Do squats work your hamstrings?

Squats are much more fun with a barbell!

Squats are much more fun with a barbell!

If you have weak hamstrings, you may have heard that squats are a great way to build hamstring strength. There is no shortage of people out there claiming that squats will make your hamstrings HUGE.

Do squats really make your hamstrings grow massively? Or is it all hype?

Why do I use squats?

A lot of people I work with have extremely weak hips. The symptoms could be sciatica, knee pain, back pain, or foot pain (like plantar fasciitis). And these folks will inevitably have atrophied butt muscles and small, flabby hamstrings.

For people like this, there is a real limit to how much benefit any kind of manual/massage therapy (even if it is Rolfing) will actually have toward correcting the symptoms or the root cause. If you’re weak, you’re weak.

Nobody else can make weak muscles strong!

Which inevitably leads to the question: what exercise should the person do? If you consult “the Internet” or “Random Trainer Guy at the Gym,” squats are going to be THE answer for lower body training.

Squats work EVERYTHING. Supposedly.

But do they?

Let me say this first. I LOVE squats. My friends know I love squats because I fill my Facebook feed with references to my squat routine at the gym (I do sprinkle in the occasional video of combat kangaroos and genius dogs). I have shoes for squats. I have music for squats. I love doing squats, so please don’t think I don’t like squats.

Squats – push up of the lower body

Now, squats work a lot of things, but as someone who has had extremely weak hamstrings, let me save you some time and tell you that doing squats alone is very unlikely to build your hamstrings up.

They will help your butt, and they will help your quads. They will build your back stability and teach you how/challenge you to control your hip range of motion. They will also make your hamstrings work. But this doesn’t mean they are going to guaranteed big hamstring builders.

Let me make this more clear.

Think of squats as the push-ups of the lower body. The shoulder is the hip joint. The elbow is the knee joint. The wrist is the ankle joint. Your triceps are your quads, your biceps are your hamstrings.

Go ahead and do a proper push up. What muscles do you feel working?

Definitely not your biceps (unless you’re doing a bizarre version of a push up). You’re simply not moving your body at an angle that would maximally recruit your biceps!

Are they working? Yes, but they are not the muscles under maximum stress. They are working to help stabilize the shoulder joint.

But are they the muscles that tire out first? NO. They’re not working that hard!

Now if someone said, “I’m trying to get stronger, healthier, bigger biceps, so I’m doing a ton of pushups and bench press,” would you think they were training smart?

Of course not.

How does that translate to the squat? IT’S THE SAME THING.

Your hamstrings work in a squat, but they’re not working that hard. Squats tend to be a quad (and glute) dominant exercise, the way pushups are triceps (and chest/delt) dominant. The setup is exactly the same.

Don’t think you’re that just because you do squats, you’ll automatically get healthier, stronger hamstrings. You may need to add other things to your routine to help them along, especially if there’s a big disparity between your hamstring development relative to other leg and hip muscles.

So what should you do for hamstrings?

If you want to hit the hamstrings, Romanian Deadlifts are great fun with a barbell or dumbbells. Single leg Romanian deadlifts are great.

Though it’s quite en vogue to crap on isolated body-building style exercises in the training world, don’t neglect the very simple lying leg curl (AKA prone hamstring curl). The lying leg curl trains your hammies to be able to stabilize the knee joint and hip joint better for better explosiveness and balance in athletic life (and daily life, of course). So do them. You can also look at natural hamstring curls (google that). They can make a particularly big difference if you’ve experienced popping hips (true story!).

And while you’re doing all that hamstring work, don’t forget you will almost definitely need to work on hamstring flexibility to keep your hips happy. Doing a bunch of hamstring strength work without maintaining flexibility and tissue quality will negatively affect your hip mobility!

The final word on squats and hamstrings

Squats are not bad. But they are not a panacea for all that ails your lower body. If you have weakness in your hamstrings, working them with more specific exercises can help you build strength safely and effectively – AND they can even improve your squat as your hamstrings get stronger!


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.

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