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3 Exercises to Strengthen Your Hamstrings (Part II)

Three challenging exercises that strengthen different functions of the hamstrings to reduce injury risk and improve running economy.

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The hamstring muscle group is a common location for injuries among runners. Eccentric exercises are a key strategy to prevent and recover from hamstring issues. Since the hamstring muscle crosses both the hip and knee joints, we should challenge its multiple functions with different exercises.

Last year, we introduced you to three exercises to strengthen your hamstrings. They included the 1) Romanian Deadlift, 2) Hamstring Curl with Exercise Ball and 3) Assisted Nordic Hamstring Curl. These exercises challenge the hamstring muscle group to extend the hip (deadlift) or to flex the knee (ball curl and Nordic curl). 

In part II of this series, we introduce you to three different challenging exercises that strengthen different functions of the hamstrings. Stronger hamstrings not only reduce your injury risk, but also help improve your running economy, saving you energy with each stride.

1. Kettlebell Swing, Staggered Stance

kettlebell swing for hamstrings
Kettlebell swing Photo: Jon-Erik Kawamoto

Why: To improve explosive power during the hip extension function of the hamstrings. The staggered stance will challenge one hamstring group at a time, making this version more running specific. The rapid down phase creates a rapid eccentric contraction on the hamstrings, teaching it to stretch quickly and absorb force. The subsequent rapid up phase teaches the hamstrings and other hip extensor muscles to create force quickly, which is important for faster-paced running.

Set-up: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Slide your right foot back so the toes line up with your left heel. Lift your right heel off the floor and turn your right leg out roughly 45-degrees. Grab the kettlebell with your left hand. Bend your knees and push your hips back to prepare for the first rep. Ensure your back is neutral and that your right arm is positioned behind you.

Action: Swing the kettlebell in between your legs then stand explosively to swing the kettlebell up. Swing your right arm forward during this motion. Stand tall and squeeze your left glute and quad to finish the swing. The kettlebell should swing to chest height. Let the kettlebell float down before bending through the knees and hips to receive the bell between your legs. This is one rep.

Do: 3–5 sets of 10 reps/leg

2. Glute Ham Raise

Photo: Jon-Erik Kawamoto

Why: To train the knee flexion function of the hamstrings. You also strengthen your calves, due to the plantar-flexion action at the ankles required to do this exercise correctly. If you have access to a Glute Ham Developer machine, that is ideal for this exercise. However, the glute ham raise can also be performed with a Bosu.

Set-up (Glute Ham Raise machine): Set up the machine so the padding and foot platform are farther apart than the length of your shin bone. Place your feet inside the foam pads and press your toes onto the platform. Place your knees on the lower part of the pad and go into an upright posture. Your ankles digging into the platform will push your quads and knees into the round pad to ensure you don’t slip downward. Hold your arms at your sides and tilt your pelvis slightly forward (rotate your hips to poke out your tailbone).

Action: Push your feet into the platform as you start to extend your knees. Your body will travel up the round pad as your body approaches a horizontal position. Notice a strong contraction in your hamstrings and calves. Next, return to the upright posture by curling yourself up at the knee joint. Your body will slide back down the round pad and your toes will be digging into the platform to create a stable base. 

Photo: Jon-Erik Kawamoto

Set -up (with BOSU): Set up the Bosu near a wall that you can press your forefoot and toes into. Kneel on the outer edge of the Bosu dome and get into an upright posture. Hold your arms at your side and tilt your pelvis slightly forward (rotate your hips to poke out your tailbone).

Action: Push your forefoot and toes into the wall to push your knees into the Bosu dome. This will ensure you create a stable base. Slowly extend your knees as you approach a horizontal position. Notice your thighs roll onto the Bosu dome. Next, contract your hamstrings to curl your body back to the upright position. This can be an intense contraction for some, so be careful. Ensure your Bosu is fairly well inflated or else this technique will be difficult to replicate. If the up phase is too difficult, you can focus on only doing the down phase until you build up enough strength.

Do: 3–4 sets of 8–12 reps

3. Single Leg Hamstring Bridge on Foam Roller

Man looking like he's in a running pose with one leg straight and one bent in with knee to chest, but laying with back on ground.
Photo: Jon-Erik Kawamoto

Why: To train the hamstrings at a similar knee angle as during ground contact when running. The isometric contraction of the hamstring, in addition to the intense calf contraction you’ll feel during this exercise, will develop the co-contraction nature of these two muscles to stabilize the knee joint during running. I’d like to give credit to physical therapist, David Grey, for this exercise.

Set up: Lie on your back with one foot placed on a foam roller or small rubber medicine ball with your knee slightly bent. Try to achieve the same knee angle you would see when running. Bend your opposite leg and bring your knee in toward your torso. Tuck in your pelvis and notice a slight rounding of your low back. Dig your elbow into the floor, opposite to the leg that is on the foam roller. This will activate your lats and train the posterior oblique sling to the opposite glute. Reach your opposite arm up toward the ceiling. 

Action: Press the foot into the foam roller to lift your hips a few inches off the floor. Ensure you lift your heel as high as you can away from the floor. This will plantarflex your ankle, supinate your foot and contract your calf. Next, roll the foam roller back and forth rapidly. The range of motion here is only a couple of inches forward and back. This is a very intense exercise, so be careful. If the bridge is difficult enough, just try to hold the bridge without rolling the roller. 

Do: Whether rolling the roller back and forth or just holding the bridge, aim to be able to do three sets on each leg, holding your hips in the air for 45-second per set.

About the Author 

Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CK, CSCS has been a Certified Kinesiologist and Strength Coach for over 15 years. He co-owns JKConditioning, a small group personalized training, nutrition and run coaching company in St. John’s, NL, Canada. Jon is a runner and regular contributor to PodiumRunner. Find more running content at www.YouTube.com/StrongerRunner.