The purpose of the blog is to discuss how to set up and perform Reverse Nordics, why you should be using them to maximize strength and hypertrophy of your quads, and how they might be implemented to reduce your risk of quad strains.
Are Reverse Nordics Dangerous?
Despite Reverse Nordics being a relatively safe exercise performed without any external load, many individuals are concerned that this movement is bad for their knees. This is simply not true – Reverse Nordics aren’t inherently more dangerous than any other exercise. In fact, I’ve successfully used them in the rehabilitation of individuals with quad and knee injuries. However, if you have pain with kneeling, lack full knee flexion range of motion (getting your heel to your butt), or are simply fearful of the movement, it might not be the most suitable option for you. For everyone else, it’s a relatively safe and effective exercise for improving the strength and hypertrophy of the quads.
The quadriceps femoris, or “quads”, is a group of 4 muscles located on the anterior aspect of the thigh. All 4 muscles attach to the tibial tuberosity via the patellar tendon (yellow) and therefore act to extend, or straighten, the knee. The vastus lateralis (blue), vastus medialis (green), and vastus intermedius (not shown) are collectively referred to as the vasti muscles since they originate on the femur. However, the rectus femoris (red) originates at the anterior inferior iliac spine and the superior aspect of the acetebalum. Considering that it uniquely crosses the hip joint, it also acts to flex to the hip.
Maximizing Quad Strength and Hypertrophy (Reason #1)
Unlike the vasti muscles, the rectus femoris doesn’t contribute very much during compound movements like the squat or leg press that involve simultaneous hip and knee extension. There are three papers that shed light on this topic:
- Unique activation of the quadriceps femoris during single- and multi-joint exercises by Ema et al. 2016
- The authors examined muscle activation during simultaneous hip and knee extension and “revealed that even at high intensity, the rectus femoris activation during multi-joint exercise is low and does not increase with fatigue.”
- Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes by Kubo et al. 2019
- The authors assessed hypertrophy of the glutes, adductors, and quads after 10 weeks of squats with different depths and concluded that “10 weeks of full and half squat training increased the volume of the vasti muscles, but not rectus femoris.”
- Relative Muscle Contributions to Net Joint Moments in the Barbell Back Squat by Vigotsky and Bryanton 2016
- The authors modeled how the adductors, glutes, hamstrings, and quads contribute to hip and knee extension during a barbell back squat and reported that “the rectus femoris does not appear to contribute to the knee extension moment in the squat (Figure 2).”
Therefore, if you want to increase the strength and size of the rectus femoris, you need to perform a single joint knee extension exercise such as the seated leg extension or, in this case, the Reverse Nordic.
Reducing Risk of Quad Strains/Injuries (Reason #2)
The rectus femoris is the most commonly strained quadriceps muscle with reinjury rates as high as 17%. Common mechanisms of injury include kicking and sprinting so it is prevalent in sports like soccer. Since the Reverse Nordic can be used to challenge the rectus femoris in a lengthened position (unlike compound exercises), it might be beneficial to implement to help reduce the risk of injury. I’ve also used it during the rehabilitation of muscle strains that have become chronic in nature. I’ll touch on this more in the eccentrics section.
How to Perform
Let’s break down how to actually perform the Reverse Nordic. Some options will be based on preference and comfort.
- Feet (2 options)
- Toes Tucked: Requires sufficient extension of the big toe (make sure it’s comfortable!).
- Feet Flat: Requires sufficient plantar flexion and may induce calf cramping. You can place a towel or pillow under your ankles for added comfort.
- Set up on a pad, pillow, or towel for comfort.
- Maintain a straight line between your knees, hip, and shoulders.
- Don’t let your hips flex or your back arch. If needed, a strong glute contraction will help you start in that straight line position.
- 3 Methods
- Perform through your full range of motion for reps.
- Lean back as far as you can while maintaining that straight line and return to the starting position.
- Hold the end position for time.
- Lean back as far as you can, lower yourself down (use hands to catch yourself), and restart. Perform for reps.
- Manipulate Center of Mass
- Easier: Hands Straight in Front (at 90 degrees)
- Standard: Hands at Side
- Harder: Hands Overhead
- Manipulate Range of Motion
- Couch (behind you): Provides external feedback and shortens the range of motion
- Shorten the range of motion yourself as you learn the movement and your capabilities
- Manipulate Center of Mass
- Maintain a straight line
- Push/kick into the ground
- Focus on quality and control before implementing advanced options.
- Start conservatively (range of motion and repetitions) and build up over time.
Why Eccentrics are the Best Option
There are no studies to date that demonstrate that Reverse Nordics reduce the likelihood of rectus femoris injuries. However, similar to the hamstrings, it is a biarticular muscle that often gets strained during competitive sport. Therefore, I am largely extrapolating from the literature on the Nordic Hamstring Curl showing its efficacy in reducing hamstring injuries. We have three blogs on the topic of Nordic Hamstring Curls and “Injury Prevention” that can be found here, here, and here.
There is one study by Alonso-Fernandez et al. 2019 that examined the changes in rectus femoris architecture induced by the Reverse Nordic. The authors found that 8 weeks of eccentric training led to increases in muscle fascicle length, muscle thickness, pennation angle, and cross-sectional area which the authors conclude “may have practical implications for injury prevention and rehabilitation programs.” Increases in muscle fascicle length may be associated with increases in sarcomeres in series (unique to eccentric training) which is likely advantageous for this biarticular muscle that must undergo significant changes in length at high speeds.
Based on this information, eccentric Reverse Nordics are my preferred option.
There are two primary concerns regarding Reverse Nordics performed eccentrically: risk of injury and muscle damage contributing to significant Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). The previously mentioned study had 26 men, who had never done Reverse Nordics before, complete the training protocol without issue. Additionally, Chen et al. 2011 showed that the quads are less susceptible to muscle damage from eccentric contractions which is potentially due to their higher exposure to load on a day-to-day basis and their general muscle architecture.
The researchers from the Alonso-Fernandez et al. 2019 study had their subjects begin with 2 sets of 6 repetitions, twice per week and progressed them to 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions, three times per week over the course of 8 weeks. The participants rested 2 minutes per set. Two things to note:
- This is a high volume that would likely be performed in the pre-season or off-season, but would be reduced significantly in-season.
- Adaptations were reversed after 4 weeks of de-training so the movement must be incorporated into your routine to maintain the beneficial changes.
I primarily created this video out of necessity secondary to the stay-at-home orders in California. Normally, my go-to quad exercises are split squats, leg extensions, and hack squats. When gyms closed and I was forced to train out of my living room, I wanted to figure how to continue maximizing my leg training with minimal equipment. I decided to do a full body split 3 days per week that included rear foot elevated split squat variations on Mondays and Fridays, and Reverse Nordics on Wednesdays. Instead of increasing repetitions (I do sets of 8 repetitions) each week, I’ve just tried to increase the overall range of motion. Reverse Nordics probably shouldn’t be your primary quad exercise, but they are a viable accessory.
Thank you so much for reading! If you have any questions, leave them in the comments below!