October 2, 2014

Are Squats All You Need to Maximize Hamstrings Development?

I continue to hear the same claim. It appears in magazine and internet articles. It’s heard in fitness forums and social media outlets. It’s sometimes perpetrated by high-profile fitness pros.

“Just do compound lower body movements and your hamstrings will get all the work they need to grow.”

The statement has been made so many times a lot of folks simply take it as gospel. Problem is, it’s a claim that has no basis.

Let’s talk facts.

First, the idea that hammies would be maximally stimulated in a compound movement doesn’t make sense from an anatomical standpoint. The hamstrings complex as a whole is biarticular, crossing both the knee and hip joints. (Nerd note: the exception is the short head of the biceps femoris, which just crosses the knee and technically is not considered a true hamstrings muscle). At the knee, the hamstrings acts as a flexor; at the hip it acts as an extensor. What happens when you squat down? Try it. The hamstrings shorten at the knee and lengthen at the hip. Alternatively, the opposite occurs on the concentric portion of the movement with the hamstrings lengthening at the knee and shortening at the hip. Thus, the overall functional length of the muscle complex doesn’t change all that much throughout the movement — a phenomenon that is not ideal for maximizing force output.

Research supports the fact that hamstrings activity is low during compound exercise. A recent study from my lab showed that the biceps femoris was only ~25% as active as the vasti muscles and just a third as active as the the rectus femoris during the leg press. Safe to say that the hammies don’t get much work in the leg press.

Think that perhaps squatting shows substantially greater hamstrings activation?

Think again.

Hamstrings activation during the squat has been shown to be only 27% of maximal voluntary isometric contraction. This led the author of the study to conclude, “Thus the squat is not an optimal exercise for training the hamstrings.”

Okay, so maybe you don’t put much stock in muscle activation and want to put forth the argument that hypertrophy is all that matters. Fair enough. A study by Weiss et al provides direct evidence that squats don’t do much for hamstrings muscle growth. Subjects performed four sets of squats to approximately parallel depth using either a low, medium, or high rep range. Training was carried out 3 days a week for 7 weeks. At the end of the study, results showed significant increases in hypertrophy of the quads for all conditions studied. The hammies: no changes from baseline seen in any of the conditions.

Bottom line: If you want to maximize hamstrings development, you need to incorporate single-joint exercises that directly target the musculature into your routine. Both exercises originating at the hip joint (SLDL, good morning, etc) and exercises originating at the knee (leg curls) are viable choices. Ideally, both types of movements should be combined to optimize growth of the muscle complex.


  1. Hey so I was wondering, if you’re hamstrings only comprise of 27% of a you’re squat. How do conventional deadlifts compare to other compound movements like lunges, or other deadlift variations? I know deadlifts hit you’re hammies, but I’m also wondering does it hit them as hard as isolation movements, like leg curls? I don’t have a machine in my gym to do leg curls,or other leg isolation movements, so i just compromise with rdl’s and lunges, compound movements etc. I see results, and have a blast with my workouts. Am I missing out on any sweet gains! Thanks a lot I’ve learned so much about hypertrophy.

    Comment by Brent Andersen — October 9, 2014 @ 1:52 pm

  2. […] Are Squats All You Need to Maximize Hamstrings Development? via Brad […]

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  3. […] http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/are-squats-all-you-need-to-maximize-hamstrings-development/ […]

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  4. I noticed that my hams get hit well on our gym’s new decline leg press. The footplate is higher and when I place my feet at the top of it my hams/glutes DOMS hurt 2 days following. This may be another alternative when there’s no prone or seated leg curl. Not certain, but ‘something’ worked!

    Thank you for the great article and links.

    Comment by Billy — December 31, 2014 @ 11:06 pm

  5. I’m assuming the hamstring size stayed the same since no changes from baseline were noticed? Could it be that since this is a compound movement, the hamstrings size would have remained steady until the quads reached a certain point indicating that the body was balancing itself out interns of quad/ hamstring strength ratio? If the hamstrings lost strength, I would say the squat isn’t a good stimulus.

    Comment by Marcus Beasley — November 15, 2015 @ 9:48 pm

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