Exercises You’ve Never Tried: Hamstring and Glute Edition
I’m a sucker for lower body training, so I’m going to share some cool exercises for you that focus primarily on the lower half of the back side of the body, namely the glutes and hamstrings.
Every-day gym rats often ignore these muscles because they can’t see them in their favorite bathroom mirror cell phone picture. But before you build an 8-day-a-week program devoted to chest, shoulders, arms, and abs, remember that just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean other people can’t. Nobody likes a flat ass.
To build appreciable muscle mass or just get generally cockstrong, it all starts with the foundation.
The Posterior Chain
The posterior chain begins with deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts (RDL), and glute-ham raises. What if you can’t deadlift due to a back injury? Or if your gym doesn’t have a glute-raise apparatus? What if you’re just flat-out sick of what you’re doing and need a change?
Here are some cool exercises to spice things up.
1. Split Stance RDL
The single-leg RDL is an awesome exercise, but until you get the hang of it and master the balancing aspect, it can feel more like a sobriety test than a viable way to get stronger and add muscle.
Enter the split stance RDL.
I’d classify this as hybrid between a traditional RDL and a true single-leg RDL. If you do these correctly, the front leg should do the majority of the work and handle most of the loading, while the rear leg provides stability so you don’t topple over like an 18-year-old girl on 99-cent shooter night.
You can easily adjust the difficulty of the exercise by altering your setup.
Feet closer together = Less stable = Harder
Start with your feet fairly wide and bring in your stance as you feel more comfortable. I like to set up with the toes of the rear foot even with the heel of the front foot. A closer stance also allows for a more natural hip hinge without torqueing the pelvis.
Strive to keep as little weight as possible on the rear leg. You’ll need to be hyper vigilant with yourself at first as you adjust to the movement.
This can be used as a good progression to work towards a true single leg RDL, or as a way to get a unilateral training effect with heavier loads since stability is not as much of an issue.
2. Eccentric One-Leg RDL
This variation requires more stability than the split stance RDL, but still less than a true single-leg RDL. Do a single-leg RDL on the eccentric, then put the other foot down and pick the weight up using either a conventional deadlift or a traditional bilateral RDL, your choice.
Like the split stance RDL, this can be used as a progression to work towards single-leg RDLs. For more advanced lifters, it offers an interesting unilateral training effect by allowing the eccentric component to be overloaded with greater loads than would be possible if you did the entire movement on one leg.
One of the big keys to mastering the single leg RDL is to remember that both legs still need to work. The “non-working” leg shouldn’t just dangle passively; instead, squeeze the glute of the “up” leg and actively reach the foot back as you hinge at the hips, just as you would in a bilateral RDL. This will not only help you stabilize your torso but will also ensure that you maintain a neutral spine.
However, you should only try this variation if you have the hip mobility and hamstring flexibility to descend all the way until the bar reaches the floor without rounding your lower back as it’s awkward and potentially dangerous to transition from one to two legs with the bar in midair. If that’s not possible, it’s probably best to try something else.
3. Single-Leg Barbell RDL/Row Combo
Here’s one on the other end of the stability continuum. Like the name suggests, it’s a single-leg RDL combined with a barbell row.
We could technically call this a Pendlay row since the torso is parallel to the floor and each rep is performed from a dead stop. I’m generally not a fan of barbell rows because they tend to get sloppy and deteriorate into a sort of ballistic row/upright row/shrug mess.
However, in this case, the nature of the exercise helps to keep your form tight because if you try to cheat, you’ll lose your balance. Fact is, because this exercise is so technically demanding, it will immediately expose any form flaws, meaning there’s no way to do it other than correctly.
It certainly ain’t for beginners, but if you can pull it off, it’s an incredibly effective and efficient exercise that allows you to hammer the entire posterior chain at once. Furthermore, if you develop the stability required to do these well, regular single-leg RDLs will feel like a breeze when you go back to them and your numbers should skyrocket.
4. Paused Hip Thrusters
My good friend and fellow T Nation contributor, Bret “The Glute Guy” Contreras, has already written extensively about the hip thrust on this site, so I won’t rehash what he’s already said. If you want to learn more about it, read this.
I have to admit, when Bret first introduced this exercise, I wasn’t sure if he was being serious or if it was some sort of sick joke. I resisted trying them for a while because they looked a little ridiculous and I figured my glutes were getting enough work from squats, deadlifts, and single-leg work anyway.
That said, I’m a big believer in the adage, “don’t knock it til you try it,” so eventually I broke down and gave it a shot. Right away I could see what all the hoopla was about. I’ve never felt such a big contraction in my glutes before, and the nice thing is that the following day they don’t leave you feeling like you spent the night in prison the way squats and lunges often do.
The biggest problem I see with this exercise is that many guys try to use too much weight and fail to reach full hip extension at the top, instead opting for lumbar hyperextension. This is not only an ineffective way to work the glutes, it’s also extremely dangerous for the lower back.
To make sure this doesn’t happen, I recommend pausing each rep at the top for 1-3 seconds to keep you honest and ensure the glutes are doing the work. If that’s not possible, the weight is too heavy. You may need to drop it down slightly from what you’re used to, but so what? Last time I checked, there’s no such thing as a hip thrust competition.
You’ll notice in the video I’m using a curved buffalo bar. This isn’t essential by any means, but if you have one already, it’ll make it much easier to roll the bar into position. If you don’t have a buffalo bar, you can also try elevating the plates on small risers.
If you’re worried about looking foolish, get over yourself. You never know, maybe that cute cardio bunny you’ve been eyeing will take notice of your thrusting prowess and start up a conversation.
5. Single-Leg Hip Thrusters
Once you feel comfortable with regular hip thrusts, you can try the single-leg version, which is a great advanced progression to challenge unilateral hip extension and rotary stability.
The downside to this exercise is that it can be tricky to add external load. You can drape chains over your waist or jerry-rig bands to provide some resistance, but at a certain point you’ll need to use a barbell to keep challenging yourself.
The trouble with that is if you set up with the bar centered evenly over your hips like you would in a bilateral hip thrust, the bar will tilt and slide all over the place. Instead, center the bar over the leg you’re trying to work, meaning that if you’re working the left leg, you’ll want to set up with the bar a little left of center.
Even if you’re able to do loaded bilateral hip thrusters, don’t just jump right to loading the single-leg version without mastering it with your bodyweight first because it’s significantly more difficult and has a very different feel to it.
6. Pull-up Inverted Row Hip Thruster Combo
This is an awesome exercise with a sucky name.
I thought long and hard about trying to come up with something catchy to do it justice, like Mega Thrusters, Ladykillers, or Bruno Bootymakers, but in the end I ended up copping out and going with something boring and just calling it exactly what it is: a pull-up, an inverted row, and a hip thruster all rolled into one. If you can think of anything better, I’m open to suggestions.
For those of you big on training economy, it doesn’t get much better than this. No muscles on the back side of your body are left unscathed.
For the upper body, it starts as a vertical pull and finishes as a horizontal pull. I strongly recommend using some sort of suspension training system (TRX, rings, blast straps, etc.) to allow your shoulders to rotate naturally and to increase the contraction in your upper back, but if you don’t have anything, a bar will work just fine.
For the lower body, this works both the glutes and hamstrings through an extremely large range of motion. Through EMG research, Bret Contreras found that increasing the range of motion of a hip thruster by elevating both the feet and shoulders increased both glute and hamstring activation when compared to the floor version.
Bret obviously didn’t test this variation specifically since I just thought it up, but considering the range of motion is greater than anything he tested, it stands to reason that these may be even better. Regardless, after experimenting with them extensively, I don’t need a device to tell me that these totally kick ass (pun intended).
You’ll need to elevate your feet on something higher than a standard bench to get the full effect of the hip thruster portion of the exercise. Ideally you’d start with your feet approximately level with your shoulders and your knees slightly bent so that your torso is parallel to the floor at the top of the rep.
If you’re feeling especially frisky, try doing them one leg at a time. This is my personal favorite.
7. Dumbbell Leg Curls (Hips Off Bench)
I love dumbbell leg curls (essentially a lying leg curl with a dumbbell between your feet). Back in college when I used to lift in an insanely busy school gym, I’d take a bench and a dumbbell out into the stairwell to escape the crowds. I like them more than machine leg curls because they don’t require any specialized equipment, they’re portable, and you have the added challenge of squeezing the dumbbell between your feet, which brings the adductors and calves into play.
To make an already good exercise even better, try setting up with your entire legs hanging off the bench. The goal is to maintain a straight line from your head to your knees and hold that position throughout the entirety of the set.
These may look simple enough, but they’re friggin brutal. The glutes have to kick into overdrive to keep proper alignment and keep the hips from sagging, so you get more bang for your buck than a traditional machine leg curl.
Don’t expect to use much weight on this one. I can handle a 110-pound dumbbell for 15 reps with regular dumbbell leg curls with my thighs on the bench, but once I hang my legs off the bench, I struggle to get even 6-8 reps with just 25 pounds.
Keep your ankles plantarflexed and point your toes while you do these (a good tip for machine leg curls as well). Also, stop just short of full extension at the bottom of each rep to keep constant tension on the hamstrings.
The burn and pump you’ll get from these is diabolical. Consider yourself warned.
8. Single Leg Eccentric Stability Ball Leg Curls
I don’t use the stability ball much, but I like it for leg curls. The beauty of this exercise compared to a machine leg curl is that the glutes must fire to keep the hips extended while the hamstrings work to resist knee extension during the eccentric component and flex the knee during the concentric component.
This simultaneous hip extension and knee flexion also makes it a great progression to work towards doing glute-ham raises.
The problem with stability ball leg curls is that it’s hard to progress since you can’t really add weight. You can switch to the single-leg version, but I’ve never had good luck with that as the heel has a tendency to shift around, which causes the ball to roll awkwardly and kills the rhythm of the set.
Instead, I prefer using two legs for the concentric portion to curl the ball in and one leg for the eccentric. Alternate legs each rep to enhance the rotary stability component.
The key here is to keep your hips raised throughout the entire set. Put another way, you should have a straight line going from your knees to your neck at all times.
If you watch how most people do this exercise, you’ll notice their hips sagging, especially during the concentric phase of the rep. In my mind, that makes the exercise almost useless. If you can’t do it correctly, regress to an easier version of hip lifts without the leg curl and build up your glute strength first.
Once you can knock out six reps on each leg with this variation, you should be all set to rock out glute-ham raises like a boss. If you don’t have a glute-ham raise, this is a good substitute.
It’s On You Now
I don’t want you to go overboard with tweaking things and forget about the basics, but I also realize that after you’ve been training long enough, you start to get bored with doing the same old stuff all the time.
I hope that by showing you some new exercises, it’ll reignite that enthusiasm for working the posterior chain and make training fun again. After all, that is the point, right?
Remember though, I can show you the exercises, but I can’t do the work for you. Now it’s on you to work your ass off. Or better yet, work it on.