The hamstrings are a group of 3 muscles that cross both the knee joint and the hip joint. This means that to maximize your hamstring gains, you need to train both functions: hip extension and knee flexion.
- Hip extension includes exercises like deadlift or Romanian deadlift variations, back extensions, pull-throughs, kettlebell swings, and sled drags/prowler pushes.
- Knee flexion exercises include Nordic hamstring curls, inverse curls, glute-ham raises, and most often – hamstring curls.
- Hamstring curls are typically performed on a fixed motion machine but can also be set up with bands or cables.
Hamstring curls should be performed in all 3 positions to best hit the points of flexion for this muscle group. These include seated (lengthened position), prone (mid-range position), and standing (shortened position).
You may have heard athletes or clients complain they feel their calves more than their hamstrings when performing hamstring curls. This is because the calves (gastrocnemius specifically) cross the knee joint, making it a contributor to knee flexion.
If the hamstrings are not strong enough to meet the demand of the load, the body will recruit other muscles – like the calves and even the low back – to help complete the work.
The good news is that you can be very specific with your foot position and exercise selection to ensure the athlete or client gets the best benefit out of the exercise.
Hamstring curl foot positions
There are a few different ways you can align your or your client’s feet when performing hamstring curls, which opens up endless knee flexion variations considering the different exercise options.
Dorsiflexion vs. Plantarflexion
Dorsiflexion means the feet are pointed towards the body. You will be able to move a heavier load in this position because the calves (also knee flexors) can contribute. This is a great option for a strength/power block or maximal effort day.
Plantarflexion means the feet are pointed away from the body. This gives the calves another “job” to do, so they won’t be able to contribute as knee flexors. Plantarflexing the foot will put more demand on the hamstrings, which makes this variation a good choice for hypertrophy blocks or clients/athletes with generally weak or lagging hamstrings.
- Neutral (feet are in two straight lines) places an even demand across each of the 3 hamstring muscles.
- Feet turned out places more demand on the lateral hamstring muscles (bicep femoris).
- Feet turned in places more demand on the medial hamstring muscles (semitendinosus and semimembranosus).
Most people are either stronger in their medial or lateral hamstring. Knowing which one is the weaker link for your athlete or client allows you to be very specific about which foot position you program for them.
It’s critical to maintain the same foot position throughout the duration of the set. Breaking the foot position for the sake of completing the reps or getting more reps is only allowing your client to cheat themselves out of gains. Check the ego at the door, and reduce the weight to complete better reps.
Remember, strong hamstrings make for more powerful athletes and better-looking aesthetic results. Stop neglecting the hamstrings and start curling!
B.S., NASM CPT