The best hamstring curl you can’t do (until now)!

Nordic hamstring curls started appearing in research papers back in 2001. Among many benefits, they’ve been shown to recruit your hamstrings to a greater level than traditional hamstring curl variations, as well as stiff-legged deadlifts (1). 

The Nordic hamstring curl can also help you develop insane hamstring strength, while bulletproofing you from potential injury – They help prevent annoying hamstring strains that plague pretty much any athlete involved in running or sprinting. They also improve hamstring to quadriceps strength ratios, translating in to healthier knees.

There’s only one thing holding you back from trying them, though, and that’s your need for a partner in order to do them successfully. The biggest obstacle is needing a gym buddy or coach to hold down your feet.

Besides the intense difficulty of Nordic curls and enhanced likelihood of you face-planting, it’s likely the only thing holding you back from trying them is a partner. Here’s how you can do them yourself, and without any specialist equipment.

Set-up

The barbell’s pinned against the rack with enough weight on the bar to keep it planted when you’re moving. This needs to equate to more than your bodyweight.

You then need to place a smaller donut on the floor to stop the bar rolling. The bar will be wedged between the rack and the donut.

You can also do this without a rack. All it would require is you load a heavy weight on the bar then wedge large plates either side of the loaded plates so it doesn’t roll. Go with whatever works best with the space you’ve available.

Technique

  • Wedge your heels under the barbell. Or better yet of you have a partner they can clamp you down.
  • Come up on your knees with them close to the outer edge of the BOSU ball, or on the middle of an Airex pad.
  • One of the most important things in this exercise is learning to keep your abs on. You ideally don’t want a massive curve in your lower back, so engage your abdominals to help keep your pelvis up.
  • Down force range of motion. Don’t expect getting all the way to the floor the first time you try these.
  • Lower yourself as far as you can under control, until you drop. 
  • Keep your abs locked in, glutes engaged and pelvis up – Imagine 360 degrees of air around your spine, with the space between ribs and pelvis closed.
  • Use your hands to catch you when you fall.
  • I prefer to encourage trying to use your hamstrings a little on the way up, assisted with your arms. Although you could just reset without maintaining some tension if you’d like, as per the more traditional way.

Considerations

  • Nordic hamstring curls produce the highest levels of muscle activation when your hip is straightest, and your shin angle remains relatively parallel to the floor (2).
  • Most hamstring injuries occur during the eccentric phase of movement, usually at longer muscle lengths. Nordic curls can help combat this as well as being a great muscle builder. However, due to their eccentric nature they can create a lot of muscle damage. Don’t get silly with the volume, just 2-4 sets of 5-6 reps can be more than enough up to twice per week. 
  • The Nordic hamstring curl preferentially recruits the semitendinosus, while hip-extension exercises selectively activate the “long” hamstrings. This is just one of the many reasons why you should also combine a knee-flexion based exercise like this, which something hip-extension focused (e.g., RDL’s, back-extensions, pull-throughs etc.).
  • There are a lot of theories as to why the nordic hamstring curl is so effective (e.g., change in muscle fiber length, increased tissue stiffness). But more recently it was suggested nothing more than the ability of the Nordic curl to be a great hypertrophy exercise (3). Simply adding meat to your hamstrings will help prevent injury. 
  • Practically speaking there are exercises with more hassle-factor than these to set-up. That being true there are still those that’ll find the loading and unloading the bar component a big put-off. Especially when compared to just sitting on a hamstring curl machine. To help save time try this bar unloading “hack” that can also be useful for deadlifts, hip thrusts and other barbell floor exercises.

Progressing Nordic curls

As this is a moderately advanced exercise, I’d suggest using a proper progression. Something like this eccentric progression would work:

  1. Manual Eccentric Hamstring Curls or 2/1 Method Hamstring Curls
  2. Band Assisted Nordic Curls – band overhead
  3. Band Assisted Nordic Curls – band at chest height
  4. Nordic Hamstring Eccentrics (as shown here)
  5. Loaded Nordic Hamstring Eccentrics (DB or med ball on chest)

Nordic hamstring curls can help you develop insane hamstring strength, and build more resilient hamstrings and knees. Progressed and executed properly they’re the best hamstrings exercise you’ve never been able to try, until now! 

P.s., please feel free to share this article with anyone it might want to try (cue global face planting epidemic!).

(1) Ebben et al. (2006). Electromyographic analysis of hamstring resistance training exercises

(2) Sarabon et al. (2019). Kinematic and electromyographic analysis of variations in Nordic hamstring exercise.  

(3) Seymour et al. (2017). The Effect of Nordic Hamstring Strength Training on Muscle Architecture, Stiffness, and Strength. 

Find out about the Maverick Glutes and Hamstrings Guide HERE.

The best hamstring curl you can’t do (until now)! The Fitness Maverick

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