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When it comes to weight training, the Deadlift is one of the most popular exercises for your lower body. Yet, as more people realize the benefits of calisthenics, the hamstrings may get overlooked since doing a deadlift without any weights just doesn’t have the same effect. But you can still strengthen and build your upper legs with calisthenics by performing these five awesome bodyweight hamstring exercises!
1. Glute-Ham Raise (Advanced Bodyweight Hamstring Exercise)
Ideal Equipment: Weight Bench With Cushions to Secure Ankles
Alternative Equipment 1: Sturdy Table Low Enough to Hold Down Feet
Alternative Equipment 2: A Partner to Hold Down Ankles
The glute-ham raise is an advanced move that takes a lot of hard work to master. It requires intense hamstring strength, but also quite a bit of core and hip flexor strength, too. It’s not easy!
To perform: With your ankles secured, keep your knees bent so you are upright at 90 degrees. Put your hands behind your head, and slowly lower your upper body to the bench/floor so that you are lying flat.
For Beginners: This move is tough, and I am still working on it. Thankfully, there are alternatives to build up to the proper form: bend at the hips and/or only lower your upper body half way.
2. One-Legged Bodyweight Deadlifts (Beginner – Advanced)
No equipment required!
This is a slow, methodical exercise that involves not only amazing hamstring strength, but also balance and stability. You really need to focus when you do one-legged bodyweight deadlifts, and ideally you can do at least ten reps before you need to regain your balance. That means at least twenty reps total when doing both legs!
To perform: Stand on one foot with the other’s toes barely touching the floor next to it. Put your hands behind your back, and SLOWLY lean your upper body forward while simultaneously lifting your entire leg behind you. At the “peak” of this move, your body and balancing leg should be perpendicular with each other!
For a Bigger Challenge: Wear a weighted vest to make this move even tougher. I also wear ankle weights to really build the hamstring and glute strength when I lift my leg behind me.
3. Pistol Squats (Intermediate-Advanced)
No equipment required!
Pistol squats are very popular in calisthenic workouts. With my long limbs, it can be tough for me to lower myself all the way down while keeping my raised leg straight in front of me. It is basically a regular squat with one leg, but it obviously is much tougher and, again, requires a strong sense of balance in addition to leg strength. Try to do at least five reps per leg when you first start doing pistol squats.
To Perform: Lift one leg so it is parallel with the floor and extend your arms out in front of you. Slowly lower yourself as if you were doing a normal squat, and then slowly lift yourself back up.
For Beginners: Hold onto a wall or something stable to help you keep your balance.
For Intermediate: Wear a weighted vest and/or ankle weights to keep building your strength for the advanced version.
For a Greater Challenge: Hold a free weight on the same side as the leg you are doing the squat for. (ie, for the left leg squat with right leg extended, hold the weight with your left hand at your side, with your right arm extended)
4. Back Bridge (Intermediate-Advanced; Static Bodyweight Hamstring Exercise)
No Equipment Required!
This challenging move requires a LOT of strength in both your lower AND upper body. It’s even tougher because you need a great deal of flexibility. While it is most commonly known as a static move, you can actually turn this into a sort of “reverse pushup” move with reps! IMPORTANT: You do not want to overexert your spine with this move. If you are new to it, please check the “Beginner” section below to avoid injury. Like most calisthenic moves, this is NOT one that you can just jump into with perfect form.
To Perform: Lie flat on your back, place your feet flat on the floor, and place your palms flat on the floor on either side of your head, fingers pointing up. Get ready! Now, slowly push upwards with your glutes, hamstrings, calves, shoulders, and triceps so that your legs, mid-section and head are all off the ground. At this point, your chest and pelvis should be extended outward, knees slightly bent, so that your body forms an arch. Then slowly lower yourself down.
For Beginners: Instead of placing your palms beside your head, keeps your arms at your sides. Using your heels and shoulders, slowly lift your hips, buttocks, and chest, while keeping your neck and head on the ground. Go as high as you can before feeling any discomfort.
For Advanced: Lift one foot off the floor, and as you fully arch your body, simultaneously lift that foot up as high as you can.
Don’t ignore leg day, and don’t ignore the hamstrings! With calisthenics, bodyweight hamstring exercises are not as obvious as other lower-body moves like squats. Still, they are out there, and they can be just as effective (possibly even more effective) than the standard deadlifts that are done with weights. Stay tuned! I will continue to update with more great bodyweight leg workouts. And remember to stretch!
Are there any bodyweight hamstring exercises that you like to do yourself? Let me know in the comments below. If you are looking for more great lower body workouts, check out my guide to 4 Intense Leg Workouts Without Equipment.