Do you ever feel hamstrings curls in your calves?
It must be one of the most annoying things about the hamstring curl machine.
You seem to be activating, stimulating and working every muscle except the hamstrings.
And most notably the calves seem to bear the brunt of your curls.
So, what exactly is going on here?
There are a number of reasons why you feel hamstrings curls in your calves. Firstly, the weight you’re trying to curl is too heavy and you’re therefore recruiting other muscles, i.e. the calves, in order to lift the weight. You could also try changing your leg position on the pad and pointing your toes upwards to activate the hamstrings to a greater degree.
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Try Hamstring Curls With Less Weight
Let’s face facts, irrespective of the exercise you are performing, if you use too much weight, you generally don’t end up working the target muscle.
Whether you want to admit to it or not, it’s true.
We’re all guilty of it, but whenever you load more weight that you can typically handle, you usually end up using every muscle in the body, bar the one you actually want to.
Trust me, hamstring curls are no different.
I know from personal experience.
I often notice that there is a fairly large discrepancy between what my quads can lift on a leg extension and what my hammies are capable of on the hamstring curl.
You’d like to think that the quads and hams were pretty even, but in my case (and I’m sure many others), this simply isn’t true.
This is definitely a case of “leave your ego at the door” and just curl what your hamstrings can actually handle.
You’ll actually find that once you reduce the weight, the hamstrings get worked to a far greater degree.
This obviously means that the exercise is doing its jobs, and your calves have nothing to worry about.
Move Your Legs Further Up the Pad
Unfortunately, in my gym I only have access to a seated hamstring curl machine.
So, I have absolutely no idea how either a standing or lying hamstring curl machine works.
That being said, I’m guessing the same principles apply.
Now, I always approached the hamstring curl machine by having the back of my ankles resting against the pad (or the ball, whatever you wish to call it).
I just assumed that this was the right way to go about things.
However, this caused a certain issue that I will reveal in the next section.
But, I was totally unaware of it at the time.
However, you should play around a little with where exactly your legs come into contact with the pad.
Funnily enough, it seems the ideal placement is around mid-calf level.
However, by having your calf on the pad you’ll generally find that there is a lot less calf activation, and far more hamstring stimulation.
Flex Your Toes When Doing Hamstring Curls
Now, as it happens this is likely to be one of the most common issues as to why you feel hamstring curls in your calves.
Pure and simple, toe flexion has a lot to do with which muscles of the legs are activated.
I spoke just above having the backs of my ankles resting against the pad of the hamstring curl machine.
Using this method you will typically find that the toes flex away from the body.
So, basically your toes are further away from the body than the heels.
This simple flexion of the feet (more specifically the toes) actually activates the calves.
It’s much the same as standing on your toes I guess.
By doing this you automatically stimulate the calves.
As it turns out, the ideal way to activate the hamstrings is to flex the toes towards yourself.
Or as it is sometimes referred to, dorsiflexion.
You want the toes to point towards your body and head.
By doing so, you automatically activate the hamstrings.
Although I wouldn’t suggest doing so for every exercise, this actually works to activate the hamstrings in just about any movement.
As I say, I wouldn’t suggest doing this for every exercise, but dorsiflexion will also work to activate the hamstrings more during all the deadlifts variations.
So, if you want more hamstring involvement, point your toes upwards.
Use Other Exercises to Improve Hamstring Strength
Okay, I’ve spoken about potentially using too much weight.
However, this could just be a case of your hamstrings being weak.
Take it from someone who knows.
I’ve had my fair share of lower back injuries over the years.
And this was typically down to weak hamstrings, glutes, and tight hip flexors.
That being said, I know I’m definitely not alone.
Unless you partake in a particular sport, or speed is of the essence in your everyday life, the hamstrings don’t get much of a look in.
In fact, I will go as far to say that many people simply perform a few deadlifts accompanied by a couple of sets of hamstrings curls, and that’s all the hamstring work they ever do.
Been there, done that, got the injuries to prove it.
I will say that I find the hamstrings a particularly difficult muscle to train.
Regardless of exercise, I don’t always “feel” the hamstrings working as they should
However, I have made much more of a concerted effort to train the hamstrings in recent years (as well as my hip flexors and glutes).
So, if you’re feeling hamstring curls in your calves this could be a sign of weak hamstrings.
I mentioned earlier that you may use just every muscle bar the hamstrings to curl if you’ve loaded up too much weight.
The same principle applies if your hamstrings are your weak point.
Activate The Hamstrings First
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I as I’ve mentioned, I often find that I don’t “feel” the hamstrings when working specific hamstring-focused exercises.
This is even true of the greatest hamstring builder of them all, the deadlift.
Don’t get me wrong, I typically feel sore in the hammies the following day.
So, this tells me that the targeted muscle was being worked correctly.
However, it’s not uncommon to feel no “burn” during the actual exercise.
The best way to overcome this is to activate the hamstrings before you start curling.
For me, the exercises that appear to work best are bodyweight single-leg hip thrusts and Jefferson curls.
And I’m not going to lie, I have a real love for Swiss ball hamstring curls.
Admittedly, hip thrusts are more aimed at the glutes, whereas Jefferson curls are for strengthening and lengthening the posterior chain.
But for me, all these exercises work as a great way to activate the hamstrings.
Once you’ve activated the hamstrings you’re far more likely to feel them working on curls.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why Do I Feel Hamstring Stretches in My Calves?
The most obvious reason that you feel hamstring stretches in your calves is because you have tight calves.
So, it makes sense to perform specific calf stretches, as well as foam rolling your lower legs.
That being said, the vast majority of people perform hamstrings stretches with a completely straight leg.
Sure, this makes a great deal of sense, as an example one of the best hamstring exercises is the stiff-legged deadlift.
However, if you lack flexibility, have tight hamstrings, and of course tight calves, you’re going to feel the stretch in your calves.
Realistically, you don’t have to stretch your hamstrings while keeping your leg(s) completely straight.
We’re not all capable of performing exercises and stretches in exactly the same way, as bodies, mobility, and flexibility will vary from person-to-person.
In other words, you should do what is best suited to you.
For some this may mean that you have a slight bend at the knee for hamstrings stretches, whereas for others the knee-bend is far more pronounced.
It’s basically what feels comfortable for you and where you can still feel the main area of the hamstrings being stretched.
And you can bend your knees regardless of the type of hamstring stretch you perform, whether you’re using a hip-hinge type movement or your lead leg is in front of you.
As your flexibility improves you can of course lessen the bend in your knees until you’re eventually able to perform hamstring stretches with straight legs.
Why Do I Feel Popping When I Do Hamstring Curls?
You’ll typically find that “snapping” and “popping” is a common occurrence for many individuals when they perform certain exercises.
This comes down to the tendons attached to the muscle being worked.
When it comes to popping during hamstring curls this is usually a case of snapping pes anserinus syndrome.
The best way to describe this is that the three tendons that attach to the inside (medial side) of the knee are gliding over each other.
If you experience pain or tenderness, or have previously done so, this is probably caused by a minor tear of the tendons.
This can occur through any form of exercise and isn’t particularly serious.
That being said, you should of course pay attention to any pain or discomfort, and if it’s too much, stop exercising and rest.
However, what generally happens is that these tears will heal themselves, but tiny scar tissue is likely to form.
Therefore, your tendons won’t glide as smoothly as they usually would when performing any physical activity, such as hamstring curls, and this is what causes that popping sound.
Scar tissue actually forms in order to help the tendon heal, but unfortunately in many cases you are left with scar tissue for life.
But, it is perfectly possible that this won’t have an impact on your mobility, won’t cause any pain, but you’ll have to put up with the constant popping sound whenever you exercise that specific area of the body.
However, if your mobility is restricted, or the scar tissue is causing you pain, it’s best to seek advice from a medical professional.
That being said, the only real solution is surgery.
But, in the meantime you can certainly perform certain stretches to ease the effects of snapping pes anserinus syndrome.
Why Do My Hamstrings Cramp When I Do Leg Curls?
If you experience cramping during any exercise this is usually a sign of tight or weak muscles.
However, things are slightly different when it comes to hamstring exercises.
Your immediate thought may be that you have tight or weak hamstrings, and while this could be the case, there’s a little more to it.
With an exercise like hamstring curls this could also point to tight or weak glutes.
The glutes and hamstrings are connected and when performing posterior chain exercises you often feel both muscle groups working.
So, initially it’s important to work out which muscle group needs working on.
A great way to determine this is whether you also feel hamstring cramps during exercises like glute bridges and hip thrusts.
If so, this means that you’re having an issue with glute activation and it’s likely your glutes are weak,
So, it makes sense to work on learning how to activate your glutes and then performing exercises to strengthen them.
That being said, if you don’t feel hamstring cramps during glute exercises you now know that it is your hamstrings you need to work on.
Personally, I much prefer various free-weight and bodyweight exercises in order to work my hamstrings.
I’m not saying that hamstrings curls aren’t a good exercise, but my preference has always been to use free weights.
So, I suggest performing regular foam rolling of your hamstrings (I actually do this before I squat as well), and then build hamstring strength with some of the following exercises.
Do Tight Calves Cause Tight Hamstrings?
There are definitely cases where people have both tight calves and tight hamstrings.
But, even though the two muscle groups are connected, you can feel tightness in either independently from the other.
That being said, if you feel tightness in both your hamstrings and your calves this actually points to a tightness or weakness of the hip flexors.
In fact, I would go as far to say that a huge percentage of people have either tight or weak hip flexors.
This is especially prevalent in the modern day-and-age, as we spend so much of our time sitting down.
Admittedly, excessive sitting will leave the hamstrings in a shortened position for extended, which of course is a cause of hamstring tightness.
However, as I say, if you have issues with both your hamstrings and calves this is typically down to your hip flexors.
In fact, weak and tight hip flexors often lead to hip pain and lower back pain.
Furthermore, there is evidence that weak and tight hip flexors are responsible for various conditions and ailments, many of which you wouldn’t normally associate with this area of the body.
- Poor posture
- Discomfort when walking
- Poor blood circulation
- Problems with sleeping
- Loss of libido/sex drive
- Increased belly fat
- Sore and painful glutes
So, it makes a great deal of sense to both loosen and strengthen your hip flexors through regular stretching and training.
Do Hamstrings Respond Better to High or Low Reps?
The hamstrings actually have two main functions, namely kicking the leg backwards or bending at the knee.
When it comes to an exercise such as hamstring curls you are utilising the knee-bend function.
Whereas an activity such as sprinting utilises the backward kicking of the leg.
The two different functions also incorporate both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibres.
When bending at the knee, as with hamstring curls, you are using the fast-twitch muscle fibres.
Fast-twitch muscle fibres are best trained with a heavy load and a lower rep scheme.
Therefore, you are best off training hamstring curls this way.
In fact, Charles Poliquin once stated that you shouldn’t perform more than 8 reps per set of hamstring curls.
However, when extending at the hip or “kicking the leg back” you are using slow-twitch muscles, which are better served with a lighter load and higher reps.
So, using this information, train hamstring curls with heavy loads and fewer reps.
And when using exercises such as back extensions, good mornings, stiff-legged deadlifts, etc. train with a lighter load and a higher rep scheme.
You should also incorporate both types of movements into your hamstring training.
So, hopefully you understand a little better why you feel hamstring curls in your calves.
As you can see the main reasons include using too much weight, not flexing the toes, or incorrect leg placement on the pad.
Additionally, it could just be a case of weak hamstrings, or the need to activate the hammies prior to curling.
However, if you get these things right you will notice far better hamstring stimulation, without straining the calves.
Netx, while I’m on the subject of hammies, discover what I have to say about not feeling deadlifts in your hamstrings.
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.