Setting up effective leg training without using the hamstrings can be difficult.
Exercise selection, set up, stance and range of motion will all influence this, but what are the best exercises that minimise use of the hamstrings?
The 8 best leg exercises that don’t use hamstrings are:
- Leg Press
- Hack Squats
- Leg Extension
- Hip Adduction
- Split Squats
- Calf Raises
- Goblet Squats
- Copenhagen Planks
At the end of this article, you will understand which exercises are best suited to you, and how to adjust execution to reduce load to the hamstrings.
I will cover:
- The reasons you may want to train legs without using your hamstrings
- 4 exercises you want to avoid and why
- 8 exercises you can use and how to minimise hamstring use for them
- A sample program you can follow
Why Do You Want To Train Your Legs Without Using Hamstrings?
There are 4 key reasons why you may want to train legs without using your hamstrings:
- Injury – If you have a hamstring injury, you may be looking for ways to keep your leg training progressing without making the issue worse.
- Recovery issues – Being under recovered across a training week can hinder your sessions and overall progress massively. In this case, you may just need to tweak your exercise selection on one session per week, while keeping in one session that still targets the hamstrings.
- Comparatively bigger hamstrings – If your goals are physique based, then comparatively bigger hamstrings can hinder the look you are trying to achieve. If your hamstrings are notably bigger, then you may want periods of training focused on bringing up your quads and glutes instead.
- Weaker quads, adductors or glutes – If all your lower body exercises end up feeling like a hamstring exercise, this may highlight a strength imbalance. Training may then focus on strengthening your quads and glutes to catch up with your hamstrings.
4 Leg Exercise You Want To AVOID
Romanian or Stiff Legged Deadlifts
These are one of the best hamstring exercises there is, and because of that, you want to keep these out of your program when the aim is not to train your hamstrings.
There are plenty of other options for your glutes, erectors and upper back that do not require you to train the hamstrings too.
Related Article: Romanian Deadlift vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
Similar to Romanian deadlifts, good mornings are great for training the entire posterior chain, but this also means they are fantastic for hamstrings.
With leg curls being a hamstring isolation exercise, these are the most obvious to avoid. Replacing these with further quadricep, or glute isolation exercises will benefit you if you are trying to address a strength or size imbalance.
Check out some of our glute-focused training guides:
- Don’t Feel Your Glutes Hip Thrusting? Try These 9 Tips
- How To Leg Press Using Your Glutes (6 Tips)
- Blood Flow Restriction Training For Glutes (Complete Guide)
- Can’t Feel Your Glutes While Squatting? Try These 9 Tips
Commonly thought of as a glute exercise, these also train the hamstrings as a hip extensor.
This is especially the case if you’re doing high rep kettlebell swings, since as the glutes fatigue, the hamstrings will activate even more to compensate for the fatiguing glute muscles.
Related Article: 7 Best Kettlebell Swing Alternatives
8 Leg Exercises That Don't Target Hamstrings
1. Leg Press
The leg press is great for training the quadriceps, but it also uses the glutes, adductors, and hamstrings. However, we can adjust how this exercise is executed to maximize the use of the quadriceps and minimize the use of the hamstrings.
To do this you need to take a stance that is towards the bottom of the foot plate; as low as you can while keeping your feet flat on the footplate throughout each rep. This aids your target the quadriceps more by increasing knee translation while helping reduce loading on the hips.
Related Article: Leg Press Foot Placements: 5 Stances Explained
Your stance should also be around shoulder-width apart, with the toes pointed straight.
Knee flexion should be the priority here as well so you may want to cut the range of motion slightly to limit the amount of hip flexion you reach at the bottom of the movement. If you feel the load shift from your quadriceps to more hamstrings and glutes, this is your sign you have gone too far.
Squat shoes can help with targeting your quads in the leg press, these articles will help you further understand why and give you recommendations on the best shoes for you:
- Heel Or Flat Shoes While Squatting? (6 Things To Consider)
- 5 Best Lifting Shoes For Beginners (2021)
2. Hack Squats
Hack squats are one of my favorite leg exercises overall, and they are a fantastic choice to train your quadriceps.
Much like the leg press, there are execution changes you can make to minimize the use of the hamstrings.
Take a stance about shoulder-width apart, this is likely narrower than the stance you would use for a barbell squat and point the toes forward.
Hack Squat foot position will vary between machines so this may take a few practice reps to get right, but you want to start by placing your feet between the bottom and the middle of the footplate. You want a foot position that keeps the knees tracking forward throughout the movement, rather than simply sitting down into your hips.
If you feel yourself shifting backwards and loading your hips more towards the bottom of the movement, this is a sign to adjust your stance slightly lower on the footplate, or to limit the range of motion.
A squat shoe, or heel wedge, can also help the hack squat feel more natural and keep the loading through your quadriceps.
Not every gym will have a hack squat machine available, but you can make a great equivalent with a wall and foam roller.
Place the foam roller between you lower back and a wall and place your stance 1-2 feet in front of you.
Squat down, rolling down the foam roller on the wall, and squat back up – you can add load by holding plates or dumbbells, but I recommend performing higher reps before chasing load due to the nature of the set up.
Related Article: 9 Best Hack Squat Alternatives
3. Leg Extension
Following hack squats or a leg press, leg extensions are the best option for higher rep work, while avoiding training the hamstrings.
Machines are best for these; however, these can be set up with a high box or bench by hanging a kettlebell, dumbbell, cable or band on your foot or around your ankle.
While working through a full range of motion is ideal, if you have got a hamstring injury, you may want to cut the top end slightly to reduce how much you are lengthening the hamstring.
Looking for alternatives to leg extensions? Read our article 15 Leg Extensions Alternatives (At Home, Bands, Free Weight).
4. Hip Adduction
The adductors are commonly neglected, and as such if your goals are to bring up your overall lower body size and strength, then the adductors should be a focus for your training.
Machines will be the best option here, but cables or bands with an ankle attachment can still be very effective.
Work through as much range as you can comfortably manage and squeeze each rep at the peak contraction as if you are trying to crush something between your knees.
The adductors also function as a hip extensor, meaning they are training during squat movements. As these will typically be lower reps (1-10), I recommend performing higher reps (10-15) for these adductions and training closer to failure.
Drop sets or AMRAPs are a great way to increase the intensity of adductor training as loading improvements are harder to make than other leg training.
5. Split Squats
Split squats are fantastic all-round for lower body training, however, here we are looking to shift their execution to target the glutes more.
Given that the hamstrings and glutes both function as hip extensors, finding ways to training the glutes without also training the hamstrings can be more challenging.
These are best done with a higher front foot elevation, a low box or you can stack 2-3 bumper plates and limit the amount of knee flexion and translation. Almost replicating a low step up.
The goal is to maximize the range of motion at the hip and load the glutes as much as possible.
By keeping more upright, lowering your hips straight down (rather than lunging forward) and keeping pressure in your heels you will feel this exercise in your glutes more than your quads.
6. Calf Raises
What better time to play catch up with the ever-neglected calves by replacing your hamstring training with calf raises.
From bodyweight and machines to free weight exercises, there are plenty of ways to set up calf raises.
The calf is made up of two muscles, the gastrocnemius, the typical calf muscle you will think of, and the soleus, which sits underneath the gastrocnemius.
To target both you will need to use two types of raises.
One with a straight leg to target the gastrocnemius, such as a bodyweight or loading calf raise on a step, and one with a bent leg to target the soleus, such as a seated machine, or even just balancing plates on your thighs.
7. Goblet Squats
These are my favourite for home gym lifters, or those without access to a leg press or hack squat; or even if you do, they are a good way to end a session after heavier quadriceps exercises.
Using a narrow stance and a heel elevation, hold a weight in front of your chest.
From here, squat down while driving the knees forward and aiming to stay as upright as possible; the weight will act as a counterbalance to help with this.
This keeps you loading the quadriceps as much as possible, while also reducing the demand from the hip extensors, including the hamstrings.
Related Article: Goblet Squat vs Front Squat: Form, Benefits, Differences
8. Copenhagen Planks
The best replacement for an adductor machine, and anyone looking to improve their squat, is the Copenhagen plank.
Rather than other exercises, these have you training the adductors isometrically for set periods of time, rather than working through traditional rep schemes.
These can be challenging, especially when getting started, so you may want to start with a shorter lever by placing your knee on the bench rather than the foot, or by starting on the ground.
Sample Program: How To Structure Your Leg Day Without Using Hamstrings
This two-day program will help you get the most out of training your legs while minimising the use of your hamstrings.
- Hack Squat – 3 Sets of 8 Reps – Treat these as 3 ascending sets that get progressively more difficult, aiming to be 1-2 reps from failure on the last set.
- Front Foot Elevated Split Squat – 3 Sets of 10 Reps – Use a load that is challenging to complete 8 reps, but also allows you to keep load in the glutes rather than cheating by shifting load to the quadriceps.
- Leg Extension – 2 Sets of 12-15 + 1 AMRAP Set – Start with a load you can do for 12 reps, once you hit 15 reps on a set, progress the load. Take the last set to failure, performing as many reps as possible (AMRAP).
- Standing Calf Raise – 3 Sets of 15-20 Reps – Pause at the top and bottom of each rep.
- Hip Adduction Machine – 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps – Hold the peak contraction for 1-2 seconds and perform 2-3 second eccentrics.
- Unilateral Leg Press – 3 Sets of 15/12/10 Reps – Start with a load you can do for 15 reps, then increase the load for 12 reps, and increase again for 10 reps.
- Goblet Squat – 3 Sets of AMRAPs – Load with a weight you can perform for 15+ reps and perform 3 AMRAP sets with 60 seconds rest between sets.
- Seated Calf Raise – 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps – Hold the peak contraction and perform 2-3 second eccentrics.
- Copenhagen Plank – 3 Sets of 10-15 Seconds – Look to add load or progress the lever length once you hit 15 seconds for all 3 sets.
Other Helpful Guides
- Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Hip Flexors
- Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Ankles
- Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Glutes
- Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Hip Flexors
- Which Squat Is Best For Hamstrings? (Top 5 Exercises)
You may want to stop training the hamstrings due to injury, poor recovery or a strength or size imbalance. However, this does mean you need to stop training legs altogether. Instead, focus should shift to the quadriceps, glutes, adductors and calves.
Exercise selection and execution will be key to training legs without using the hamstrings. This is often done by adjusting stance, range of motion or exercise set up.
About The Author
Jacob Wymer is a powerlifting coach and PhD Candidate in Biomechanics and Strength and Conditioning, researching the application of barbell velocity measurements to powerlifting. He is involved in powerlifting across the board, from athlete to meet director. Jacob runs his coaching services at EST Barbell. You can also connect with him on Instagram.