The purpose of this blog is to discuss the Nordic Hamstring Curl exercise, what it is, how it’s performed, considerations for why it’s performed certain ways, different options for setting it up, Nordic Curl variations, and when to use a variation or not!
Are you in search of an exercise that trains your hamstrings, helping to get them stronger while also reducing your risk of injuring your hamstrings, and requires little to no equipment? Well you’ve found it now! Enter the Nordic Ham Curl.
For anyone who doesn’t know what the movement is, it’s where we are in a tall kneeling position, having both knees on the ground and feet pointed back behind us, secured under something sturdy. From there, we get our hips extended, trying to lock in our hip, pelvis, and lower back position, and then begin to transition forwards toward the ground while resisting gravity and trying to slow the fall as much as possible.
When performed well, this exercise can put a huge demand on the calf complex, particularly the gastrocnemius, the hamstrings, using each muscle belly, and the glutes, most notably the gluteus maximus. We can see these muscles being challenged due to the primary actions being done in the movement – knee flexion and hip extension. Knee flexion is where our shin bone comes closer to our femur, and hip extension is when our upper leg bone moves further away from our trunk.
While we are set up in tall kneeling our knee is flexed to approximately 90 degrees. As we begin to fall forward, our knee is attempting to extend and our hamstrings work eccentrically, along with our gastrocnemius, to resist knee extension and do eccentric knee flexion. At the same time, our hip starts extended and we perform an isometric action to maintain, utilizing the hamstrings and glutes.
You can notice that the hamstrings are listed in both movements, which is why this exercise in particular is extremely challenging to the hamstrings. We have three hamstring muscles – the semitendinosus and semimembranosus medially, with the biceps femoris laterally. All three participate in both hip extension and knee flexion, however, the biceps femoris has two heads, one of which only does knee flexion. Due to this, it makes knee flexion really important for working the hamstrings, something we discussed in a recent video.
Hamstring injuries are a big problem throughout sports, specifically having a high prevalence in sports where there is a component of high velocity running – such as football and soccer. Normally our muscles are at a risk of injury when we begin to place forces on them that exceed their capacity. When we do activities like sprinting, our hamstrings are placed under a high demand through multiple parts of the movement. One point in the action where we make ground contact puts the hamstring under demand to contract eccentrically at a very high rate, which is considered to be the most demanding thing we can force a muscle to do.
We’ve seen that using resistance training can be an effective means to increase the overall capacity of the hamstrings, which has an effect on reducing their risk of injury. Exercises like squats, deadlifts and other movements that challenge the hamstrings have each shown benefit. However, the Nordic Hamstring Curl has excelled and has been found to be our most effective option to reduce risk of hamstring strain.
As hamstrings have a high rate of injury in sports, the nordic hamstring curl has begun to gain notoriety in the fields of strength & condition and rehabilitation. It’s been utilized as both a “prehab” exercise to reduce injury risk, and a rehab exercise to return to function. In addition to these purposes and settings, the nordic ham curl has begun to get recognized by gym enthusiasts and a high level exercise to work towards. Due to this, more and more people are doing the exercise than ever and want to review how to properly do the movement and its benefits.
To maximize benefit of the exercise, these are the key essential technique considerations:
- Start in a tall kneeling position with your hips extended and feet secured.
- You will want to have some kind of pad to kneel on to make it more comfortable for your knees. An airex pad or wedge effect block can be a good option. Alternatively, you could use a towel, pillow, or blanket.
- During the movement, you can have your ankles either dorsiflexed or plantarflexed. Our preference is towards a dorsiflexed ankle, which we will explain further in the article.
- To secure your ankles, you can have someone hold them down, fit them under something, or rig up some other option. In a moment we will show seven different options you can do, including one that allows you to perform it safely at home.
- Once set up, you can then start to fall forwards. As you fall forwards, you want to fight to maintain your hip extension angle and not flex as you come to the ground. You also want to fight to resist your knee extending, using your hamstrings as much as possible. This combination will force your hamstrings to work eccentrically and maximize our benefit of the exercise.
- After your reach the ground and get to full knee extension, you can either curl back up, or push up back up with the use of your arms.
Those are the major technical considerations that you can run through to optimize your stimulus. With those basics out of the way, let’s get into the different ways we can set up the movement!
This is the most common and popular options as it’s quite convenient if you have a training partner and doesn’t require any additional set up. For team sports, this makes great sense and an easy to implement option. As you’re pushing down, it’s important to hold across the ankles and get your weight over the legs and not let their feet come up. For people who train by themselves, this option doesn’t work and we need to explore another option.
Feet Secured Under a Barbell
For those who are training by themselves, this can be a really good way to set it up. This can be done with a free barbell or a barbell behind a rack. To do this, we want to load up a bar moderately heavy so that it won’t lift up. For most people, somewhere in the 225 to 315 range is plenty. Then you’ll need to place a plate or something down to secure it in place to stop it from rolling. You could alternatively have it behind a rack or rig to keep it in place, which would also then require less weight on the bar. Then you can set up with your legs underneath it, as if someone was holding on for you. Most people will benefit having a bar pad or something similar to help make it more comfortable.
This is a great way to perform the movement for anyone who has access to it. You can set it up the same way as we did with the barbell. Set the bar low, get in a comfortable position, and then perform the movement.
For those who are training at a gym that doesn’t have a smith machine and you aren’t able to load up a bar, this can work, but it really isn’t as good of a set up for most people. The settings usually require a more narrow position, which is alright for some smaller people, but can get uncomfortable and challenging. I’m 6’4’’ and this set up does not feel very good and makes me struggle. Since this is higher off the ground, it’s smart to have something that you can come down to, like a bench and not fall fast to the ground.
Glute Ham Developer
If you train at a facility that has a glute ham developer machine, then you’re able to do them on it. Normally a glute ham raise is done where we have the pad far enough away from the footing that our knees can come down. This makes the movement less demanding on knee flexion strength and often allows for more challenge to the hip extensors. However, if we want to use it for doing nordics, we just bring the pad closer and until we are at the top of it. We can do a similar set up like the pulldown machine and have a bench or something in front for us to come down to, ensuring it’s safer.
If you’re training at home and have no one there to help you, a viable option would be an object you are able to secure your feet under safely, such as a bed frame or couch. Try to hook your feet under as best as you can and get set up in a comfortable position. This is one of those times where having your ankles plantarflexed might be a better option.
For a lot of people, doing it with a couch or something else like that isn’t going to work well. Again, I’m a big guy and my feet don’t fit well under my couch and my couch doesn’t counterbalance my weight well. In contrast, if I take a bed sheet, tie a knot on two sides of it, and then hook it under a door frame, it can work beautifully. Set up just like you would otherwise and have the loop set up at your ankles as if someone was holding them down. When you’re doing this, if you find your legs are coming up a lot, you’ll need to either move forward or make your loop tighter.
There are seven different set ups that you can utilize. One of those should cover your needs and allow you to get working on the nordic!
A common question we get about the nordic is: if you can’t do the movement well, such as just falling forward, should you do a variation of it instead that makes it easier, such as with bands or assistance from a partner? A second question that usually follows that is: should you do the concentric portion of the movement. Since we normally do exercises where we complete both the eccentric and concentric, it might seem odd to perform the nordic with only the eccentric to many people. These are great questions and it’s important to think critically about them.
When you look at a movement like a squat, if you go down doing the eccentric and then can’t stand back up for the concentric, you’d make the resistance easier. Many will take that logic and apply it to the nordic. Since the Nordic is a bodyweight exercise, we can’t really reduce the load and instead need to either add a band to offload some bodyweight, or modify the movement another way.
If you’re someone who is using the Nordic for the purposes of just doing a cool exercise or for just generally training your hamstrings to get them stronger or hypertrophy them, then that logic seems sound and good to go. Utilizing some form a variation that allows you to pump out full reps will allow you to maximize hypertrophy. For those situations, we have a few different variations that we think are great.
Partner Assistance on the Way Down and Up
Here you have someone stand in front and help guide you down and up. This does require either having a third partner if that person was holding your feet, or using a different method of securing your feet.
If you don’t have a partner, you could use a dowel and walk your hands down it and back up.
Kneeling Push Up Variation
You can also try and use your arms to help you by coming down, getting into to a kneeling push up, and focusing on pulling as hard as you can with your legs, but having your arms there to assist on the way up and down.
You can set up a band to help take some load off and lower slower and help on the way up. You’re going to want to have the band set up at roughly chest height so that you can a good angle as you go down.
Glute Ham Raise
We highlighted the glute ham developer method of doing the Nordic Ham Curl earlier. When doing it as a Nordic ham curl, you want to set up in a position where you’re not able to get up concentrically. In contrast, if we shift back and allow the knees to travel down like a normal glute ham raise, you’re more likely to be able to get up and control it down.
If you can’t set up any of these, but are looking to implement something to encourage more hypertrophy and strength development, we have a couple methods you can try.
The Pause Method Nordic Ham Curl
Here you add in a pause at the top of the movement just before you are about to increase your speed of falling. Essentially you’re trying to wait until the last second and then pause for one to five seconds on each rep. This will help increase the tension on the hamstrings.
The Burn Out Squeeze
Here you go down to the bottom like you normally would, but then you use your arm support to stay just short of knee extension.
These methods can help in increasing the overall exertion and stimulus to the hamstrings.
While the above variations and methods can possibly be more beneficial in increasing the strength & hypertrophy of the hamstrings, that’s not necessarily a good reason for everyone to do them. If your goal with doing Nordics is to specifically reduce your risk of hamstring strains or improve sprint performance, then our current body of research would actually suggest that we should be doing the traditional nordic. Even further, for those who happen to be strong enough to do the concentric of the normal movement, they should increase the demand to only be able to do the eccentric.
The reason for only doing the eccentric is that it provides the exact stimulus that’s theorized to possibly be causing the high rate of hamstring injuries. The high tension eccentric overloads the muscle and encourages different structural adaptations than modified versions. That point brings us to the topic of the benefit of the movement.
We mentioned earlier that this exercise has shown benefit for reducing hamstring injuries. In particular, the Nordic Hamstring Curl has shown to reduce hamstring strains by 50-70% in elite soccer players, which is a pretty huge statement. The exact reason for this is unclear, but it’s theorized to be beneficial because it causes changes to the hamstring that other exercises don’t – such as increased fascicle length and reduced pennation angle. As well, the traditional nordic ham curl has shown greater benefit for sprint performance than standard hamstring exercises, which may be in part to these structural changes.
Earlier we mentioned that you could have the ankle either dorsiflexed or plantarflexed, but that we preferred the dorsiflexed position. This for a few main reasons:
When the knee flexes and the ankle is dorsiflexed, there is greater amount of activity in the gastrocnemius, versus when the ankle is plantarflexed.
During terminal swing in running, our ankle is dorsiflexed, which is the position where most hamstring strains tend to occur.
When we have our foot in plantarflexion and our knee flexed, it puts our calf muscle in a shortened position and it’s common for people to report cramping in either their calf, ankle, or foot.
For most people, the dorsiflexed position is preferred, but we have research saying that the ankle position doesn’t necessarily have much impact on muscle activity or outcomes. In the end, do whichever is more comfortable and allows your to get the most out of the exercise.
Our last thing to discuss is the hip position. Up till now we’ve repeatedly stated the hip should be extended. This is a point that has some debate on it, with a lot of coaches arguing about whether the hip should be extended or not. There isn’t literature that specifically looks at an extended versus a slightly flexed hip, but there is research looking a Nordic curl versus a razor curl.
The razor curl is essentially a hips flexed version of the nordic curl. The razor curl began gaining popularity as coaches and clinicians theorized it could be more beneficial than the nordic due to it’s higher specificity with a flexed hip – like sprinting. There is research looking at it, such as from Hegyi et al. who identified it as having a high production of torque and EMG amplitude for the hamstring complex. However, while that does sound great, we have conflicting research.
Pollard et al. compared the razor curl and nordic curl, examining their effects on muscle architecture. Their results identified that the razor curl didn’t have any beneficial impact on fascicle length or pennation angle change, which we did find the razor curl impacts. When we look at what the Nordic does over other hamstring exercises WHICH MAY make it more beneficial than them for reducing hamstring injuries, it’s these characteristics. Due to this, it means the Nordic is likely superior to the razor curl – at least for the points of reducing hamstring injuries. The razor curl can still be an effective overall hamstring exercise.
Thank you for reading the article! Hopefully it helps guide you in utilizing this exercise to the best possibilities.
- Petersen J, Holmich P. Evidence based prevention of hamstring injuries in sport. BJSM. 2005; 39(6):319-323.
- Buckthorpe M, Wright S, Bruce-Low S, et al. Recommendations for hamstring injury prevention in elite football: translating research into practice. 2018;53(7).
- Li L, Landin D, Grodesky J, Myers J. The function of gastrocnemius as a knee flexor at selected knee and ankle angles. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology. 2002;12(5);385-390. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1050641102000494
- Adouni M, Shirazi-Adl A, Marouane H. Role of gastrocnemius activation in knee joint biomechanics: gastrocnemius acts as an ACL antagonist. Comput Methods Biomech Biomed Engin. 2016;19(4):376-385. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25892616
- Comfort P, Regan A, Herrington L, et al. Lack of effect of ankle position during the Nordic Curl on Muscle activity of the biceps femoris and medial gastrocnemius. J Sports Rehabil. 2017;26(3):202-207. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27632836
- Lauber B, Lichtwark GA, Cresswell AG. Reciprocal activation of gastrocnemius and soleus motor units is associated with fascicle length change during knee flexion. The Physiological Society. 2014 https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.14814/phy2.12044
- Bourne MN, Timmins RG, Opar DA, et al. An evidence-based framework for strengthening exercises to prevent hamstring injury. Sports Med. 2018;48(2):251-267. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29116573
- Al Attar WSA, Soomro N, Sinclair PJ, et al. Effect of injury prevention programs that include the Nordic Hamstring Exercise on Hamstring Injury Rates in Soccer Players: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2017;47(5):907-916.
- Presland JD, Timmins RG, Bourne MN, et al. The effect of Nordic Hamstring exercise training volume on biceps femoris long head architectural adaptation. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2018;28(7):1775-1783. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29572976
- Ribeiro-Albares JB, Marques VB, Vaz MA, Baroni BM. Four weeks of nordic hamstring exercise reduce muscle injury risk factors in young adults. J Strength Cond Res. 2018;32(5):1254-1262. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28459795
- Siddle J, Greig M, Weaver K, et al. Acute adaptations and subsequent preservation of strength and speed measures following a nordic hamstring curl intervention: a randomised controlled trial. J Sports Sci. 2019;37(8):911-920.
- Pollard CW, Opar DA, Williams MD, et al. Razor hamstring curl and Nordic Hamstring exercise architectural adaptations: impact of exercise selection and intensity. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2019;29(5):706-715.
- Hegyi A, Lahti J, Giacomo JP, et al. Impact of hip flexion angle on unilateral and bilateral nordic hamstring exercise torque and high-density electromyography activity. 2019;49(8):584-592.