Working muscle groups in specific ways can change what part you focus on. Find out what exercises work the upper parts of your hamstring muscles.
These exercises can help you avoid injuries, resolve injuries, tone your upper hamstrings, and/or improve performance in certain movements.
One thing to keep in mind if you want to resolve conditions like proximal hamstring tendinopathy is to take it easy with these exercises. You may also need in-person guidance from an expert.
1. Glute bridges
For the first option, a yoga mat or other soft surface can make the exercise more comfortable. That being said, take the following steps to do a glute bridge:
- Lie down on your back with your feet flat on the ground at a distance where you can get into the angles of the next steps.
- Raise your hips until you are in a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Your lower legs should be more or less vertical to the ground.
- Potentially hold this position for some time and/or lower your hips back to the ground.
As their name implies, glute bridges work your glutes (butt muscles) a good amount. This means the exercise also works your upper hamstring muscles a good amount.
While the muscles you engage stay the same, you can do glute bridges in different ways.
To resolve conditions like proximal hamstring tendinopathy it is generally a smart idea to hold the glute bridge at the top of the movement. This reduces how many painful movements you have to go through.
People who really want to tone and grow their upper hamstring muscles want to do glute bridges in up-down repetitions and likely with extra weights like a dumbbell or barbell.
2. Good morning
The good morning exercise is typically done with a barbell but you could also do it with resistance bands or just your body weight at home.
Take the following steps to do a barbell good morning:
- Rack the barbell at about chest height and add the desired number of weight plates.
- Put your shoulders under the barbell, push up, and step back so you have room to do the exercise.
- Bend your knees slightly and slowly tilt your upper body forward as far as you comfortably can with a straight spine or until your upper body is about horizontal. Most people want to make sure they keep their spine straight.
- Tilt your upper body back in a controlled motion until you are back to the position of step 2.
Similar to glute bridges and the other exercises on this list, you can do the good morning in a static way for resolving injuries or more dynamically to grow and strengthen the upper hamstrings.
Besides these muscles, the good morning will also work your glutes and erector spinae (lower back) in nice amounts.
If you are not sure how much resistance you need, you can start with just your body weight and build up from there.
3. Romanian deadlifts
Romanian deadlifts are another movement where you will likely need extra resistance to make the exercise hard enough to see muscle growth and strength progress.
Take the following steps to do a barbell Romanian deadlift:
- Load the barbell with the desired number of weight plates, stand in front of it with your feet at about shoulder width, and put your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart on the barbell with your hand palms pointing backward/downward.
- Lift the barbell by stretching your legs and tilting your upper body back. Keep your spine straight throughout the movement. Keep your knees slightly bent.
- Slowly tilt your upper body forward as far as comfortable or right before the weight plates hit the ground while keeping your spine straight.
- Return to the position in step 2 in a controlled motion.
As you may have noticed, Romanian deadlifts are very similar to the good morning exercise. This means this movement is another great option to work your upper hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
However, there are also differences. The Romanian deadlift does not require a barbell rack. It will also be more challenging for your forearm grip muscles and trapezius because you need to hold the barbell.
4. Kettlebell swings
As the name implies, this next exercise requires you to have a kettlebell. This is basically a ball of weight with a handle.
Once you have that, take the following steps to do a kettlebell swing:
- Hold a kettlebell and stand up straight with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Let your arms with the kettlebell hang in front of you for now.
- Slightly bend through your knees, tilt your upper body forward, and swing the kettlebell backward through your legs a small amount. Keep your spine straight and your shoulder blades back during the movement.
- Tilt your upper body back up, stretch your legs, and swing the kettlebell forward until your arms are about horizontal.
- Let gravity work on the kettlebell and guide it down through your legs as far as you safely can by tilting your upper body forward and folding your legs.
- Alternate between the positions in step 2 and step 3.
Besides your upper hamstrings, glutes, and lower back muscles, kettlebell swings also work your grip, quadricep, and shoulder muscles a nice amount.
One thing to keep in mind is that kettlebell swings can be too challenging for resistance training beginners and individuals with injuries.
Additionally, kettlebell swings can be relatively hard in terms of cardiovascular health which could make this exercise less effective for muscle growth than many of the other options.
5. Hip thrusts
To do a hip thrust you need a few equipment options. First of all, you need something at about knee height to lean against with your upper body. For example a sturdy weight bench.
Secondly, you likely need some extra resistance like a barbell with weight plates. Once you have the right gear, take the following steps to do a hip thrust:
- Set up the sturdy object and put a barbell with the desired number of weight plates in front of it. Really make sure the object is stable enough.
- Sit against the sturdy object with your upper back slightly over the edge and under the barbell. Put your feet flat on the ground and slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Hold the barbell against your hips.
- Move up your hips until your body is in a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. You want your lower legs to be about vertical.
- Alternate between the positions in steps 2 and 3.
In simpler words, you can describe hip thrusts as glute bridges with your upper back elevated.
This change will make it so your muscles go through a larger range of motion. In turn, this generally leads to more muscle growth.
While they are effective, a downside of hip thrusts is that they require a bit more time and equipment to set up than the other upper hamstring exercises.
6. Donkey kicks
Many of the previous exercises are typically done with a lot of equipment. However, donkey kicks are relatively easy to do at home without (much) equipment. Take the following steps to do the exercise:
- Sit on your hands and knees with your shoulders above your hands and knees at about 90-degree angles.
- Slowly move one leg backward and upward until the thigh is in one line with your upper body. Keep the knee at the same angle and the rest of your body in the same position.
- Lower the leg again in a controlled motion.
- Repeat the movement from step 2 in a controlled motion.
Make sure you keep the rest of your body still to really work your glutes and upper hamstrings.
Something else to note is that people who are somewhat experienced with resistance training will likely find bodyweight donkey kicks too easy.
A solution to this is getting good loop resistance bands and using these to make the movement more challenging. In turn, this can lead to more and faster muscle growth.
7. Cable pull-throughs
Cable pull-throughs are typically done with a cable machine and a double rope handle but you could also do them with resistance bands and a good anchor at home.
Take the following steps to do a cable pull-through:
- Put the cable machine pulley close to the ground. Stand right next to the cable machine with your back toward it.
- Tilt your upper body forward, move your hands through your legs, and grab the double rope handle. Take a step forward.
- Bend your knees slightly and tilt your upper body forward as far as you can without bending your back. Let your arms follow the resistance from the cable machine.
- Slowly tilt your upper body back and stretch your legs until you stand up. Keep your spine straight and your shoulder blades back throughout the movement.
- Alternate between the positions in step 3 and step 4.
A benefit of cable pull-throughs is that they are relatively easy to set up and that it is relatively easy to switch between weights on the cable machine.
One downside is that you are relatively dependent on the strength of your grip muscles.
Since these are generally a lot weaker than your glutes, upper hamstrings, and lower back, the main muscles of the exercise may not get enough of a challenge for growth.