Hamstrings are the muscles at the back of the thigh. They have two main functions: to straighten (extend) the hip, and to bend (flex) the knee. Squatting-type movements (such as squats and deadlifts) as well as hip extension movements such as stiff-legged deadlifts and good mornings will address the hip extension component of the hamstrings.
However, many folks do sports which involve knee flexion (bending), such as sprinting or cycling, and might benefit from a little additional knee flexion work, which is the second function of the hamstrings. Hamstring curls are a good isolation exercise to go along with the bigger exercises.
Actually, I’m not screwing this one up too badly. You can’t really even see the main problem because I’m wearing black (I’ll have to speak to my wardrobe stylist about switching workout wear from Don’t-Show-The-Dirt-Black to Feminine-Hygiene-Commercial-White). So, I’ll enlighten you.
The main problem in this rather undignified photo of me is that I am arching my back and sticking my butt in the air to help curl the weight up. There is some space between my hips and the bench. It’s actually a pretty natural response by the body to this movement, but not what we want because it sort of makes the movement into a full-body affair.
Another common error is allowing the knees to hyperextend – to bend backwards in the wrong direction once the leg has been straightened. Women’s knees are more easily hyperextended than men’s, so be careful of this as it’s hard on the joint, especially with the addition of resistance. The weight will drag the ankle downwards at the bottom of the rep; don’t allow the knee to cave in.
The pic on the left shows the starting position for a good hamstring curl. My knees are not hyperextended but rather slightly bent. The pad should be just over my ankles, so make sure you adjust that properly. At the top of the rep the pad should still be in the vicinity of your ankles, not up your calf or down at your heel. Also, make sure your knees are off the pad, so that you don’t crush your kneecap as you move your leg… rather painful. My toes are pointed forward, not downward.
As I curl the weight up, I take care to keep my hips on the bench and my toes pointed forward. Make sure you move the weight through a full range of motion (ROM), and curl your feet as close to your butt as you can go. Give those hamstrings a little squeeze at the top of the rep, then lower the weight under control to the starting position.
Doing these lying down actually makes me want to barf sometimes, so I prefer to use the standing or seated hamstring curl machine. If your gym has these, the principle of use is the same. Toes forward, try not to arch your back.
variation #1: manual hamstring curls
OK kids. You thought you were tough? Let’s see what you’re made of when you give these a shot. Manual hamstring curls are an old-style strongman and woman exercise that is deceptively simple. The first time I tried doing even a controlled negative of these, I fell flat on my face. Most people begin by using a counterweight, as shown above. I warn you, they look goofy.
In the exercise, one kneels on a bench, and the lower legs are secured somehow: underneath the knee pad of a lat pull machine, as shown, or strapped down with a weight belt, or even held down by a helpful partner. Then, keeping the body straight and rigid, and bending only at the knee, one raises and lowers the body, using the hamstrings to curl upright again.
I’m demonstrating this exercise with the counterweight on a lat pulldown machine. It’s an easy one to use, since I can just slide my lower legs underneath the knee pad, set at its lowest setting. In my gym, the knee pad doesn’t go down as far as it should, so I have to bend my legs a bit more than is correct. Ideally your lower legs should be immobilized against the bench.
I suggest you do this exercise with a partner, if only to stand in front of you and help you with an upward push under your shoulders if you get stuck.
Attach the rope handle to the machine, if you have one. If your gym doesn’t have one, you can get inventive; try looping a towel through the handles. Presently I use 20 lbs of counterweight, so I just put the pin in the weight stack at 20 lbs. You’ll probably want to start with more counterweight. The counterweight should be low enough so that you can actually lower your body, but high enough to give you sufficient assistance on the ascent.
Kneel facing away from the machine, as shown in the picture on the left, and secure lower legs under the knee pad. Grab the rope handles and bring them down behind your head and over your shoulders, holding the ends against your upper chest.
Keeping body straight and rigid, shoulders back, and head up, unbend the knee, and slowly lower body towards the floor, as shown in the centre picture. Lower until body is roughly parallel to the floor (or until you run out of cable, as I do just above parallel), as in the picture on the right. Then, still keeping body rigid (don’t give in to the temptation to bend at the hips!), contract the hamstrings and bend at the knee to pull your body upright. Your ascent should look just like your descent, as shown in the centre picture.
These will feel (and look) weird the first time you try them. But with practice, you’ll get the hang of them. I now have them as a semi-permanent fixture in my routine. My goal is to do one bodyweight ham curl without a face plant!