6 Best Kettlebell Exercises for the Hamstrings (with Pictures!): Build Huge Legs

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
October 25, 2022

The hamstrings are the muscles originating from the hips, traversing the back of the legs, and attaching to the knees. They play a critical role in daily activities ranging from standing, walking, and explosive actions such as sprinting and jumping. Weak or tight hamstrings may cause a lousy posture, leading to lower back pain or other injuries.

People often neglect the hamstrings in their workout routine in favor of the more prominent-looking quadricep muscles, which leads to a poor hamstring-to-quadriceps ratio that increases the risk of injury. Strengthening the hamstrings through the use of the kettlebell may be employed by performing swings, side lunges, and good mornings, among others.

This article discusses the importance of maintaining a strong and healthy hamstring, the ideal Hamstrings/Quadriceps ratio, why kettlebell exercises are a better option, and the best kettlebell exercises for strengthening the hamstrings.

The Hamstring: Anatomy and Function

The hamstring consists of the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and Biceps femoris muscles, located at the back of the thigh, originating at the pelvis and then traversing the length of the femur. In addition, several hamstring muscles cross the acetabulofemoral (hip) and tibiofemoral (knee) joints.

hamstring posterior

From the main tendon attached to the bone of the lower leg, several branches spread out and then connect to other bones of the hip and leg, allowing the hamstrings to move both the hip and knee joints.

The hamstrings participate significantly in hip extension and knee flexion. Together with the ACL, it acts as a dynamic knee stabilizer decreasing knee twisting and shearing forces during activities like skiing.

Kettlebells: A Better Alternative

The kettlebell or girya in Russian comes from the Persian word gerani, meaning difficult. Kettlebells originated in ancient Russia and were used as counterweights to measure goods in the local markets.

Farm workers discovered that the girya could be utilized to demonstrate strength resulting in competitions during festivals for the enjoyment of the villagers. That started the journey of the kettlebells as a strength sport in Russia and Europe in the late 19th century. Before finally making its way into gyms in the 20th century.

girya

Kettlebells are a great way to add variety to workouts that improve mobility and range of motion. Several kettlebell exercises employ more complex movements, challenging a person's center of gravity and improving core strength and balance.

The kettlebell also builds muscle strength throughout the entire posterior chain (structures at the back of the leg and spine). The main muscles that comprise the posterior chain are the latissimus dorsi, erector spinae muscles, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. 

Workouts such as kettlebell swings enhance more complex fluid movement and add a cardio workout to resistance training. However, replicating this exercise with a dumbbell is a bit more complicated due to grip positioning. 

Kettlebell Exercises for the Hamstrings

1. Kettlebell Good Mornings

This workout is great as a warmup or as an exercise for beginners. Variations of the kettlebell good mornings are weight behind the head or at the front of the chest.

kettlebell good morning

Grab a kettlebell by the horns (side of the handle) with a neutral grip using both hands, and bring it close to the chest, just a few inches below the chin. Start bending at the hips while maintaining trunk alignment. 

As the body bends from the hips, push the buttocks out and slightly bend the knees. Stop when the trunk is almost parallel to the ground. Reverse the action by bringing the body and knees to the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

2. Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

Traditional deadlifts will use the quads more than the hamstring. However, the Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift is a hip-hinge workout that targets and stretches the hamstrings.

kettlebell romanian deadlift

Stand with the feet hip-width apart, and knees with a slight bend. Grab the handle of the kettlebell with an overhand grip using both hands. Bend the body at the hips lowering the weight to the ground while maintaining a straight back. The body should be almost parallel to the floor at the bottom of the action. 

Using the glutes and hamstrings, lift the torso (still maintaining alignment) slowly back to the starting position and repeat for a specified number of repetitions. For better isolation of the hamstrings, do not squeeze the glutes when lifting the body back to the starting position.

3. Kettlebell Single-Leg Deadlift

The kettlebell single-leg deadlift is a  variation that would undoubtedly challenge the body's coordination and balance while building strength and coordination of the back, core, glute, hamstrings, and even calves. It also helps develop the rotational power of the core muscles and stabilize the hips.

kettlebell single leg deadlift

Grab a kettlebell with the right hand and shift the body's weight on the left foot while slightly bending the knee of the right leg. Next, slowly lower the body at the hips while moving the left hand outward from the side of the body to provide better balance. 

As the body bends forward with the left hip, extend the right leg using the other hip to lift it backward. The body and the right leg should almost be parallel to the ground at the bottom of the movement. Pause for a second and reverse the action until the body is upright. Repeat until a set is completed. 

4. Kettlebell Swings

The kettlebell swing exercise is effective as a full-body and cardio workout. It helps improve functional movements and athleticism by simultaneously strengthening numerous groups of muscles, resulting in better flexibility, balance, and posture. This workout also benefits the hamstrings better adjust to explosive forces.

how to do a kettlebell single arm swing

Grab a kettlebell with two hands using an overhand grip. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Bend the knees until the kettlebell is between the legs and the hands a bit lower than the crotch area. Extend the legs with explosive force, and using hip thrust, swing the weight until the arms are parallel to the floor. 

Let the weight swing down, moving towards the area between the legs while the hips and knees move back to the starting position. Next, let the kettlebell swing under the crotch to gain momentum as it swings back to the front. Then, repeat the movement using the same explosive hip thrust motion at the start of the first swing.

5. Kettlebell Side Lunge

Side lunge or lateral lunge is a lower-body exercise that primarily targets the hamstrings and quads. It also provides the adductors of the inner thigh and glutes a good workout. There is less strain on the lower back compared to squats. This exercise promotes balance, stability, and better hamstring coordination with other muscle groups engaged during movement.

kettlebell side lunge

Grab a kettlebell by the horns and position the weight close to your chest. Start in a standing position with feet close to each other. Move the left foot sideways several inches more than the shoulder width apart from the right foot. Bend the left knee while pushing the buttocks backward to lower the body down over your left foot. The right leg should remain as straight as possible.

Extend the leg using the hip and knee from the bottom of the movement until the body is upright. Then, move the left foot back to the starting position. Repeat the movement pattern for the desired number of repetitions and do the same for the other leg.

6. Kettlebell Pistol Squat

This exercise is for more experienced athletes or weightlifters and should be performed with proper care and execution. The piston squat engages the core muscles to provide stability. The muscle groups most worked by this routine will be the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. It also trains the hamstrings for better coordination with the other muscle groups.

kettlebell pistol squat

Grab a kettlebell by the horns using a neutral grip and position the weight close to your chest. Next, shift the body's weight on the left leg and squat down. Flex the right leg using the hip as you lower your body and should remain straight at the bottom of the movement. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat. Do the same exercise for the right leg.

Importance of Maintaining Ideal Hamstrings/Quadriceps Ratio for Better Health

Measuring the co-activation of hamstrings and quadriceps is usually done by calculating the hamstring to quadriceps ratio (H:Q ratio). For daily activities and moderate exertions in sports or workouts, an H:Q ratio of 0.6 to 0.8 is adequate to reduce the risk of injuries to the hamstrings and ACL. 

However, for athletes, H:Q ratios closer to 1 mean greater activation of the hamstrings and aid the ACL better in doing its work, thereby significantly reducing the risk of injuries. The hamstring aids the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in providing passive resistance to the anterior translation of the knee, increasing its stability.

ACL Injuries and Prevention

The ACL often suffers injury in non-contact incidents (estimated at 70-90% of total injuries) with the foot planted on the ground. A rapid shift in directions, hard landings, and sudden deceleration are the main contributors to ACL injury incidents. Often, these injuries result from poor H:Q ratios which could mean an exceedingly dominant quadriceps, weak hamstrings, or both.

Injuries to the ACL can have a devastating effect on a person as it usually leads to arthrogenic muscle inhibition (AMI). The AMI is a typical impairment following an ACL injury causing decreased muscle activation and impaired muscle strength, which leads to erratic and irregular movements.

Though other factors contribute to the female's susceptibility to ACL injuries, this article focuses on the modifiable risk, especially the hamstring muscles ratio with the quadriceps. 

More synergistic activation of the hamstrings and quadriceps, signifying H:Q ratios closer to 1, translates to substantial improvement in knee stability due to gains in the hamstrings resulting from targeted strength training.

An ACL reconstruction after an injury significantly impacts hamstring functions. Therefore, restoring these functions is important to prevent a retear of the ACL, especially if the graft comes from the hamstrings.

A study by Kyrisis et al. showed that athletes who did not meet the discharge criteria before returning to professional sport had a four times greater risk of sustaining an ACL graft rupture than those who completed all six return-to-sport requirements. In addition, hamstring-to-quadriceps strength ratio deficits are directly associated with an increased risk of an ACL graft rupture.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are an athlete or somebody who enjoys a good run in the morning, maintaining an ideal H:Q ratio is vital for overall health and mobility. Improving hamstring health and strength is not just an endeavor to satisfy performance requirements in any activity but rather a step toward ensuring that the risk of injury is significantly decreased and allows us to perform our absolute best with fewer worries.

References

1. Dedinsky R, Baker L, Imbus S, Bowman M, Murray L. EXERCISES THAT FACILITATE OPTIMAL HAMSTRING AND QUADRICEPS CO-ACTIVATION TO HELP DECREASE ACL INJURY RISK IN HEALTHY FEMALES: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2017;12(1):3-15.

2. Rosene JM, Fogarty TD, Mahaffey BL. Isokinetic Hamstrings:Quadriceps Ratios in Intercollegiate Athletes. J Athl Train. 2001;36(4):378-383.

3. Pietrosimone B, Lepley AS, Kuenze C, et al. Arthrogenic Muscle Inhibition Following Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury. J Sport Rehabil. 2022;31(6):694-706. Published 2022 Feb 14. doi:10.1123/jsr.2021-0128

4. Kyritsis P, Bahr R, Landreau P, Miladi R, Witvrouw E. Likelihood of ACL graft rupture: not meeting six clinical discharge criteria before return to sport is associated with a four times greater risk of rupture. Br J Sports Med. 2016;50(15):946-951. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095908

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
Inspire US serves as an informational hub for people looking to start their fitness journey.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information being shared is for educational purposes only. You must consult with a medical professional before acting on any content on this website.
Copyright © Inspire US 2022