Leg Curls: The Ultimate Guide!


leg curl

The hamstrings are one of the most important muscle groups for the serious bodybuilder or powerlifter. They play a key role in lower body exercises such as the squat and deadlift and they give your legs that full, 3-D look when fully developed.

The leg curl is easily one of the best exercises for training the hamstrings. No other exercise lets you isolate the hamstrings like the leg curl machine.

If you want to maximally develop your hamstrings and reach your full potential then you must start training leg curls like you mean it!

Introduction

  • Part 1: Functional Anatomy
  • Part 2: Sets And Reps
  • Part 3: Exercise Order
  • Part 4: Eccentric Training
  • Part 5: Cluster Sets
  • Part 6: Drop Sets
  • Part 7: Giant Sets
  • Part 8: Bonus Training Tips

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to use leg curls to build bigger, stronger hamstrings.

The hamstrings are one of the most complex muscle groups in the body. They have 2 primary functions:

  • Flexing the knee
  • Extending the hip

Knee flexion occurs any time you bend your knees. For example whenever you perform any type of leg curl machine you are performing knee flexion. On the other hand hip extension occurs any time you “thrust” your hips forward like during a deadlift or good morning exercise.

Leg curls are the best isolation exercise you can perform to train the hamstrings as knee flexors. There are three different types of leg curl machines:

  • The lying leg curl machine
  • The seated leg curl machine
  • The kneeling leg curl machine

These three machines are equally effective. They all target the hamstrings in a slightly different way. Here is what a lying leg curl looks like:

Here is what a seated leg curl looks like:

And finally here is what a kneeling leg curl looks like:

Each of these machines targets the hamstrings in a slightly different way. It is a good idea to use all three of these machines to train your hamstrings if you have access to them.

Of course the most important exercises to train your hamstrings will always be squats, deadlifts, good mornings, back extensions and other compound exercises. However, leg curls are also a very valuable exercise.

In this guide I will teach you how to get the most out of leg curls in our training programs.

I will teach you the functional anatomy of the hamstrings, the best leg curl set and rep schemes and the best time to perform leg curls in your workout routines. I will also teach you how to train leg curls using advanced training methods like eccentric sets, cluster sets, drop sets and giant sets.

Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on this cutting edge information!

Note: if you have any trouble reading the routines presented here then check out this article on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: Functional Anatomy

The hamstrings are composed of three separate muscle groups:

  • The semimembranosus
  • The semitendinosus
  • The biceps femoris

You don’t have to memorize these names. The important part is that you understand that there are three separate hamstrings muscles.

One of the really cool things about leg curls is you can actually target each of these muscles by changing the angle of your feet. When you point your feet in during leg curls you target the semimembranosus, one of the medial hamstrings muscles closer to the mid line of your body.

For example:

When you point your toes straight ahead you target more of the semitendinosus muscle, the other medial hamstrings muscle.

Finally when you point your toes outwards you target more of the biceps femoris, the hamstrings muscle located on the lateral half of your legs. For example:

Most people only perform leg curls with a neutral grip. This is a huge mistake! If you only ever use a neutral grip on leg curls then you will overdevelop your semitendinosus and under develop your biceps femoris and your semimembranosus.

In other words one of your 3 hamstrings muscles will be overworked and the other 2 will not receive enough stimulation. For optimal results you want to perform leg curls with your toes pointed three different ways:

  • Toes pointing in
  • Toes neutral
  • Toes pointing out

Another big mistake most people make is they always perform leg curls with their feet dorsiflexed (or with their toes pointed up towards their shin). For example:

This is probably not the best way to train your hamstrings with leg curls. When your feet are dorsiflexed you actually use 2 muscles to flex your knees:

  • Your hamstrings
  • Your gastronomic

Your gastronomic is one of your calf muscles. It helps you to flex your knee when your ankle is dorsiflexed but NOT when it is plantarflexed!

Therefore if you really want to overload your hamstrings then you should perform most of your leg curls with your feet plantar flexed. For example:

Performing leg curls this way will help you to recruit more muscle fibers in your hamstrings. Over time you will build bigger, stronger hamstrings this way rather than doing leg curls with your feet dorsiflexed.

Some people find that their calf muscle cramps the first time they perform leg curls with their feet plantarflexed. If this describes you then I recommend you dorsiflex your ankles when you are lifting the weight and plantar flex your ankles on the way down. For example:

This is called the “Poliquin method” on leg curls because it was popularized by the Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin.

Actually this is my all-time favourite way to perform leg curls. It lets you eccentrically overload your hamstrings muscles because you are stronger with your feet dorsiflexed than you are with them plantarflexed. I will talk about this more in part 4 of this guide.

OK, let’s review what we’ve learned:

  • There are three hamstrings muscles: the semimembranosus, the semitendinosus and the biceps femoris.
  • You must perform leg curls with your toes pointed in, neutral and pointed out to target all three hamstrings muscles.
  • Performing leg curls with your feet plantarflexed (toes pointed away from your shins) is superior because it lets you recruit more muscle fibers in the hamstrings.
  • For even better results you can perform leg curls with your feet dorsiflexed (toes pointed towards your shins) on the lifting phase and your toes plantar flexed (toes pointed away from your shins) on the lowering phase. This lets you eccentrically overload your hamstrings on leg curls.

I hope that information makes sense. If it does not then I highly recommend you re-read part 1 of this article to make sure you understand everything!

Part 2: Sets And Reps

How many sets and reps should you perform on leg curls? That is a great question! If you ask 10 different bodybuilders or powerlifters then you will probably get 10 different answers.

In order to get to the bottom of this mystery we have to look at the muscle fiber composition of the hamstrings. The hamstrings are a fast-twitch muscle. In fact research shows that about 98% of humans have fast-twitch hamstrings!

If you are going to use an isolation exercise like hamstrings then you have to train the muscle like you would any other fast-twitch muscle. And that means you must perform lots of low-rep sets on leg curls!

Higher reps are great for compound hamstrings exercises like deadlifts, good mornings and back extensions. However, when it comes to hamstrings isolation exercises you must use lots of low-rep sets.

So how low are we talking? Real-world experience shows that you have to train leg curls in the 1-8 rep range for optimal results.

If you are designing a routine to build muscular hypertrophy then sets in the 4-8 rep range will work best. On the other hand if you want to build strength then sets in the 1-5 rep range are the way to go.

One of the BIG reasons that bodybuilders avoid the 4-8 rep range on leg curls is they don’t pay any attention to their exercise tempo or the total time under tension of their sets. Just take a look at the following lying leg curl video:

There are two big problems with his form:

  • Problem #1: He is using momentum rather than his muscles to move the weight. It is a great idea to use explosive concentric contractions to recruit the maximum amount of muscle fibers but you MUST lower your weights under control!
  • Problem #2: The eccentric phase of his exercise is so fast that he has a hard time accumulating enough time under tension for optimal results.

Fast-twitch muscles like the hamstrings tend to grow best on sets with 20-40 seconds of time under tension per set. If you are using appropriate exercise tempos then it is very easy to reach 20-40 seconds of time under tension.

Let’s say you use a 3/0/X/0 tempo on leg curls. On the way up you lift the weight explosively. You are contracting your hamstring as hard as possible and really driving the weight up as fast as you can. Then on the way down you control the weight with a true 3-second lowering phase.

If you perform your reps this way then each rep should take about 4 seconds to complete.

Let’s do some simple math:

  • 4 seconds per rep x 4 reps = 16 seconds of time under tension
  • 4 seconds per rep x 5 reps = 20 seconds of time under tension
  • 4 seconds per rep x 6 reps = 24 seconds of time under tension
  • 4 seconds per rep x 7 reps = 28 seconds of time under tension
  • 4 seconds per rep x 8 reps = 32 seconds of time under tension

If your main goal is to build muscle and you are using a 3/0/X/0 tempo on leg curls then anywhere from 5-8 total reps will put you in that optimal time under tension zone of 20-40 seconds per set.

Of course there are an endless number of tempos that you could use on leg curls:

  • 2/0/X/0 tempo = 3 seconds TUT per rep
  • 3/0/2/0 tempo = 5 seconds TUT per rep
  • 5/0/1/0 tempo = 6 seconds TUT per rep
  • 2/0/X/1 tempo = 4 seconds TUT per rep
  • 3/0/X/2 tempo = 6 seconds TUT per rep

And so on. Charles Poliquin was well-known for changing his athletes’ exercise tempos every 2-4 weeks to keep them progressing. This is the strategy he used on his way to training Olympic athletes in 24 different sports and countless professional athletes.

Let’s compare this to the typical bodybuilder who lifts the weight explosively and then lets the weight drop back down to the bottom position without any control. If he’s lucky each rep will take 2 seconds to complete.

This means he needs to perform anywhere from 10-20 reps per set to accumulate enough time under tension for optimal growth.

There’s just one problem: The hamstrings are a fast-twitch muscle! Sets in the 10-20 rep range are great for targeting slow-twitch muscles like the rear delts. However, they are TERRIBLE for targeting an ultra-fast-twitch muscle like the hamstrings! Do you see the problem here?

If you want to optimally train the hamstrings with leg curls then you need to do 2 things:

  • Perform your sets in the 4-8 rep range for size and the 1-5 rep range for strength.
  • Use an exercise tempo that lets you accumulate 20-40 seconds of time under tension for size and 1-20 seconds of time under tension for strength.

I think you will be SHOCKED at how fast your hamstrings size and strength increases when you start performing your leg curls in the 1-8 rep range and using 1-40 seconds of time under tension per set. The difference is night and day!

Part 3: Exercise Order

If you want to build big, strong hamstrings then you must know when to perform leg curls in your lower body workouts. Should you perform leg curls first or last in your hamstring routines? The answer might surprise you!

Real-world experience has shown that you will get better results if you train leg curls first in your hamstrings routine before compound exercises like deadlifts and back extensions. If you are peaking your strength on the deadlift then you can ignore this rule and perform deadlifts first in your routine.

Performing leg curls early in your workout has many advantages:

  • Faster hamstrings strength gains
  • Faster hamstrings hypertrophy gains
  • Decreased risk of injury on other exercises

Leg curls should be performed before compound hamstrings exercises like deadlifts and back extensions. However, there are many ways to design a lower body workout while following this rule. Let’s look at some examples:

Option #1: Mountain Dog Training

If you have never heard of John Meadows’ “Mountain Dog Training” program then you must have been living under a rock! John has a very specific way that he likes to structure his lower body workouts.

His leg workouts usually look something like this:

  • Exercise #1: Leg Curls
  • Exercise #2: Back Squats
  • Exercise #3: Leg Press
  • Exercise #4: Hack Squats
  • Exercise #5: Stiff-Legged Deadlift

John almost always starts his lower body workouts off with some type of leg curl machine. This could be a seated leg curl, lying leg curl or a kneeling leg curl. Then he performs 2-4 quadriceps exercises. These might be squats, leg presses, hack squats, leg extensions, lunges etc.

Finally John finishes his workouts with some type of hip extension movement to overload the hamstrings. John believes that this exercise order is optimal.

You perform leg curls early in the routine to pump blood into your hamstrings and knees, thus making your heavy quadriceps movements safer. They also improve your mind-muscle connection to your hamstrings throughout the entire workout.

Then you finish the workout with a hip extension movement that places your hamstrings in a deep loaded stretch.

Option #2: Dorian Yates

Dorian Yates was the best bodybuilder in the world during the 1990s. He won the Mr. Olympia competition 6 times in a row and was a true “mass monster.” Dorian was also a big fan of leg curls for building up the hamstrings.

Here is how Dorian structured his lower body workout:

  • Exercises 1-3: Quadriceps
  • Exercise #4: Lying leg curls
  • Exercise #5: Stiff-legged deadlift
  • Exercise #6: Kneeling leg curls

As you can see Dorian performs all of his quadricep exercises early in his workout before training his hamstrings. However, when he gets to his hamstrings exercises he likes to perform leg curls first before anything else. This is a perfectly valid option if you do not like performing leg curls first in your routine ala John Meadows.

Option #3: Charles Poliquin

Charles Poliquin was a world-class strength coach and a hamstrings training fanatic. He was absolutely obsessed with helping his athletes build bigger, stronger hamstrings!

Charles’ favourite strategy for training the hamstrings was to superset leg curls with squats early in the workout. For example here is what the start of a Charles Poliquin leg routine might look like:

Sample Charles Poliquin Leg Routine

  • A1: Bilateral lying leg curls (feet plantar flexed / pointing in), 6 x 3, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Back squats (medium stance / heels flat), 6 x 3, 3/0/X/1, 100 seconds rest

This is known as an “antagonist superset” because you are super setting two antagonistic body parts: the hamstrings and the quadriceps.

The scientific research has shown that antagonistic supersets help you to recruit more muscle fibers in the target muscles and improve your muscular endurance over the course of the workout. They also let you perform twice as much work in the same amount of time!

When you superset leg curls with squats you also reduce your risk of injury. The leg curls pump your hamstrings and knees full of blood so your knees feel “cushioned” in the bottom position of the exercise.

Charles Poliquin sometimes had his athletes perform hamstrings separately from their quadriceps. Here is a separate hamstrings routine that Charles wrote for IFBB pro Milos Sarcev:

  • Lying leg curls: 5 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Seated leg curls: 5 sets of 6-8 reps
  • Reverse hyperextensions: 5 sets of 15-20 reps

There are many ways that you can design a lower body or hamstrings workout. However, one of the best strategies is to perform leg curls early in your routine before exercises like deadlifts and back extensions.

I think you will find that this strategy works awesome for building bigger, stronger hamstrings.

Part 4: Eccentric Training

Now we’re getting to the good stuff! I’m going to teach you how to train leg curls using 4 advanced training methods to build bigger, stronger hamstrings. I will cover the following methods:

  • Eccentric Training
  • Cluster Sets
  • Drop Sets
  • Giant Sets

Let’s kick things off by talking about eccentric training! There are two main phases to any exercise:

  • The concentric phase
  • The eccentric phase

The concentric phase is where you lift the weight up. On leg curls the concentric phase happens when you bend your knees to lift the weight. The eccentric phase is the total opposite: it occurs when you lower a weight down under control.

On leg curls the eccentric phase occurs when you straighten your legs out and lower the weight stack. Most people focus on the concentric phase of their exercises and don’t even bother to control the eccentric phase. This is a huge mistake!

Research has shown over and over that the eccentric phase is what makes you bigger and stronger, not the concentric phase! If you are serious about building bigger, stronger hamstrings then you may want to try using eccentric training methods on leg curls.

Eccentric training methods are just techniques that let you overload the lowering phase of the exercise. There are 2 eccentric training methods you can use on leg curls:

  • The Poliquin Method
  • The 2/1 Method

Let’s take a closer look at both of these methods.

Eccentric Training Method #1: The Poliquin Method

The Poliquin method on leg curls is one of the best ways to eccentrically overload your hamstrings. The idea is simple: you are going to lift the weight up with your feet dorsiflexed (toes pointing towards your shins) and lower the weight down with your feet plantarflexed (toes pointing away from your shins).

Here is a good video example:

Most people know that you can use more weight on leg curls when you dorsiflex your ankles.

The reason this works is that your calf muscles help you to flex your knees when your feet are dorsiflexed! However, they DO NOT help you to bend your knees when your ankles are plantarflexed.

The Poliquin method takes advantage of this! You lift the weight with your feet dorsiflexed so you can use a heavier load. However, on the way down you plantarflex your ankles so only your hamstrings can lower the weight.

This means you can lower a heavier-than-normal weight using nothing but your hamstrings. How cool is that?

The Poliquin Method is a great way to eccentrically overload your hamstrings and stimulate faster size and strength gains. In my experience it is an awesome technique that you can use year-round in your training.

Eccentric Training Method #2: The 2/1 Method

The 2/1 method is a more extreme form of eccentric training than the Poliquin method. It is even better at stimulating size / strength gains in the hamstrings but it is also tougher on your recovery system.

To perform the 2/1 method you are going to lift the weight using 2 legs and lower it back down using only 1 leg. Here is a great video demonstration:

Obviously you can lift twice as much weight with 2 legs as you can with 1 leg. This means the 2/1 method lets you eccentrically overload your hamstrings with an ultra-heavy weight! In fact you may even be able to lower a weight that is greater than your regular 1-rep max with one leg!

If you are going to use the 2/1 method then you have to be very careful. It is easy to injure yourself if you lower the weight too quickly. For optimal results you should lower the weight over 8-10 seconds.

No, that was not a typo – you should use an 8-10 second lowering phase on every rep!

If you cannot lower the weight over 8-10 seconds then the weight is too heavy. Using a true 8-10 second eccentric phase with the 2/1 method will decrease your risk of injury and dramatically improve your size / strength gains in the hamstrings.

If you are using the 2/1 method to build muscular hypertrophy then you can use sets with 6-10 reps. On the other hand if you want to build strength then sets of 1-5 reps work well.

Part 5: Cluster Sets

 

Cluster sets are another fantastic training method to use for training the hamstrings. There are many different cluster set training protocols. However, they all have 1 thing in common: you take relatively short rest periods in between the reps of your set.

I want to teach you 3 cluster set protocols that work awesome with leg curls:

  • Poliquin Cluster Sets
  • Rest-Pause Sets
  • The 5 To 8 Method

Let’s take a closer look at each of these cluster set methods.

Cluster Method #1: Poliquin Cluster Sets

The Poliquin cluster set is easily one of the fastest ways to boost your strength on leg curls. The idea is simple: you are going to perform 5 sets of 5 reps using your 3-rep max.

No, that was not a typo! In order to do this you are going to rest for 15 seconds in between all 5 reps. This is why it is called a “cluster set” – the reps are clustered together with short rest periods in between them!

Here is what your set would look like:

  • Perform rep #1, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform rep #2, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform rep #3, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform rep #4, rest 15 seconds
  • Perform rep #5, rest 2-4 minutes, repeat!

Your goal is to perform 3-5 total cluster sets per workout. Cluster sets work awesome for boosting your hamstrings strength. They expose your fast-twitch muscle fibers to a ton of time-under-tension and they let you focus on performing perfect reps 1 rep at a time.

Here is one example of how Charles Poliquin used to write lower body cluster set routines. Check it out:

Lower Body Cluster Set Workout

  • A1: Front squat (medium stance / heels flat), 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet plantar flexed / pointed out), 5 x 5**, 4/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Front foot elevated split squat (holding DBs), 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Stiff-legged deadlift, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest

**Performed as a Poliquin-style cluster set. Rest for 15 seconds in between each rep.

Charles believed that the 5 x 5 cluster set protocol was one of the fastest ways to boost your strength on leg curls and almost any other exercise. If you have never tried this training method then you don’t know what you are missing!

Cluster Method #2: Rest-Pause Sets

Rest-pause sets were popularized by Dante Trudel as part of his DC-Training program. Here is the normal protocol for a rest-pause set:

  • Train to failure in the 7-10 rep range, then rest for 20-30 seconds.
  • Train to failure a 2nd time using the same weight, then rest for 20-30 seconds.
  • Train to failure a 3rd time using the same weight, done!

For example you might get 8 reps, 3 reps and 2 reps on your 1st / 2nd / 3rd attempt with the same weight. Rest-pause sets are really another form of cluster sets because you are clustering together a large number of reps with short rest periods.

Rest-pause sets are easily one of the best advanced training methods you can use on leg curls. They work extremely well for building size AND strength. The 2nd and 3rd attempt with the same weight absolutely torches your muscles and creates an optimal environment for building muscle mass.

Most people who use DC Training like to perform 1 set of leg curls rest-paused before squatting. Here is what a typical DC-style leg workout might look like:

DC-Style Leg Workout

  • A1: Leg press calf raise, 1 x 6-8, 10/5/X/1, rest as needed
  • B1: Unilateral kneeling leg curl (Poliquin method / feet neutral), 1 x 7-10**, 2/0/X/0, rest as needed
  • C1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 2 x (4-8, 20****), 2/0/X/1, 240 seconds rest

**Performed as a DC-style rest-pause set. Perform 7-10 reps to failure, rest 20-30 seconds, train to failure a 2nd time, rest 20-30 seconds, train to failure a 3rd time, done!

****Performed as a 20-rep “breathing squat.” Perform 10 reps with your 10-rep max. Then lock out your legs and take several deep breaths. When you are ready go ahead and squat back down and bust out 1-3 more reps. Repeat this process until you have performed 20 total reps with your 10-rep max.

Cluster Method #3: The 5 To 8 Method

The 5 to 8 method is another version of cluster sets that works awesome for training the hamstrings. This method is actually a modified version of DC-style rest-pause set that was invented by Charles Poliquin.

The basic idea is to perform 5 reps with your 5-rep max, then perform singles with the same weight until you reach 8 total reps. For example:

  • Perform 5 reps, rest 15-30 seconds
  • Perform 1 more rep, rest 15-30 seconds
  • Perform 1 more rep, rest 15-30 seconds
  • Perform 1 more rep, done!

There are a few differences between the 5 to 8 method and DC-style rest-pause sets. The most obvious difference is that the rep range is much lower. You are performing 5 reps on your first attempt rather than 7-10 reps on your first attempt with traditional rest-pause sets.

The 5 to 8 method works awesome for boosting absolute strength and functional hypertrophy. However, it is slightly less effective for all-out hypertrophy gains.

The other big difference is that you do NOT train to failure with the 5 to 8 method. Instead each attempt is performed just shy of failure. You want to pick a weight that is right at or slightly below your 5-rep max. The 5th rep should be a total grinder but you will complete it while maintaining good form.

The extra single repetitions are also performed just shy of failure. Each single will be an absolute grinder but you will make it while keeping good form.

Here is what a Poliquin-style lower body workout might look like using the 5 to 8 method. Check it out:

Poliquin-Style 5 To 8 Lower Body Workout

  • A1: Front squat (narrow stance / heels elevated), 3-5 x 4-6, 2/0/X/1, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: Back squat (narrow stance / heels elevated), 3-5 x AMRAP**, 2/0/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • A3: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet dorsiflexed / neutral), 3-5 x 5****, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 90 degree back extension (barbell on back), 2-3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/1, 10 seconds rest
  • B2: 45 degree back extension (with bands), 2-3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/1, 180 seconds rest

**Perform as many reps as you can without going all the way to failure. Use the same weight on back squats that you used on front squats. You just rack the weight after your 4-6 reps of front squats, then get back under the bar and perform your back squats.

****Performed as a 5 to 8 set. Perform 5 reps with your 5-rep max, rest 15-30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 15-30 seconds, perform 1 rep, rest 15-30 seconds, perform 1 rep, done!

I think you will be shocked at how fast your strength on leg curls shoots up using the 5 to 8 method. The extra singles performed at the end of your set do a wonderful job of stimulating adaptations in your central nervous system. They feel like max-effort singles even though you are using your 5-rep max!

Part 6: Drop Sets

Drop sets are one of the most popular “high-intensity” training methods that you can use on leg curls. The idea behind a drop set is simple: you train to failure (or close to it) and then drop the weight so you can continue busting out repetitions.

For example here is what a typical double drop set might look like:

  • Perform 8-12 reps just shy of failure, drop the weight by 10%
  • Immediately perform another 4-6 reps to failure, drop the weight by 10%
  • Immediately perform another 4-6 reps to failure, done!

Drop sets are so effective for building size and strength because they let you train beyond muscular failure. They also prolong the time under tension of the set so your muscles have to work over a much longer period of time.

Drop sets can be designed to build muscle mass or build strength depending on your goals. Let’s look at some of the best methods for each of these goals.

Leg Curl Drop Sets For Building Muscle

Bodybuilders have been using drop sets to build hamstrings size with the leg curl machine for a very, very long time. It is one of the best high-intensity training methods you can use to blow up your hamstrings.

Here is a perfect demonstration of drop sets on the leg curl machine by John Meadows. Check it out:

John performs a huge drop set in this video. He performs 15 reps with the initial weight, then lowers the weight and performs another 10 reps, then lowers the weight and performs another 8 reps, then increases the weight and performs 25 partial reps in the stretched position.

The time under tension for the entire drop set was around 75 seconds. Talk about a high-intensity set!

After a set like this your hamstrings will be on fire and absolutely engorged with blood. When John performs these massive drop sets on leg curls he only does it on his last set. For example he might perform 3 heavy warm up sets followed by an all-out double drop set on the 4th set.

If you have lagging hamstrings muscles then I highly recommend you give this strategy a shot. Your hamstrings will work much harder throughout the rest of your lower body workout as well!

Leg Curl Drop Sets For Building Strength

Most people don’t know this but drop sets are an AWESOME tool to boost your top-end strength. This is especially true for a fast-twitch muscle group like the hamstrings. The key to building strength with drop sets is to pick the right rep ranges!

One of the best drop set protocols for building strength is the 3/1/1 drop set. Here is what it looks like in practice:

  • Perform 3 reps with your 3-rep max, then drop the weight by 4-6%
  • Perform 1 more rep with the new weight, then drop the weight by 4-6%
  • Perform 1 more rep with the new weight, done!

These single repetitions on the second and third part of the drop set are fantastic for stimulating adaptations within the central nervous system.

Here is how you might set up a strength-focused hamstrings workout using the 3/1/1 drop set method. Check it out:

3/1/1 Drop Set Hamstrings Workout

  • A1: Bilateral lying leg curl (Poliquin method / feet neutral), 3-4 x 3/1/1**, 4/0/X/1, 180 seconds rest
  • B1: Snatch grip deadlift (4 inch deficit), 3-4 x 5-7, 3/3/X/0, 300 seconds rest

There are many other ways to set up a hamstrings drop set workout to build strength but the 3/1/1 method is simply one of the best. I think you will be surprised at how fast your strength on leg curls shoots up after just a few workouts!

Part 7: Giant Sets

If you want to increase the size of your hamstrings as fast as humanly possible then giant sets are one of your best options. Giant sets are a hypertrophy training method that were popularized by IFBB pro Milos Sarcev and many other bodybuilders.

The idea is simple: you are going to perform a circuit of at least 4 exercises for a single body part. Your goal is to train close to failure on each exercise while resting a maximum of 10 seconds in between each exercise. For example:

  • Perform exercise #1 to near-failure, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform exercise #2 to near-failure, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform exercise #3 to near-failure, rest 10 seconds
  • Perform exercise #4 to near-failure, done!

Giant sets work unbelievably well for building muscular hypertrophy. There are many reasons for this.

First of all you are able to train a muscle group with many different exercises and from many different angles. This is a great way to stimulate as many different muscle fibers in a muscle as possible.

Because you are performing these exercises back-to-back the time under tension of the giant set is incredibly long. Your muscles are forced to work 4 times as long as normal during a giant set!

Of course the lactic acid buildup is enormous and the pump you get is out of this world! I want to teach you two of the most effective giant set hamstrings workouts that you can perform.

Charles Poliquin’s Hamstrings Tri-Set Routine

The first routine is a tri-set routine invented by Charles Poliquin. A tri-set is very similar to a giant set. Instead of performing 4+ exercises in a row for a muscle group you are going to perform just 3.

Ok, this technically isn’t a giant set routine. It is close enough though! For this routine you are going to perform 2 separate tri-sets. The first tri-set features 3 different types of leg curls while the second tri-set features 3 different types of compound hamstrings exercises. Check it out:

Charles Poliquin’s Hamstrings Tri-Set Routine

  • A1: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet plantar flexed / pointed out), 4 x 6, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet plantar flexed / neutral), 4 x 6, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet plantar flexed / pointed in), 4 x 6, 3/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
  • B1: Standing barbell good morning, 2 x 6-8, 4/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B2: Snatch grip Romanian deadlift, 2 x 10-12, 3/0/2/0, 10 seconds rest
  • B3: 45 degree back extension (holding DB at chest), 2 x 20-25, 2/0/1/0, 180 seconds rest

For this hamstrings routine you are going to perform 18 total working sets. Talk about a high-volume hamstrings workout! The leg curl tri-set performed at the start of the routine is especially effective.

You are going to perform a tri-set featuring 3 different types of leg curls. You just change the angle of your feet to target a different portion of the 3 hamstrings muscles. You will definitely have to lower the weight from one variation to the next so keep that in mind!

Once your hamstrings are exhausted from the leg curls you will move onto a tri-set featuring 3 compound hamstrings exercises.

It is very important to use the correct tempo for the good mornings and the Romanian deadlifts. You want t use a 3-4 second lowering speed and a 2-second lifting speed! If your hamstrings have not grown sense Bob Parker showed Happy Gilmore who’s boss then this routine is for you!

Nick Mitchell’s Hamstrings Giant Set Routine

Nick Mitchell is one of the world’s leading body composition experts. If you are at all interested in building muscle mass and losing body fat then Nick should be on your radar!

One of the things that I really like about Nick is that he is incredibly creative.

Here is a hamstrings giant set routine that Nick wrote for one of his clients that really opened my eyes to how creative you can be when designing hypertrophy workouts. Check it out:

Nick Mitchell Hamstrings Giant Set Routine

  • A1: Bilateral lying leg curl (feet dorsiflexed / neutral), 4 x 6, 4/0/1/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: 45 degree back extension (holding DB at chest), 4 x 6, 3/0/1/2, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: Reverse hyperextension, 4 x 6, 3/0/1/2, 10 seconds rest
  • A4: Bilateral lying leg curl (feet plantar flexed / neutral), 4 x 6, 3/0/1/2, 10 seconds rest
  • A5: Conventional deadlift, 4 x 6, 3/1/1/0, 120-240 seconds rest

Some of you are probably wondering why you would perform sets of 6 during a hypertrophy workout.

Remember, the hamstrings are a fast-twitch muscle! They respond extremely well to sets in the 5-8 rep range for building muscle mass. This is ESPECIALLY true when you perform 5 exercises in a row as part of a giant set training routine.

Even though the rep ranges are relatively lower the total time under tension of the giant set is absolutely insane.

If each exercise takes you 30 seconds to complete (a reasonable estimate if you look at the tempos) then your hamstrings will be under 2.5 minutes of time under tension per giant set! Now THAT is a great way to boost your hamstrings size!

Part 8: Bonus Training Tips

It is very important to me that you really understand how to get the most out of leg curls in your training routines. Therefore I am going to give you 5 additional training tips for building big, strong legs using leg curls.

Here they are in no particular order:

  • Train for balanced hamstrings muscles!
  • Train one leg at a time when possible!
  • Use the kneeling leg curl machine when possible!
  • Cheating is not allowed on the leg curl machine!
  • Stretch your quads in between sets of leg curls!

Now let’s take a closer look at each of these training tips:

Leg Curl Tip #1: Train For Balanced Hamstrings Muscles!

As you already know there are three separate hamstrings muscles. Most people do not have balanced hamstrings. In other words one hamstring muscle is much stronger or much weaker than the others.

When your hamstrings are imbalance relative to one another your rate of progress goes down and your risk of injury goes up. This is not good!

Don’t worry, I have a solution. There is a very simple test you can do to figure out which of your hamstrings muscles is lagging behind. Just perform a set of 6 reps on the lying leg curl machine with your feet pointed straight ahead.

On the 6th rep your feet will automatically turn in the direction of your stronger hamstrings muscles. If your feet turn inwards on the 6th rep then you know that your lateral hamstrings (biceps femoris) is too weak.

On the other hand if your hamstrings point outwards on the 6th rep then your medial hamstrings (semimembranosus) is too weak.

Once you know which hamstrings muscle is too weak you just focus on that particular foot angle in your next few workout routines. If you follow this strategy then your hamstrings imbalance should be gone in no time!

Leg Curl Tip #2: Train One Leg At A Time When Possible!

Research shows that you recruit more motor units when you train one leg at a time on leg curls. In other words you will damage and fatigue more muscle fibers if you perform leg curls with 1 leg at a time vs 2 legs at a time.

Performing leg curls 1 leg at a time is not always possible. For example if you are performing a giant sets routine then you may want to train 2 legs at a time so you can quickly move from one exercise to the next.

However, as a general rule of thumb it is a good idea to train leg curls unilaterally when possible.

Leg Curl Tip #3: Use The Kneeling Leg Curl Machine When Possible!

There are three main types of leg curl machines:

  • Lying leg curls
  • Seated leg curls
  • Kneeling leg curls

Out of all of these machines the kneeling leg curl is the most effective one for building big, strong hamstrings. Here is a good video example of the kneeling leg curl:

The main advantage of the kneeling leg curl machine is it stretches your hamstrings at both the knee joint AND the hip joint prior to every rep.

We know from research and real-world experience that “the muscle that is stretched the most is leg recruited the most.” If you perform kneeling leg curls properly then they will be even more effective for building big, strong hamstrings than either seated or lying leg curls.

The big drawback to the kneeling leg curl machine is that you can only train 1 leg at a time. If you are using a routine where you have to train both legs at a time then you cannot use this machine. Such is life!

Leg Curl Tip #4: Cheating Is Not Allowed On The Leg Curl Machine!

If you want to build big, strong hamstrings then you MUST use perfect form on leg curls! What does perfect for mean? It means that you cannot use any cheating or momentum to lift the weight.

For example it is extremely easy to start lifting your chest off of the platform on lying leg curls.

You may even be able to lift more weight this way. The problem is you will recruit fewer muscle fibers in your hamstrings if you cheat than if you use perfect form. You want your hamstrings to be the ONLY muscle lifting the weight throughout the entire range of motion.

If you have to use less weight then so be it. You can thank me later for your newfound hamstrings growth!

Leg Curl Tip #5: Stretch Your Quads In Between Sets Of Leg Curls!

This tip only applies if you are training your hamstrings on their own day. If you train quads and hamstrings together then this tip does not apply to you!

One of the best easy to recruit more motor units in your hamstrings is to stretch your quadriceps in between sets of leg curls.

Whenever you perform leg curls your quadriceps act as “brakes” that prevent your hamstrings from contracting as hard as possible. Your body does this to prevent you from injuring yourself. This is all well and good but when you are trying to build freaky hamstrings it can be annoying!

An easy way to get around this problem is to stretch your quadriceps in between sets of hamstrings. For example you can perform a set of leg curls, rest 2 minutes while stretching your quads, and then perform another set of leg curls etc.

Stan Efferding is a big fan of stretching in between sets and it shows in his physique. I mean, who doesn’t want to be more like Stan?

Conclusion

leg curl

Leg curls are an extremely important exercise for training the hamstrings. No, they are not as important as the big compound exercises like stiff-legged deadlifts and back squats. However, they are still very important.

If you want to build big, strong hamstrings then you have to give leg curls the attention they deserve!

Let’s quickly review some of the most important rules for training the hamstrings with leg curls:

  • Train all 3 hamstrings muscles by changing your foot orientation!
  • The hamstrings are a fast-twitch muscle. Train leg curls in the 1-8 rep range!
  • Train leg curls before squats or supersetted with squats for healthy knees!
  • Use eccentrics, clusters sets, drop-sets and giant sets for faster results!

If you follow these training tips then you are well on your way to building bigger, stronger hamstrings. So what are you waiting for? Get back in the gym and start training leg curls with the intensity that they deserve!

“In order to make visualization a reality in the world form, you must be willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen

I am the creator and owner of Revolutionary Program Design. I help advanced athletes take their training to the next level and achieve results they never imagined possible.

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