The King of Hamstring Exercises

A recent study sought to discover which hamstring exercise is the most intense: glute-ham raises, Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, or leg curls.

You’ve probably heard coaches extol the virtues of strong hamstrings. Hamstrings make it possible to jump high, sprint fast, and stand up a heavy deadlift. But what exactly are the hamstrings and how can we best train them?

Your hamstrings are actually three different muscles in the back of your leg. They are unique in the body because they cross two joints, the hip and the knee. Muscles that cross more than one joint have the privilege of improved leverage and can be very powerful. So what are the best exercises to work your hamstrings?

An upcoming study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research asked this question. Researchers studied twelve young men, each with several years of experience in weight training. They examined four exercises: the good morning, glute-ham raise, Romanian deadlift (RDL), and leg curl. 

The exercises were tested at 85% of 1RM to see which one could produce the most intense muscle activation. Muscle activation was measured via electromyography (EMG). Please take a moment to appreciate the mental picture of an athlete exercising with little pads stuck to the back of his leg while a researcher in a white lab coat watches the resulting electrical activity on a heart monitor. Now, moving on.

The glute-ham raise and RDL produced significantly more muscle activation than the other exercises. Specifically, the glute-ham raise had the most intense concentric activity, which is the contraction of muscles to bring the body upright and finish the movement. The RDL had the most intense eccentric activity, which is the stretching of muscles under load in order to bend over and begin the movement. Both of these exercises were significantly more intense than either the leg curl or good morning.

There was one quote in the study that cracked me up. The researchers wrote, “We hypothesized that there would be no difference in activation within muscles for the prone leg curl and glute-ham, due to the kinematic similarities between the two exercises.” This tells me the researchers have never done a glute-ham raise.

No single exercise is going to fill all of your hamstring needs, so success probably lies in finding the right combination of exercises for your goals. At least now we know which exercises are most useful so we can prioritize them appropriately.


1. Matt McAllister. “Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises.” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (forthcoming). POST ACCEPTANCE, 21 October 2013. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000302.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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