Lying vs. Seated Hamstring Exercises
What’s better, the lying or seated hamstring curl? And how can you perform each to get the most gains? Answers here.
Want to build your hamstrings? You need two types of exercises:
- Deadlift variations and other hip hinges (back extensions, pull-throughs, etc.).
- Knee flexion exercises like hamstring curl variations.
Why hamstring curls? All three of your hamstring muscles (except for the biceps femoris short head) act as both hip extensors and knee flexors. So, you need to include some exercises to train your hamstrings through hip extension AND some that train them through knee flexion. Hamstring curls train your hams through knee flexion.
The lying hamstring curl machine is the most common way to perform them. Your hips are relatively extended and locked, while knee flexion is isolated. You can get a good squeeze of your hamstrings, and there are a variety of techniques that work great (one and one-quarter reps, 2/1 eccentrics, iso-dynamic, 21’s, etc.).
During seated hamstring curls, your hips are in a more flexed position, so they do a better job than the lying version at loading your hamstrings at longer muscle lengths.
When your muscles apply force at longer lengths, it creates a lot of mechanical tension and provides a powerful growth stimulus – arguably more so than training at shorter muscle lengths. (Shortened-range exercises can be done more frequently and have other benefits for hypertrophy, but we’ll save that for another time).
If you could pick only one type of hamstring curl, the seated variation will give you more bang for your buck. Here are some common mistakes I see:
- Not aligning your knees with the axis of rotation of the machine.
- Not locking yourself down hard or getting a good grip on the knee pad in front.
- Not extending your knees far enough to maximize the active stretch of your hamstrings.
- Forgetting to fully flex your knees and contract hard at the bottom.
- Hips should be flexed and torso upright.
Did you know that a cow has more in common genetically with a whale than a pig, even though a cow and a pig seem more alike?
What does this have to do with hamstring curls? Because of the way seated hamstring curls load your hamstrings, they’re more closely related to a stiff-legged or Romanian deadlift than they are a lying hamstring curl, despite seated and lying curls appearing more similar and both being “curls.”
So, if you don’t have the means to do seated hamstring curls, a hip hinge that emphasizes the stretch of your hammies is a better substitution than hopping on the lying curl machine.
You might also argue that if you’re already performing deadlifts, you may not want to target your hamstrings similarly in the same workout using seated hamstring curls. Instead, save those for a separate workout. For example, you could do this:
Exercise 1 – Seated hamstring curl
Exercise 2 – Squat or leg press
Exercise 1 – Stiff-legged or Romanian deadlift
Exercise 2 – Lying hamstring curl
The idea is to not do seated hamstring curls and deadlifts on the same day.
Yes, I’ve often broken this “rule” when programming for my physique athletes, and it hasn’t done any harm. But I’ve also seen great benefits to applying this rule, particularly with an athlete’s ability to recover from high-frequency lower-body workouts.
I’ll leave you to experiment with that one. Let me know your thoughts below.