Squats are often referred to as “The King of Lower Body Exercises”, and it’s easy to see why.
They are a compound exercise that target many major muscle groups, including the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.
So, it’s perfectly normal to feel sore after squats.
That being said, you would think that you’re most likely to feel soreness in your quads or glutes.
However, many people report extremely sore hamstrings from squatting.
In this article I’d like to discuss why you may be experiencing hamstring soreness and what you can do about it.
DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) is the most likely reason for sore hamstrings after squats. However, if you feel a sudden sharp pain in your hamstrings while you squat, which makes it difficult to continue with your set, this could be an injury, so you should seek professional medical advice. Your hamstrings will be activated to a greater extent during squats if you push your hips back too far, while leaning your torso too far forward (poor movement pattern). Furthermore, low-bar squats will activate the glutes and hamstrings more than high-bar squats.
Table of Contents
When Are You Feeling Hamstring Soreness?
Your hamstring soreness from squats can be fairly easy to diagnose depending on when you actually feel this soreness.
So, if it’s well after your squat session, perhaps even a day or two later, it’s likely to be DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness).
However, if you experience a sudden sharp pain while you’re actually squatting this could be an injury.
This is especially true if you find it too difficult to continue with your set (due to extreme pain), even after you’ve taken rest.
You’re Experiencing DOMS
DOMS or delayed-onset muscle soreness are a normal part of training.
That being said, DOMS are most commonly associated with people new to lifting weights.
However, in truth, you can feel DOMS if you are unfamiliar or unaccustomed to performing a certain exercise.
Now, when it comes to exercise, being “unfamiliar” or “unaccustomed” this can happen to anyone, including someone experienced at squats.
This could mean that you’ve:
- Added more load to the bar
- Performed more reps
- Performed more sets
- Taken shorter rest periods between sets
- Longer time-under-tension, e.g. slower squats, pause squats, etc.
In other words, it’s perfectly feasible for someone who trains regularly to experience DOMS.
However, as mentioned, DOMS are most prevalent in those new to training or those returning to training after a long break.
But, don’t forget that not performing a particular exercise for a few weeks could constitute a “long break”.
What Exactly Are DOMS?
It was once thought that DOMS were to do with lactic acid build-up, but this theory has now been disproven.
In reality, DOMS are much more about blood flow and repair.
Okay, when you perform resistance-based exercises this creates “microtrauma” or microscopic tears in the muscle fibres.
Don’t worry, this is actually a good thing.
These tears in the muscle fibres most often occur during the eccentric part of a lift, which involves the lengthening of the muscle under tension.
Then through nutrition, rest and recovery, sleep, and blood flow the muscle fibres will repair themselves.
The aim is that once repaired they will grow back bigger.
The DOMS you are experiencing is basically a temporary inflammation in and around the muscles you’ve trained.
However, blood cells will scramble to the inflamed areas in order to heal the muscles.
So, it’s likely that for the first 48 hours after training you’ll experience DOMS.
But, things will improve with each passing hour thereafter.
When Will You “Feel” DOMS?
You’ll know if this is what your soreness is down to depending on when you feel this.
The word “delayed” gives a clue.
DOMS will usually come 12-24 hours after training.
However, they are typically at their worst 24-72 hours after training.
Think about it, how often have you felt your muscles aching a good couple of days after your training session?
This is likely to be DOMS and the fact that you probably trained in a way that your body isn’t used to (see above).
That being said, some people may experience DOMS for up to 5-7 days after their workout.
But, this will generally be due to a very intense workout, while the individual trains completely new exercises to themselves.
How to Deal With Hamstring DOMS
Okay, now that you know what this hamstring soreness is likely to be it’s time to deal with it.
Firstly, I will say that if you regularly experience hamstring DOMS after squats you should do some “prehab”.
For me, one of the best exercises I’ve found to do this are Swiss ball (stability ball) leg curls.
Not only does this activate the hamstrings, I’ve actually found that it helps me feel “looser”, and I generally squat with better form and greater depth.
So, grab a Swiss ball and perform 3 sets of 10 reps of leg curls.
Now, let’s look at what you can do afterwards.
Realistically, the best option would be to roll your hamstrings, either with a foam roller or lacrosse ball.
You may actually find this extremely painful to begin with, but it will definitely provide some relief later.
Next, you should be using active recovery when you’re not squatting.
This helps to increase blood flow to your sore hamstrings and you’re less likely to feel stiff and immobile if you’re trying to actually move.
Realistically, active recovery could simply mean that you go for a long walk on a rest day.
However, this can also incorporate stretching (more on this in a moment) or perhaps even performing a few sets of bodyweight squats and bodyweight single-leg Romanian deadlifts.
The choice is completely up to you, but it makes sense to “keep moving”, which will speed up your recovery time.
Finally, ensure you stretch out your hamstrings following your squat workout.
This is not to say that this will completely eliminate hamstring soreness and DOMS, but you’ll definitely feel a lot less sore than if you don’t stretch.
You Have a Potential Injury
I’ve also mentioned that if you feel a sudden, sharp pain during your squats this could potentially be an injury.
This is especially true if you find, even after resting, that it’s practically impossible for you to perform another rep due to the intense pain.
If this is the case you should immediately stop exercising, as you don’t wish to make things worse.
I’m not a Doctor or a medical professional, therefore providing medical advice is beyond my experience and qualifications.
So, I’ll repeat, if the pain you’re feeling came on suddenly while you were squatting.
If you find the pain unbearable and it severely restricts you from even attempting another squat, STOP.
Consult with your Doctor or a qualified medical professional.
You Have Weak Glutes
Squats are mainly viewed as being a quad-based exercise.
However, they are of course a compound exercise, so they definitely work many other muscles too.
In fact, the main muscle groups worked during squats will be the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
So, this in itself should tell that there is the potential to feel your hamstrings from squatting.
Now, your quads will be most activated at the bottom of the squat.
And typically the lower you go the more knee extension this will require and therefore the more quad activation you’ll get.
Hence why so many people talk about squatting “ass-to-grass”.
However, in order to push yourself back up from the squat to a standing position you’ll mainly use your glutes and hamstrings.
Now, we typically view squats as an up-and-down movement, but it makes sense to see them as a forward-and-back movement too.
Basically, as you squat your knees will move forwards and your hips will backwards.
Your glutes are the primary hip extensor, which means that it should mainly be your glutes working to bring your hips back forward and back into the standing position.
Your hamstrings are a secondary hip extensor, which means that while there is some hamstring involvement this should be minimal.
However, if you have weak glutes this means that your hamstrings have to do much more work than usual in order to finish off the rep and bring you into a standing position.
Activate Your Glutes Before You Squat
Obviously, if weak glutes are making your hamstrings do more work than necessary during squats it makes sense to work on strengthening your glutes.
I’ll cover this in just a moment, but something else you should be doing is activating your glutes prior to squatting.
Unfortunately, weak, tight, and unresponsive gluteal muscles are extremely common in the modern day and age.
Many of us spend countless hours every single day sitting on our butts and therefore not activating the glutes in any way.
So, when it comes to performing exercises that require glute activation your butt simply doesn’t do an effective job.
Therefore, as I say, it makes sense to “unlock” your glutes beforehand.
There are various exercises that can help you achieve this, but my favourite, and the exercise I find most effective, is single-leg glute bridges.
How to Strengthen Your Glutes
Activating your glutes will definitely help to involve your glutes more during squats, thus taking some of the unwanted stress off the hamstrings.
However, as it’s mainly your glutes required to “push out of the hole” it makes sense to strengthen the gluteal muscles.
Now, you can actually work on this while you’re still squatting.
But, I would recommend that you decrease the load by approximately 50%.
From here, you can work on using pause squats.
When we squat we typically use something known as the stretch reflex to push back out of the hole.
I guess the best way to describe this is that you quickly rebound out of the bottom of the squat.
However, if you actually stop and pause for a few seconds at the bottom of the squat it will require much more glute activation to bring you back to a standing position.
But, due to the fact that you potentially have “weak glutes” it makes sense to reduce the weight significantly as I have mentioned.
That being said, there are many exercises which can help you to get a stronger, rounder, and more powerful butt.
Therefore, you shouldn’t just limit yourself to squats.
Regularly using glute strengthening exercise will have a knock-on effect on your squat, and the vast majority of other exercises you perform in the gym.
Your butt is actually far more involved in various exercises than you would think.
In fact, having a stronger butt could even help to lift more weight with exercises like the bench press and overhead press.
You Have Poor Squat Movement Pattern
To be honest, everything I’ve said so far may not even be an issue for you.
But, it’s rather that you’re squatting with a poor movement pattern.
I’ve mentioned that squats are both an up-and-down and forward-and-backward movement.
However, the further you push your hips back the more likely you are to feel squats in your hamstrings.
Essentially, you have turned a squat into a good morning, which of course is an exercise designed to target the hamstrings.
You’ll be aware of this based on your torso position.
Your torso should be leaning forward slightly when you barbell back squat.
Your torso definitely won’t be as upright as when you perform a front squat, but it certainly shouldn’t be leaning as far forward as when you perform a good morning.
So, take note of your exact torso position at the bottom of the squat.
If you’re leaning too far forward your torso will be closer to parallel to the floor than upright.
And there’s two major reasons this may occur.
You’re Squatting With Too Much Weight
The vast majority of the time if you’re feeling an exercise where you potentially shouldn’t this comes down to using too much weight.
Sure, we all want to progress with our squats and every other exercise that we perform, but this shouldn’t be at the detriment of good form.
So, if you’re unable to control your “torso lean” and you’re pushing your hips back too far it’s time to reduce the weight on the bar.
Leave your ego at the front door of the gym and learn to squat with the correct movement pattern.
A fantastic way to achieve this is to regularly practice goblet squats.
You can use goblet squats as part of your warm-up routine.
Then again, you can do what I did, which was to perform a high volume of goblet squats multiple times per week.
This isn’t about how much weight you move, but about getting your squatting technique correct.
So, I usually use a 10kg dumbbell or kettlebell and perform 50-100 reps (with rest) 2-3 times per week.
You Lack the Flexibility to Squat With Good Form
If excessive weight isn’t the issue then it’s likely to be that you have poor joint flexibility and mobility.
Squats require good mobility in the hips, knees, and ankles.
So, poor flexibility in any of your joints could cause you to use a poor movement pattern.
That being said, one of the most common issues is poor ankle mobility.
And this is most obvious at the bottom of the squat, and you’ll find that you end up pushing your hips back too far while leaning too far forward.
Plus, your lack of ankle mobility will often see your heels come off the floor when your squat.
Now, what many trainees do in this situation is to place a couple of small weight plates under the heels of each foot.
This removes the requirement for good ankle mobility when you squat and you should find that this allows you to use much better form.
However, this obviously doesn’t solve the problem, but rather it masks it.
So, it makes sense to work on your ankle mobility in order to improve your overall squat movement pattern.
Are You Using the High-Bar Squat or Low-Bar Squat?
The next thing to consider is what version of the barbell back squat you’re using.
Basically, you have the traditional high-bar squat and the lesser-used low bar squat.
The high-bar squat is what most of us are used to whereby the barbell rests on your traps.
Plus, the high-bar squat is more aimed at “functional athletes”.
So, this typically means those of us who are regularly gym-goers, using squats to improve sports performance, or simply to build muscle.
However, the high-bar squat, while it provides more leverage, it’s also easier for your lower back to round and therefore lose the neutral spine position required for good squat form.
Furthermore, high-bar squats require more knee and ankle flexion.
That being said, it’s much easier to maintain a more upright torso with the high-bar squat, so when performed correctly you’re less likely to feel it in your hamstrings.
Then we have the low-bar squat, which is much more geared towards lifting more weight.
In fact, the low-bar squat is most often used by powerlifters, those looking to get stronger, or perhaps improve their one-rep max.
The barbell rests a few inches lower down than the high-bar squat, typically on your posterior delts or at mid-shoulder level.
This positioning provides slightly less leverage than the high-bar squat.
In fact, this will change the positioning of the torso to incorporate a more forward-leaning torso.
Therefore, the low-bar squat recruits the glutes and hamstrings much more than the high-bar squat.
So, the low-bar squat is better for people with poor ankle mobility due to greater hip flexion and a more forward-leaning torso.
However, this obviously means that you’re immediately going to feel low-bar squats far more in your hamstrings.
Can You Still Squat With Sore Hamstrings?
Right, you’re now fully aware of the various reasons for hamstrings soreness from squats.
However, I’m sure the next question on your mind is whether you should train squats while you’re feeling this soreness.
Perhaps, you train squats twice a week, but your hammies are still not yet fully recovered.
Then again, maybe your DOMS are that severe that they’ve lasted an entire week, so the thought of squats fill you with dread.
That being said, it’s still perfectly possible to squat with sore hamstrings, but you need to be extremely wary of your form, and of your pain.
The last thing you want is to cause yourself an actual hamstring injury, or even somewhere else in the body.
You’ll probably find that sore hamstrings will limit your movement when you squat.
So, you may find that you’re not squatting as deep as you normally would.
There’s nothing wrong with this, although I always prefer to perform every exercise with good form and great range of motion.
But, as I say, be very wary of how your hamstrings feel, and definitely don’t push yourself if the pain feels extreme.
If you do squat to full depth the soreness you feel may make you use other muscles to compensate.
I’ve mentioned that it’s mainly the glutes that are involved in “pushing out of the hole” from the bottom of the squat, but there is some hamstring involvement too.
However, if your hamstrings ache you may find that your lower back takes over the role.
And you definitely don’t want to be putting undue stress on your lower back when you squat.
So, while it’s okay to squat while you’re still feeling your hamstrings, just be very wary of how it feels and what your form is like.
It Could Be Your Adductors (& NOT Your Hamstrings)
There is a chance that the soreness you feel after squats is not your hamstrings at all.
If you’ve adhered to good squat mechanics, but still feel sore, it could well be your adductors.
The hip adductors are a group of five muscles located in the medial thigh.
We most commonly think of the adductors as being the inner thigh muscles.
Basically, when we squeeze the legs together we are mainly using the adductor muscles.
However, due to the fact that the adductor group has many different muscles (and locations) this can cause confusion.
Plus, all the adductor muscles are connected to the Obturator nerve, which is located in the lumbar plexus.
So, there is some form of “connection” to the lower back, which in turn can make it “feel” as though it is your hamstrings that are sore.
The Role of the Adductors During the Squat
Greg Nuckols wrote an article about how the adductors are affected when we squat.
The article focuses on a study by the European Journal of Physiology.
The study was based around the effects of squat training at different depths.
Plus, how this impacted increased muscle volume in the lower body.
Two groups of untrained young men went through 10 weeks of squatting, twice a week.
They were tested for their one-rep max in the full squat and the half squat.
Plus, measurements were taken of their quads, glutes, hamstrings, and adductors.
One group of men performed full squats, where they went through 140 degrees of knee range of motion.
The other group performed half squats, where knee flexion was 90 degrees.
Obviously, the full squat group gained more muscle than the half squat group.
The increase in muscle volume for the full squat group averaged as follows:
- Hamstrings – less than 1% increase
- Quads – 5% increase
- Adductors – 6.2%
- Glutes – 6.7%
So, looking at these results, we typically look at the squat as more of a quad and glute exercise, and this certainly rings true here.
The lack of hamstring muscle volume increase didn’t really surprise me, as the hamstrings are there more for support than stimulation.
However, I was taken aback by the increase in adductor muscle volume.
Basically, the adductors are working far harder than we probably imagine during the squat.
And due to their location, connecting muscles and nerves, adductor soreness is probably being mistaken for the hamstrings in many cases.
Key Learning Points
- If you feel hamstring soreness after your squat session, typically at least 12-24 hours afterwards, this will usually be DOMS.
- If you experience a sudden and sharp pain during squats, which means that it’s too painful to carry on, this could be an injury. Seek professional medical advice.
- Perform “prehab” prior to squats, e.g. 3 sets of 10 reps of Swiss ball hamstring curls.
- After your workout roll your hamstrings with a foam roller or lacrosse ball, use active recovery to increase blood flow, and perform specific hamstring stretches.
- You’ll mainly use your glutes to “push out of the hole” when squatting, while your hamstrings are also required, but to a much lesser extent.
- Weak glutes mean that your hamstrings will have to do more of the work to push out of the hole.
- Activate your glutes before you squat, e.g. single-leg glute bridges.
- Work on strengthening your glutes, e.g. pause squats with lighter weights and glute-specific exercises.
- You have a poor squat movement pattern, typically caused by using too much weight or a lack of joint mobility, especially the ankles.
- Practice goblet squats multiple times a week to perfect your squat technique.
- High-bar squats require more knee and ankle flexion.
- Low-bar squats recruit the glutes and hamstrings to a far greater degree.
- You can still squat with sore hamstrings, but it’s likely that your movement will be limited. So, be careful and stop if the pain feels too intense.
- The adductors have a major role during squats. Therefore, adductor soreness is often mistaken for the hamstrings.
Now that you’re aware of why squats can lead to hamstring soreness, here’s something else for you to consider – check out my article about whether squats and deadlifts are enough for overall leg development.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.