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Do Back Squats Work the Hamstrings Or Just the Glutes and Quads?

I’ve spent countless hours in the gym coaching athletes and dissecting countless programs and exercises. The other day, one of my clients asked why we don’t back squat more for hamstring development, and that got me thinking.

A lot of lifters, especially beginners, think the hamstrings get a hefty workout during back squats. As someone who was wrong about this topic when I started out, too, it’s not common knowledge that back squats aren’t the “best” for hamstring growth.

Spoiler alert: the hamstrings might be slacking more than you think during your squats, and there are far better exercises to explore if your goal is pure hamstrings hypertrophy and strength.

Key Takeaways

  • Back squats target primarily quads and glutes: While back squats are effective for building overall lower body strength, they target primarily the quadriceps and glutes rather than the hamstrings.
  • The hamstrings’ role is more supportive when squatting: During back squats, hamstrings act more as stabilizers, helping in the control of the descent and aiding hip extension, but they are not the primary movers.
  • Depth and stance affect hamstring engagement: Deeper squats and adjustments to foot positioning can increase hamstring involvement in back squats, making them more effective for hamstring engagement.
  • Alternative exercises for direct hamstring work: To more directly target the hamstrings, incorporate exercises like Romanian deadlifts or leg curls, which provide more focused hamstring training.
  • Consider different squat variations for increased hamstring activation: Implementing variations such as sumo squats or box squats can alter the activation patterns to better engage the hamstrings.
  • Technique and tempo are critical: Proper form, squat depth, and tempo adjustments can enhance the contribution of hamstrings during back squats, improving overall effectiveness.

Do Back Squats hit hamstrings

It All Starts With Understanding Back Squats

As someone who is constantly battling his back squat, I’ve spent countless hours studying this exercise — and how to get better at it. It’s widely touted for its effectiveness in building lower body strength, but there’s a bit of confusion about which muscles it really targets.

The Muscles Back Squats Work

When you’re hitting a set of back squats, you’re not just working your legs. You’re orchestrating a full-blown concert where the quads, glutes, and, to a lesser extent, the hamstrings and adductors, play the lead roles. The core and erectors also play supportive roles here.

The hamstrings, AKA those muscles on the back of your thigh, do join in on the action, but they’re more like the backup singers rather than the star of the show.  I’d bet my favorite lifting shoes that the primary movers in a back squat are actually your quads and glutes.

Why? Well, these muscles handle the brunt of the extension of the knee and hip during the lift. The hamstrings do assist, particularly in the downward phase where they help control the descent, ensuring you don’t just crash down like a sack of potatoes, but they’re not actively flexing the knee when squatting.

hamstrings involvement with back squats

Understanding Back Squat Mechanics

When performing a back squat, you load the bar on your traps (upper back), step back from the rack, and position your feet roughly shoulder-width apart — yes, this can vary from lifter to lifter. I’m keeping it general here.

From there, it’s all about bending the knees and hips to lower into the squat, keeping that chest relatively upright and the spine “neutral”. As you descend, your hips will move slightly backward, and your torso will lean slightly forward to maintain balance. It’s a delicate dance between maintaining form and fighting the weight that’s itching to plant you into the ground — especially for tall and lanky lifters like me.

Upon reaching the bottom of the squat, the ascent begins. This is where those quads come into play more to extend the knees and assist with lifting the bar back to the starting position. Meanwhile, the hamstrings are quietly pitching in, stabilizing your movements so everything stays nice and smooth.

So, do back squats train the hamstrings? Yes, but they’re not the main muscle being worked. If you’re looking to give your hammies more direct love, you might want to mix in some Romanian deadlifts, Nordic hamstring curls, or leg curls.

How To Romanian Deadlift Step 3

The Role of Hamstrings In Back Squats

What the Hammies Are Really Doing When Squatting

Alright, let’s talk shop about what’s happening with your hamstrings during a back squat. When you’re squatting, the primary job of the hamstrings is to aid in hip extension and help stabilize your lower body. They help the glutes and quads be efficient.

The science points out that the hamstring’s activation isn’t as high as you might think during a traditional back squat. Remember, the hamstrings cross over two joints—the hip and the knee. Their main roles include hip extension and knee flexion, in the back squat:

  • Hip extension is primarily commanded by the glutes in the back squat.
  • Knee flexion will be more passive during the eccentric and controlled by the quads/glutes with the hamstrings helping to stabilize.

It’s a bit of an anatomical catch-22 because when you’re coming up from the squat, the hamstrings are trying to help with the hip extension part, but because the movement revolves primarily around knee extension, they’ve got to chill out a bit to let the quads do their thing without interference. It’s like trying to drive with the brakes on—not the most effective strategy.

hamstrings helping to stabilize the hips in back squats

Comparison with Other Leg Muscles

If we talk EMG studies — which yes, can lack some context — the quads and glutes light up like a Christmas tree during squats, while the hamstrings have only a little activation. [1, 2] So, while squats involve the hamstrings, they don’t make them work nearly as hard as movements specifically designed for hamstrings like stiff-legged deadlifts or leg curls.

Factors Influencing Hamstring Engagement

Okay, so let’s say you still want to create a great bias for the hamstrings with squat variations, is that possible? That’s where we can get a little more nuanced. It’s all about the angles and the setup.

Firstly, your squat depth plays a role. Deeper squats tend to increase the engagement of the hamstrings a tad more than your standard 90-degree or half-squat since they demand greater hip extension.

Second, there’s foot positioning. If you turn your feet slightly outward and go a bit wider than shoulder-width to tweak the mechanics of your squat, then you “may” find your hamstrings get more involved. This slight adjustment can shift a bit more emphasis onto the hamstrings and glutes, giving those hamstrings a bit more of the spotlight.

getting more depth in back squats with footwear

Third and lastly, tempo can play a role. Slowing down your descent in the squat, holding for a second or two at the bottom, can increase the time your muscles are under tension, which includes the hamstrings as well. So, while back squats might not be the hero exercise for hamstring development, don’t count them out completely.

They still play a crucial role in overall leg strength and can be optimized to give your hamstrings a better workout. And, if you’re really looking to beef up those hammies, you’ll obviously need to sprinkle in some dedicated hamstring exercises into your routine.

Squat Variations for Relatively Better Hamstrings Activation

I love back squats as much as the next guy, but it’s fun to mix things up, especially if it means we can give some extra attention to different muscles. To be fair, I’m trying to be better about adding in more squat variety in my programs, too, so I’m writing this as a reminder to myself as well.

  • Box Squats: Here’s looking to you, Louie Simmons. By sitting back onto a box and then exploding up, you’re not only working on your explosive power but also engaging your hamstrings and glutes more effectively due to the increased focus on hip extension when standing up.
  • Front Squats: Hold up, aren’t those for quads? Yes, but hear me out. By shifting the load to the front, your body has to maintain a more upright posture, which means your hamstrings work overtime to keep you balanced and stop you from tipping forward.
  • Sumo Squats: Remember I mentioned widening your stance? Sumo squats take that to the next level. The wider stand and feet turned out can sometimes hit your inner thighs and hamstrings harder.

front squats and hamstrings

Final Thoughts

If your goal is isolating the hamstrings, opt for exercises that will more directly train hip extension and flexion.

While the back squat has some hamstring involvement, it’s far from the best option when it comes to building the hammies. In fact, I wouldn’t even put it in my top 20 if my goal was increasing my hamstrings size and strength.

Remember, just because we’re working muscles through a range of motion, that doesn’t mean we’re efficiently training them.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q:
Can I get my hamstrings more involved when back squatting?

A:
To an extent. The back squat won't primarily hit the hamstrings, but if you widen your stats, hit more depth, and add pauses to the bottom, then you can get a little more hamstrings involvement when squatting.

Q:
Why do lifters think back squats hit hamstrings?

A:
Because they do, just not directly when discussing training goals. The hamstrings will be active when back squatting, however, they play much more of a supporting and stabilizer role for the hips when squatting.

Worked Cited

  1. Yavuz HU, Erdag D. Kinematic and Electromyographic Activity Changes during Back Squat with Submaximal and Maximal Loading. Appl Bionics Biomech. 2017;2017:9084725. doi: 10.1155/2017/9084725. Epub 2017 May 4.
  2. Nishiwaki GA, Urabe Y, Tanaka K. EMG Analysis of Lower Extremity Muscles in Three Different Squat Exercises. J Jpn Phys Ther Assoc. 2006;9(1):21-6. doi: 10.1298/jjpta.9.21.
Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of That Fit Friend. He's often regarded to as a go-to resource in various performance shoe communities. He’s been formally reviewing shoes and training gear for over 7 years and has hand-tested over 400 pairs of shoes. Jake is known on the internet and YouTube for blending his review process with his educational, strength sports, and personal training background.

Jake has a Masters in Sports Science, a Bachelors in Exercise Science, a CSCS, and he's been personal training for over 10 years helping hundreds of clients get stronger, lose weight, and accomplish their goals. He uses his exercise science brain and personal training background to make curated and thoughtful review content on the fitness gear he's testing.

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