Which Squat Is Best For Hamstrings? (Top 5 Exercises)

Squatting typically targets the quads, glutes, and hip adductor muscles. To a smaller extent, they do engage the hamstrings but they play a more stabilizing role in the traditional back squat. 

With that said, squats come in different variations, which means that there are exercises that can stress the hamstrings more than other variations. 

So which squat variations are best for targeting the hamstrings?

The best squat exercises for hamstrings are the: 

  • Low Bar Squat
  • Box Squat
  • Plate Loaded V Squat
  • Kang Squat
  • Front Foot Elevated Split Squat

In this article, I will go through each of these variations in further detail so you know how to perform them if you want to target the hamstrings more. 

But first, let’s look at how the hamstrings are activated in the squat.  

Do Squats Train Hamstrings?

Yes, squats do train the hamstring muscles, but not to a significant degree. During squats, the primary muscles used are the quads, glutes, and hip adductors.  The hamstring only recruits near the top of the squat to assist the hips from extending up and forward.

Research shows that during squats, the quads and adductors are most active during the bottom range of motion, and during the top half, the glutes become more active than the adductors.

During a study by Bloomquist et. al, full depth squats lead to an increase of 4% to 7% increase in quads and about 1% to 3% increase in hamstrings. In a study by Kudo et. al, quads grew by 5% whereas hamstrings only grew by 0.5%.

So as you can see, if you want to target the hamstring, the traditional back squat is not the best variation to use.  So, let’s look at how we can tweak the movement to use the hamstrings more.

How To Make Squats Target Hamstrings?

You can target your hamstrings more in squats by manipulating how much you allow your knees and hips to move during the squatting exercises.

To understand how we should position our hips and knees to target hamstrings, we need to understand how the hamstrings are attached to our bodies.

The hamstrings cross our hip and knee joints, which is why the hamstrings are referred to as two joint muscles. This means that our hamstrings can create movement in both our knees and our hips.

When the hamstrings contract, they bend our knees backward, which is referred to as “knee flexion”. They also help us thrust our hips through like a hip thrust, this is referred to as “hip extension”.

During squats, we bend our hips and knees at the same time, the hamstrings do not change in muscle length, and so the stress and tension on the hamstrings are very mild.

Research shows that training muscles in a long and stretched-out position leads to more muscle gain than when it is trained in a shorter muscle length.

So in order for us to make the most out of squats to activate hamstrings, we should load our hips more than our knees. This means maximizing how much we move through our hips and minimizing how much we move through our knees during squats.

5 Squat Variations For Hamstrings

1.  Low Bar Squat

The low bar squat is a variation of a back squat that is performed mostly by powerlifters. During the low bar squat, the barbell sits lower on the upper back where it shelves on top of the rear delts.

The way the low bar squat is performed when compared to a traditional back squat is that the hips tend to sit back more, and the knees tend to bend less. This helps us load the hips more and consequently the hamstrings slightly more.

How To Perform It

  • Set up a barbell on a squat rack leveled at armpit height
  • Hold the barbell slightly wider and shoulder-width and squeeze
  • Move underneath the barbell and put your pinched shoulder blades to the barbell
  • When repetitions are completed, walk the barbell back into the squat rack safely.

Pro Tips

Low bar squats should be performed at higher loads as research has shown that with increasing loads for squats, the relative activation of the hamstrings actually increases. So ideally you should aim for lower reps and a higher percentage to make the most out of low bar squats to target hamstrings.

Aim for 3 to 5 reps and use 80% or more of your 1 repetition maximum in your training. You want to spend no more than 5 total sets at this given intensity to begin with.

2. Box Squat

The box squat is very similar to the low bar squat in terms of movement. The difference is that the squat is performed to a box behind you. The box should be at a height where when your buttocks reach the box, your hip crease should be at or just below the top of the knees.

The box during the box squat encourages two things:

  • It encourages you to sit back more, which increases tension in hamstrings
  • It encourages more time under tension at the bottom with a pause and by slowing down towards the box

The box squat is considered a more advanced variation to the low bar squat, and can be used as a progression. Don’t have a box? Try a box squat alternative.

How To Perform It

  • Set up a barbell on a squat rack leveled at armpit height
  • Set up a box and place it immediately behind you
  • Hold the barbell slightly wider and shoulder-width and squeeze
  • Move underneath the barbell and put your pinched shoulder blades to the barbell
  • Stand up with the barbell and walk out
  • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width or wider apart
  • Take a deep breath in a brace
  • Squat and decelerate as you approach the box
  • Once your buttocks touch the box, hold for a momentary pause before standing back up again
  • When repetitions are completed, walk the barbell back into the squat rack safely.

Pro Tips

For safety reasons, you do not want to go heavy with this variation nor do you want to rep out to failure because failing with this type of exercise can be dangerous as it is hard to escape from the barbell if needed. 

As a rule of thumb, you should always ensure that you have spotters if they are available or use safety racks.

3. Plate Loaded V Squat

The plate loaded V squat is a machine squat exercise and is considered a variation of the hack squat machine exercise. 

The unique quality of the plate loaded V squat machine exercise, is the curved arc of motion that places emphasis on sitting the hips back

This is different to a traditional hack squat machine where most of the emphasis is on the quads.

How To Perform It

  • Stand on a plate loaded v squat machine with your shoulders under the shoulder pad
  • Release the safety latch, take a deep breath in, and brace
  • Squat as low as you can but as safely as you can
  • Stand up and breathe out, and repeat the process for the desired number of reps
  • Once you have finished, put the safety latch back on before bringing the machine down to it to step off

Pro Tips

To emphasize the hamstrings even more, you can place the feet higher on the footpad to reduce knee travel and maximize hip travel. Try to make sure that you push through your heels more and you keep your lower back flat against the pad.

4. Kang Squat

The Kang squat is a squat exercise that is commonly used among Olympic weightlifters as a warm-up. It is a hybrid exercise that combines a good morning movement and a squat movement.

The Kang squat can help target the hamstrings during the top half of the range of motion, which emphasizes pushing the hips backward.

How To Perform It

  • Put a barbell on your back with your hands gripping on the barbell hard
  • Keep your elbows tucked low and your feet about hip widths apart
  • Take a deep breath in and brace
  • Push your hips and knees back to return to the bottom of a good morning position.
  • Thrust your hips through

Pro Tips

This is not an exercise to go heavy on as you can injure your back. You want to make sure that you have plenty of repetitions in reserve and ideally perform this exercise to higher repetitions i.e. 8 to 12 reps.

The low bar position is better than the high bar position for this just in case you risk letting the barbell roll onto your neck.

5. Front Foot Elevated Split Squat

The front foot elevated split squat is a great dumbbell and single-leg squat variation that can target the hamstrings more. 

You need to first have a 6 to 12-inch block to stand on and a pair of dumbbells to load the exercise. If you are new to this exercise, attempt without any loading first.

How To Perform It

  • Put your front foot on top of the block with your front shin vertical and a soft bend in your back knee in a split stance
  • Ensure that your shoulders, hips, and back knee are stacked vertically and that your pelvis is pointed towards the front leg
  • Descend vertically, while maintaining a vertical front shin and feel the pressure on your front heel
  • When you reach your limit range of motion, push back up to return to the start position

Pro Tips

You can step your back foot back a little more so that the front shin tilts backward a little. This will help activate the lower hamstrings just a little more and you should be able to feel it stretch at the bottom of the exercise.

Check Out Our Other Squat Articles

About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting, and accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience coaching various lifters, from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Alongside coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com