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Having strong hamstrings can protect your knees and low back. Here are 11 ways to strengthen them

Target your hamstrings with 11 simple bodyweight exercises.
Shot of a young woman using a laptop while doing glute bridge exercises at home
Glute bridges target the hamstrings and glutes.LaylaBird / Getty Images

A lot of folks don't think much about how to strengthen their hamstrings unless there's a problem. Since these muscles are on the back of the body, they can be easy to forget. And because they aren't the showiest muscles in the body, they aren't always prioritized in workouts.

But the hamstrings are actually crucial for almost all our daily movements — like walking. Not only that, but the hamstrings play a major role in protecting the knee joint, so you really don't want them to be weak. And tightness in the hamstrings can be a factor in lower back pain, another problem you don't want to have.

Here's everything you need to know about your hamstrings and the 11 best hamstring exercises to add to your repertoire.

What are your hamstring muscles?

Your hamstring muscles run down the back of each thigh, from the hip to the knee. They play an important part in performing most basic everyday movements, like standing, walking, bending the knees and squatting down to pick something up.

The muscles that make up the hamstring are: biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus. Together, they help you flex (bend) your knees and extend your hips. Basically any movement that you do with your legs is initiated or supported by the hamstrings.

What happens if you have weak hamstrings?

If you spend a lot of time sitting during the day the hamstrings can get overstretched and weaken — because you're literally sitting on them. Weakness in the hamstrings can contribute to knee, hip and low-back pain.

Most people tend to be quad-dominant, meaning that their quadriceps muscles are stronger than their hamstrings. While it's normal for the larger muscles of the quadriceps to be a bit stronger than the hamstrings, too much of a strength imbalance in the legs can create problems — like instability in the knee joint that can lead to pain or injury.

What happens if you have tight hamstrings?

Tight hamstring muscles can lead to pain and injury in the knee, hip and lower back. But if your hamstrings are tight, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are strong. So, while it may seem counter-intuitive, you still need to exercise your hamstrings if they're tight. But you also need to stretch. Yoga and active, isolated stretching are great for stretching the hamstrings.

The benefits of strengthening your hamstrings

Because the hamstring muscles affect both the knee and the hip, keeping them healthy also contributes to the health and stability of both of those joints. Not only that, but the hamstrings contribute greatly to how powerful you are when walking, jumping or running, so having strong hamstrings can also help both athletic performance and everyday life.

RELATED: 4 exercises to help your body feel younger

How to strengthen your hamstrings

As a certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor, I recommend incorporating hamstring exercises into your workout routine to help improve your overall fitness and mobility. Whether you’re looking to improve your athletic performance, tone your lower body, or just want to feel stronger or more comfortable in everyday movement, these exercises will get the job done — no equipment needed!

But first, a tip when working your hamstrings: start slow. Hamstring injuries are common so be sure to warm up properly, focus on quality over quantity, and stretch afterward to avoid injury.

Good mornings

good morning exercise
Good mornings

Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your hands placed behind your head. Focus on keeping your shoulders back and your core muscles engaged. Take a deep breath in and on the exhale, hinge at the hips, bending your chest toward the floor until your body forms an upside-down “L” shape. You should feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings. If you feel any pain or uncomfortable pulling, you’ve lowered too far! Slowly move back into a standing position on your exhale. Squeeze the glutes and hamstrings to return to standing tall. Repeat.

Standing reverse leg lifts

Standing reverse leg lifts exercise
Standing reverse leg lifts

Stand tall and shift your body weight to your right leg. Lift your left leg straight back while you contract the glute, raising it to about a 45-degree angle from the standing leg. Slowly lower the leg back down and perform 10 times on this side. To switch sides, shift your body weight to your left leg, and raise your right leg back and up. 

Side lunge

Side lunge exercise
Side lunge

Stand tall with a straight back and your feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping your weight in your heels and your left leg straight, take a big step to the side with your right leg until the knee is bent around 90 degrees. Slowly and with control, push down through the right heel to press back up to the starting position and alternate sides. When stepping to the side and bending your knee, focus on lowering your hips (like you’re doing a squat) at the same time, and avoid leaning forward.

Curtsey lunge

Curtsey Lunge
Curtsey LungeStephanie Mansour / TODAY

Standing with your feet as wide as your shoulders, step your right foot back behind and to the left of your left foot. Bend both knees as you lower down into a lunge in this curtsy position. Then press down through your left heel to bring your right leg back to center. Perform 10 reps and then switch sides.

Glute bridge

glute bridge exercise
Glute bridge

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor a few inches from your butt. Keeping your heels on the ground, lift your hips up and squeeze your glutes and hamstrings. You should form a straight line from your upper back to your knees. Pull your belly button in toward your spine, and slowly lower down one vertebra at a time. Repeat.

Single leg glute bridge

Single leg glute bridge exercise
Single leg glute bridge

Starting in the same position as your standard glute bridge, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor in front of you. With this variation, start by keeping your left heel on the ground, and raise your right leg straight up in the air. Squeeze the glute and hamstring muscles, keeping your core activated as you lift your hips. Keeping your right leg raised, slowly lower your hips back to the floor. Repeat for 10 res. Then switch to the other side, keeping your right heel on the ground and raising your left leg. 

Glute bridge walkout

Glute bridge walkout exercise
Glute bridge walkout

A final variation of the glute bridge, this move will start just like the original. Once your hips are up in the raised position, pause and hold for a breath. Alternating feet, slowly “walk” your legs away from your butt until the legs are almost straight. Be careful to keep your low back supported by keeping your abs engaged. Then, slowly “walk” your feet back toward you until you are back into the bridge position. Repeat.

Donkey kicks

Donkey kicks exercise
Donkey kicks

Start on all fours with your hands under your shoulders, fingers spread wide, and knees directly below your hips. Press evenly into both hands and maintain this balance throughout. Keep your back straight and abs tight. Maintaining the 90-degree bend in your right leg, kick your heel straight up toward the ceiling. Only go as far as you can without arching the back or letting your hips start to angle outward. Lower the leg back down with control and then alternate legs. To further activate the hamstring, you can squeeze a water bottle or dumbbell behind your knees. 

Donkey kick into fire hydrant

Donkey kick into fire hydrant
Donkey kick into fire hydrantStephanie Mansour / TODAY

Perform the donkey kick, reaching the right leg up toward the ceiling. Then once you come back to center, immediately open the right knee up into the fire hydrant. Repeat this 10 times before switching sides.

Modified plank reverse leg lift

Modified plank reverse leg lift
Modified plank reverse leg liftStephanie Mansour / TODAY

Reach your right leg behind you and straighten it. Point the toes. Then lift the leg up as high as your hip, squeezing your right glute, and lower it down. Repeat 10 times and then switch sides.

Modified plank reverse leg lift into side leg lift

Modified Plank Reverse Leg Lift into Side Leg Lift
Modified Plank Reverse Leg Lift into Side Leg LiftStephanie Mansour / TODAY

Perform the reverse leg lift. After you tap the toes down on the ground, lift the leg up and around to the right so that the leg goes out to the side of the right hip. Perform a side. leg lift and then lift the leg up and back to the backward leg lift position and tap the toes onto the ground. Repeat 10 times and then switch sides.

More exercises to add to your routine: