Why You Should Add Hamstring Curls to Your Workout Routine
Looking to seriously strengthen your hamstrings? Give sliding leg curls a go.
Celebrity trainer Don Saladino, co-founder of NYC-based Drive495 gym—whose clients have included Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, and Hugh Jackman, among others—recently posted a video of the move on Instagram. Though it does hone in on the hammies, as Saladino writes in the caption, it also targets much more than that.
“This movement forces you to stabilize your core and maintain a neutral lumbar spine when performing correctly,” Saladino writes in the caption.
You can check out the video, via @donsaladino, here:
Above all, this is a hamstring move. Having strong hamstrings is important for several reasons.
“It looks basic, but it’s challenging,” Stephanie Mansour, Chicago-based certified personal trainer, tells SELF of the sliding leg curls. The difficulty is primarily due to the fact that you have to bend your knees while simultaneously extending your hips. “It can be hard to do both at once,” explains Mansour.
What’s more, the move requires serious strength from—no surprise—your hamstrings.
“A lot of times the hamstrings can get ignored,” says Mansour. Many popular lower-body moves, like squats, focus on the glutes and quads, while placing little (if any) emphasis on the hamstrings. This muscle deserves move love, though, as it’s a large and important workhorse in your lower half. Strengthening it will improve the overall efficiency and effectiveness of your lower body. Plus, a tight lower back could be the result of tight hamstrings, and movements that both stretch and strengthen the hamstrings can alleviate both types of tightness.
While there are several moves you can do to target hamstrings, these curls are unique in that they require activation during both the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (lifting) phase of the move, which happens as you extend and then flex your knee. Compared to moves that work the muscle during just one phase of movement (like curls performed on a hamstring curl machine, which are eccentric-focused) this activation in both directions helps build an overall well-rounded muscle, explains Mansour.
But it’s not just about the hammies. These curls also engages other muscles in both your upper and lower half.
Though sliding leg curls are a hamstring-dominant move, “as your hamstrings fatigue, you will feel it in your glutes too,” James Brewer, NYC-based certified personal trainer and certified Spin and TRX instructor, tells SELF.
That’s because the glutes—specifically the gluteus maximus (the biggest muscle in your butt) and gluteus medius (a smaller butt muscle that muscle supports the hip and rotational movement of the thigh)—serve as stabilizers during the move, says Brewer. “If your butt drops as your legs extend forward, that defeats the whole movement,” he adds.
The curls also demand core strength, primarily from your rectus abdominis (what you think of when you think “abs”), your transverse abdominis (the deepest ab muscle that wraps around your sides and spine) and erector spinae (a set of muscles in your lower back), says Mansour. This move can teach you how to simultaneously engage your glutes, hamstrings, and core so you can better and more easily activate the core in other lower-body exercises, adds Mansour.
You’ll also recruit your inner thighs and hips, says Brewer, plus your calves and the muscles on the front of your lower leg, adds Mansour. Then, there’s the upper-body component. Your lats and triceps need to be continually engaged to keep your spine neutral and hips up.
The one muscle you shouldn’t feel working: your quads, which would happen if you grounded your entire foot, rather than just your heel, like Saladino demos. “If you feel your quads, you’re totally off on form,” says Brewer.
Keeping a neutral lower back is key to performing this move safely and correctly.
As Saladino advises in the caption, maintaining a neutral lumbar spine (not rounding or arching your lower back) as you perform the reps is important.
“Arching your back as you lift your hips is very dangerous,” adds Mansour, and “if you round your back while you lift your hips, you wouldn’t be able to press your hips up all the way.”
Saladino demos the move atop the slideboard, a specialized piece of gym equipment, but you don’t need one to perform the exercise.
If you have a wood, marble, or any other type of smooth, flat floor at home, you can replicate the purpose of the slideboard by simply wearing socks or by placing towels—either cloth or paper—under each heel, says Brewer. If you go this route, you might want to place a yoga mat under your upper body for comfort.
If you have sliders (sometimes referred to as gliders), you can do this move on any type of comfortable surface—wood, carpet, or otherwise—by placing one slider under each heel.
Here’s how to do the sliding leg curls:
- Grab your sliding tool of choice (and a mat, if necessary) and lie on your back with your knees bent, and your heels directly under your knees.
- Place your arms next to your body at a 30-degree angle with your palms pressed down.
- Press your arms, upper back, and shoulder blades down into the mat or ground. Make sure your shoulders aren’t hunching up toward your ears.
- Flex your toes toward your shins so that just your heels are pressing on the ground.
- Pull your abs in, and without rounding or arching your back, squeeze your glutes to lift your hips up into a bridge position.
This is the starting position.
- Keeping the edge of your heels as the only point of contact that your feet have with the ground, slowly move your heels away from your body to extend your legs out.
- Once fully extended, move your heels back in toward your butt with slightly more speed, as Saladino demons. Stop when your heels are directly under your knees again. This is one rep.
- Try 4 reps if you’re a beginner, 8 if you’re intermediate level, and 12 if you’re advanced, says Brewer.
- Rest for 1 minute and repeat the same number of reps for 2 more sets, resting another minute in between each set.
“This is not a speed movement,” says Brewer. Focus on slow, controlled movements. Continually pressing your upper body into the floor—particularly your lats—and squeezing your glutes will help your hips stay elevated.
As you bring your legs back in towards your butt, make sure your heels don’t go further back than under your knees, warns Mansour. “This could overflex your knees,” she says.
If you have difficulty extending your legs out all the way, that’s OK, Brewer says. It requires a certain level of core, glute and hamstring strength to do so. Go halfway if you need to, says Mansour, and keep the focus on lifted hips and controlled movements.
If you’re having trouble keeping your hips lifted, grab a soccer ball or yoga block and place it between your knees. “This will help you keep your glutes engaged throughout the movement so that your butt doesn’t sag,” says Brewer.
If, on the other hand, you’ve mastered this move and are looking for more challenge, try a single-leg variation, suggests Brewer. From the starting position, lift one heel off the ground and bring that knee in toward your elbow on that side. Keep that position locked in and your hips lifted while you perform the leg curls with the other leg that’s grounded. Switch legs and repeat on the other side.