Squats do not work the hamstrings as a primary muscle. In fact, hamstrings are activated as little as one-fourth as much as your quads during squats. The primary muscles used when squatting are your quadriceps and glutes. In order to target your hamstrings to build muscles and reduce injury risk, incorporate Romanian deadlifts, nordic curls, barbell hip thrusts, and deadlift variations into your workout routine.
What Do Your Hamstrings Do During a Squat?
Your hamstrings mostly act as stabilizer muscles during squats. They are not responsible for completing the complete range of motion of a squat, so your hamstrings, like your calves, are not fully activated when you do squats. This study of biceps femoris (hamstring) activation placed squats at the lower end of effective hamstring exercises.
- The primary action of hamstrings during the squat is as a stabilizer and secondary muscle.
- Scientific studies of muscle activation consistently rank squats as a poor hamstring exercise.
- Supplement squats with a hamstring-specific exercise for total lower body fitness.
Because your hamstrings work about one-fourth as hard as your quads during squats, it’s best to include hamstring-focused exercises in your routine. Building your hamstrings along with your quads and glutes decreases muscle imbalances. Make certain you include hamstring-specific workouts in your program to help to reduce the risk of injury and eliminate knee pain.
What Muscles Do Squats Work?
When squatting, your quadriceps (the muscles in the front of your thigh) and your glutes are the primary movers. The core muscles of your abdominals and lower back are worked as secondary muscles during squats. Additionally, the hamstrings and calves are worked to a small degree when squatting.
- Quads and glutes are the primary muscles activated during squats.
- Abs, lower back, hamstrings, and calves are worked as secondary muscles during squats.
- Use other exercises to target the muscles that are not primarily used during squats.
Think of squats as a way to build muscle in the front of your thighs and in your rear end. When performed well, squats can contribute to a stronger core and healthier knee joints. Don’t eliminate squats from your routine, but do supplement them with exercises designed to build other muscle groups in your lower body.
How Do You Target Hamstrings with Squats?
No matter what squat variation you do, squatting won’t primarily target your hamstrings. Although some claim that Bulgarian split squats and sumo squats activate the hamstrings more than traditional squats, the difference is very small. Both these exercises primarily work quads and glutes.
- There are no squat variations that target the hamstrings as a primary muscle.
- Sumo squats shift from work from your quads to your inner thigh muscles, but they do not significantly increase hamstring activation.
- Bulgarian split squats may activate the hamstrings slightly more than standard squats, but the difference is very small.
It is true that performing sumo squats will transfer some of the workload to your inner thigh muscles. However, these are not your hamstrings. In order to get a good hamstring workout, choose a different exercise. Squats are essential for lower body strength, but they just don’t work the hamstrings enough for great results.
5 Exercises that Work Your Hamstrings
Because it’s essential to target your hamstrings to achieve better fitness, health, and overall athletic performance, it’s essential to choose exercises that work hamstrings specifically. Incorporate the following exercises into your routine to build stronger hamstrings.
If you want proof that Romanian deadlifts work your hamstrings, just add a few sets of them to your lower body workout. By the next day, you’ll feel soreness that will let you know your hamstrings had a great workout. Here’s how to do this excellent hamstring exercise:
- Grip your weight (a barbell or 2 dumbbells) in front of you with your palms facing your thighs.
- Stand straight with your shoulder blades back while holding the weight.
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hinge forward at the hips, bending over while keeping your back straight.
- Do not lock your knees. Allow them to bend slightly as you bend forward.
- Keep the weight close to your body, sliding it down the front of your legs.
- Continue to bend forward until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Straighten by driving your hips forward. Do not pull upward with your back.
- Completing one rep should return you to your starting, standing position.
- Repeat for 3–5 sets of 8–12 reps.
The reason Romanian deadlifts (or RDLs) are number one on our list is that they are incredible at building hamstring strength. Start here for a foundation of great hamstring strength.
Barbell Hip Thrust
The barbell hip thrust requires hip extension, which works your hamstrings. So, while hip thrusts have a reputation for working glutes, they’re also much better at building hamstrings than squats are. For this exercise:
- Sit with your upper back and shoulder blades supported by a bench, foam box, or another piece of sturdy, comfortable gym equipment.
- Seat yourself on the ground with your legs extended.
- Place a barbell across your lap. It helps to pad the barbell with this foam pad.
- Plant your feet on the ground in front of you shoulder-width apart.
- Your body should form a ‘V’ shape with your back as the left side of the ‘V’ and your thighs as the right side of the ‘V’. The barbell should be at the bottom of the ‘V’, balanced on top of your hips.
- Grip the barbell with body hands for stability.
- Drive your feet into the ground and extend your hips fully, lifting your rear completely off the ground.
- At the top position, your shoulders should be supported by the bench and your feet should be flat on the ground.
- Hold the top position with full hip flexion for 1–2 seconds, squeezing your glutes and hamstrings.
- Slowly lower yourself down to the starting position.
- Repeat for your desired sets and reps.
If you’re a beginner, start by doing this exercise without any weight. The body weight variation is typically referred to as a “glute bridge,” but it has the same benefits as a weighted hip thrust. As you get stronger, you can explore single-leg hip thrusts, or switch to barbell hip thrusts for an added challenge.
The classic deadlift is an incredible lower body exercise that provides far more benefit for your hamstrings than squats. For this exercise:
- Step up to the barbell with your feet slightly less than shoulder-width apart.
- When standing straight-legged, the bar should be 1 inch (2.5 cm) in front of your shins.
- Point your toes slightly outward.
- Bend over at the waist to grip the bar with your palms facing in.
- Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar.
- Keep your back straight, with shoulder blades retracted, and chest up.
- Straighten your legs and back simultaneously, bringing the bar up and keeping it close to your legs.
- Come to a full standing position, with hips fully flexed and back straight.
- Lower the weight back to the floor in starting position, then repeat.
If barbell deadlifts are daunting, you can begin this exercise by using dumbbells. Deadlifts aren’t just for the biggest powerlifter in the gym—they’re a great exercise for anyone looking to improve hamstring strength.
Reverse Nordic Curl
The reverse nordic curl is a great bodyweight exercise that works the hamstrings. In studies, nordic curl variations rank among the top exercises for hamstring activation. To do this simple variation, follow these steps.
- Kneel on a yoga mat or other comfortable surface.
- Fully extend your hips so that you are “standing” on your knees with your back straight.
- Cross your arms over your chest.
- Lean back slowly, as far as you are able without losing balance. If your lower back touches your feet, you’ve performed the full range of motion.
- Slowly straighten and return to the starting position.
- Repeat for your desired sets and reps.
If you have a workout partner, you can perform other nordic curl variations. All of them are great for the hamstrings. As you get stronger, you can even increase the difficulty by holding a weight to your chest as you perform this exercise.
Single-leg deadlifts build balance, flexibility, and hamstring strength all at the same time. They’re a great at-home exercise, or can be done at the gym. To begin with this exercise:
- Stand with your feet close together and back straight.
- Hold a dumbbell in your left hand.
- Hinging at the hips, bring your left leg straight back behind as you tilt forward.
- Allow your left hand to reach toward the floor while holding the dumbbell
- Bend your right leg (the leg planted on the floor) slightly at the knee.
- Keep your back and left leg straight. The correct form should bring you to a capital “T” shape, with your planted leg as the leg of the ‘T’.
- Slowly straighten back to starting position.
- Complete your goal reps, then switch to the other leg.
Single-leg deadlifts may require some practice until they begin to feel like second nature. Remember to keep your hips square and facing toward the floor when you tilt forward—this will help you keep your balance. Not only will you build hamstring strength, but the act of balancing on one leg helps build strong stabilizer muscles.
Do You Work Your Hamstrings in a Squat?
Squats do not provide a very good hamstring workout. Mostly, squats activate the quads and glutes. Doing squats will only work your hamstrings slightly as a secondary muscle. In order to target the hamstrings, try these exercises instead:
- Romanian deadlifts (sometimes abbreviated as RDLs).
- Barbell hip thrusts or glute bridges.
- Traditional deadlifts.
- Reverse nordic curls.
- Single-leg deadlifts.
You’ll get far more hamstring activation through these exercises than through any type of squat. This will help you build all your lower body muscles. You’ll see improved muscle tone, strength, and performance with targeted hamstring exercises.