a huge central nervous system output, meaning you activate a large amount of muscle fibers. What’s more, we all probably did it as a kid, but haven’t done any for ages. Try this progressive routine below on lower body or hamstring day. Do each session for ten minutes, you can see the sprints are progressively lengthening whilst the rest is decreasing.

  • Week 1: Sprint 10 seconds, rest 50
  • Week 2: Sprint 11 seconds, rest 49
  • Week 3: Sprint 12 seconds, rest 48
  • Week 4: Sprint 13 seconds, rest 47
  • Week 5: Sprint 14 seconds, rest 46
  • Week 6: Sprint 15 seconds, rest 45

4-      Dumbbell lying leg curls

I learnt this one early on and always stuck with it even though it’s very hard and very tricky, I just loved the contraction you got and the focussed descent. Plus, holding the dumbbells between your toes forces you to point the toes (plantar flexion), which recruits the hamstrings more, as opposed to the usual dorsal flexion imposed upon you when using the leg curl machine. Try it, but beware, forget about the ego on this one…a 20kg dumbbell will leave most men struggling. If you want to really prioritise your leg mass, chances are you’ll need to dial in your hamstring work, try the below routine if you are really focussed on setting some time aside to let the hamstrings flourish:

A-      GHR: 3 sets of 10 reps (add weight if needed)
B-      RDL’s: 3 sets of 15 reps
C-      Lying dumbbell hamstring curls: 3 sets of 8 reps
D-      Sprints: 10 minutes as above routine.

I guarantee with a little focus you can drive your hamstring growth through the roof.

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