This article is a guest post from my good friend and an amazing coach, Alex Mullan.
Alex is the creator of MASSthetics, and he has the best legs I’ve ever seen on a natural bodybuilder. Alex’s training tips have helped me pack on inches of size over the last year – my quads, hamstrings, and even my arms are much bigger thanks to his advice.
Today, Alex is teaching us a little something about leg training, particularly hamstrings. Most people I know really suffer in this department, and I used to as well, so this article will be massively helpful for all of you who want to grow your legs.
Enter Alex Mullan.
Oh my stringhams.
You know, that thick, hanging muscle that takes up real estate opposite your quad.
The muscle you spend a lot of time sitting on each day.
The muscle that looks insane when well developed.
Yet it’s a muscle that so few bother to train.
Or when you do, it’s a few token sets tacked onto the back end of some squats and lunges. Because at least you can say you did it then.
Then one day you wake up, head to the gym and realize; “oh my quad, my hamstrings are non-existent.”
Now you’ve got work to do, my friend.
It’s not easy making for lost time in the muscle building world.
Your quads will surely dominate pretty well any movement you try to do.
You’ll struggle to go deep inside and connect with your hamstrings.
You’re body will fight you, and do whatever it takes to bring your lower back into play.
But the 3 tips that follow, surely as your quads are currently swallowing your hamstrings, will help you reignite the lost flame, feel what it’s like to blast your stringhams, and hack your way into achieving growth, at long last.
Hamstring Hack #1: Jam a plate between your heels.
During one of my leg sessions last week, I decided to experiment with the execution of a couple of exercises. Since attaining superhuman levels of strength isn’t my primary goal, I wanted to add some ‘flair’ to my squats and stiff legged deadlifts in hopes that I could jack up the activation and recruitment through my hamstrings and adductors.
Because who doesn’t want thicker, bigger hamstrings?
The results blew me away.
Multiple sets of squats that have never felt so “solid” or “smooth.”
Legs that nearly gave out on me three times while grocery shopping afterward.
Feelings of incredible recruitment and muscle fiber stimulation, both during my session and later into the evening (piss off hamstring cramps).
A shortened, humbling range of motion on stiff legged deadlift, and hamstrings that were fried beyond belief.
As a general training rule of thumb, many lifters lack hamstring development in comparison to the rest of their body. Not to mention, many lifters struggle to effectively stimulate their hamstrings due to poor muscle innervation and lack of a powerful mind-muscle connection. To add icing to the neglected hamstring cake, more often than not, a lifter’s hamstring work will consist of a leg curl variation (usually seated or lying), and a stiff legged deadlift of some sort.
And they wonder why their hamstrings won’t grow. If you subscribe to said typical hamstring training work, at least you’re stimulating your hamstrings in two of their key functions, knee flexion, and hip extension. But, you’re neglecting the role your hamstrings play in both internal and external rotation of your legs.
The “tip” I employed works exceptionally well on barbell back squats, and stiff-legged deadlift varietals. If you dare, try it with front squats or hack squats as well.
What exactly did I do?
I took a plate – 25lbs for back squats, 10lbs for dumbbell stiff legged deadlifts – and placed it between my feet.
As you move through the eccentric portion of the exercise, isometrically jam your heels into the plate, while aiming to spread your toes apart and pushing your knees apart.
When you place the plate between your feet and dig in hard with your heels, it provides an external cue in a situation where you’ve like never had one. Thus, allowing you to illicit a powerful isometric contraction through your hamstrings, which you’d otherwise be missing out on.
As well, adding the plate between your feet jacks up the stimulation your hammies receive in both movements, as well as hitting them in two functions that are oft-neglected.
Try using this tip in your leg sessions for the next 4-6 weeks, and you’ll surely find yourself sitting a few inches taller when you sit down.
Hamstring Hack #2: Begin your sessions with leg curls.
In the context of physique development, there’s little more appealing – or rare – than a set of thick, dense hamstrings that have some serious hang time.
Yet, despite the tremendous physique appeal, so few bother to give their hamstrings any sort of love.
I hate to break it to you, but the piss-poor three or four sets of leg curls that you throw onto the end of your bi-weekly leg day isn’t going to cut it.
There’s a reason that many lifters seem to “disappear” when they turn to the side. But here, within the halls of MASSthetics, this hamstring disappearing act will not go on.
Why you should do leg curls before squats.
If you’re like many other quad-dominant lifters, you can apply the law of specificity and bring up your lagging hamstrings. Training a weak or lagging body part first and last in your session goes a long ways towards bringing up both size and strength.
A massive part of the reason you might be struggling to develop your hamstrings is because you lack muscular innervation. Which is essentially you’re ability to “feel” and contract a muscle under load. This is yet another nod to the importance many bodybuilders place on creating intramuscular tension within the target muscle.
But, back to your lagging hamstrings. Often times, a lack of innervation comes down to simply rarely – if ever – training said muscle. As is often the case with hamstrings. Let’s be real. Leg curls, for as fun as they are, aren’t the sexiest of exercises.
An integral part of assaulting your legs is keeping your hips and knees in a healthy place. The more weight you can add to the bar in your squats – typically – the more stress is placed on your knees and hips. By beginning your session with leg curls, you’re able to kickstart blood flow, get your synovial fluid moving, and effectively grease your knees and hips for what’s to come later in your session.
And as a result of greasing your hips and knees by placing leg curls before squats, you’ll find that you have much greater stability in your heavy squat work. Not only that, but you’ll probably notice that you’ve got a little extra “pop” in your squat that wasn’t there before.
What do you think is a more effective lead to a session? Jumping straight into heavy squat work which places a lot of stress on your body or an isolation movement that “wakes up” your muscles and mind?
“All this theory is great, and I’m sold on at least trying leg curls before squats, but what do the sets and reps look like? I get that my strength on squats will come down a bit, but I don’t want to decimate myself either.”
Well, let me tell you.
Leg curls before squats – the execution.
1. I suggest starting with 2-4 feeler sets of 8-12 where you increment up in weight, and focus on both the contraction and stretch portion of the movement.
2. Then move into 3-4 hard sets of 6-8. Increment up on the first 2 sets, then stay there.
3. For bonus blood flow: perform either a double drop set shooting for 8-10 reps or tack on 15-20 partials to the end of your last set.
But alas, there’s always the counter-argument of “I won’t be able to use as much weight when I get to my squats.”
Well, what’s your goal? What do you want to achieve?
Thick, hanging hamstrings that bring balance to your physique and cause people to ask you what the hell you’ve been doing?
Or do you want to add a few pounds to your back squat?
Since you’re reading this on Matt Dustin’s site, a fellow muscle-bro who wants to help people look like they actually lift, I’m going to assume that you’re more concerned with the former.
And consider this; if you move your squats to 2nd or 3rd in every leg session, you’re going to establish a new baseline of strength. Sure, that baseline might be 15-25lbs than what you’re used to, but if you stick with it for a few weeks, I can all but guarantee that your loads will start to climb once more. If you’re getting stronger when squatting later in your workout, and the poundages are going up at that point, you’ll certainly be able to push more weight if you were to perform them first in your session.
Hitting leg curls before squats will bring you the best of both worlds. Thicker, bigger hamstrings, and after an initial small drop in load, you’ll get stronger as well.
All while taking better care of your hips and knees.
You can’t lose.
Hamstring Hack #3: Implement Glute/Ham Raises and/or Russian Leg Curls into your training.
If I had to pick a singular hamstring exercise to last me until the end of time, I would pick Glute/Ham Raises or Russian Leg Curls (based on equipment availability) in a heartbeat.
It’s rare that I view any one exercise as incredibly effective or above others as I firmly believe that the context of one’s goal and sessions plays a large role in dictating the effectiveness of an exercise.
But, something about these bad boys makes them incredibly effective. Every single training phase that’s included one or the other, I’ve seen exponentially more progress in both size and strength.
Perhaps it’s the inherent high level of difficulty and challenge it takes to execute them properly.
Perhaps it’s the massive amount of tension and metabolites you can accumulate.
Perhaps it’s because you’re able to achieve the rare position of working your hamstrings with your hips in full extension the entire time.
More likely it’s a combo of all three.
[Bonus] Hamstring Hack #4: The incredible opportunity.
As the title noted, there’s an incredible opportunity awaiting you.
But it’s only available until midnight PST on Friday.
I’m talking about the flagship training program of MASSthetics – the 8 Week Leg Assault.
It’s ready, it’s live, and it’s waiting for you.
8 weeks of expertly designed leg specialization training.
An exclusive coaching group full of other Leg Assaulters.
Untold gains in strength and size.
The lower body strength and size gains you’ve been waiting for.
Take a gander at the 8 Week Leg Assault.