Nordic Hamstring Curls (Bulletproof Your Hamstrings)

July 1, 2022

One of the most impressive feats of strength in the gym is a fully controlled Nordic hamstring curl where the body is parallel to the floor. Having brutally strong and huge hamstrings aren't the only benefits of this exercise.

The Nordic hamstring curl eccentrically overloads the hamstrings from short muscle lengths resulting in greater hamstring length, reduction in the risk of injury, and targets Type IIX muscle fibers.

This is a small list of potential benefits when performing Nordic hamstring curls. Further, did you know you can target specific parts of the hamstring using the Nordic hamstring exercise?

What Is The Nordic Hamstring Curl?

The Nordic hamstring curl is one of the most challenging hamstring exercises used by athletes and weekend warriors. It involves resisting and controlling your bodyweight solely with your hamstrings as your knees extend. Essentially, your hamstrings need to be damn strong to handle the forces required to support your bodyweight.

It trains the hamstrings eccentrically (muscle lengthening) at the knee. The hamstrings have two functions: flexing the knee and extending the hip, with each movement showing different hamstring recruitment patterns.

While physique athletes may not use the Nordic hamstring exercise to get big legs, athletes worldwide use it for athletic performance benefits.

Muscles Worked During The Nordic Hamstring Curl

The Nordic hamstring curl is a hamstring isolation exercise. However, there are three main hamstring muscles that are recruited differently depending on the movement.

  • Semimembranosus 
  • Semitendinosus
  • Biceps femoris
Anatomy Of Hamstrings

Typically, the inner hamstrings are preferentially recruited during knee flexion hamstring exercises compared to hip extension exercises [1]. This has been explicitly shown with the Nordic hamstring curl, where greater semitendinosus muscle activation was found compared to hip extension exercises [2].

This doesn’t mean the outer hamstring of the biceps femoris isn’t activated during the Nordic hamstring exercise. It is still highly activated but not to the same degree as when performing hip extension.

But regional activation doesn’t stop there. When comparing knee flexion exercise to hip extension, knee flexion hamstring exercise preferentially recruits the bottom to middle portion of the hamstrings closest to the knee [3].

Therefore, we can state the Nordic hamstring curl preferentially targets the bottom middle/inner hamstring muscles (semitendinosus) with significant muscle activation of the biceps femoris.

Benefits Of The Nordic Hamstring Curl

nordic hamstring curls at home

There are many benefits to using the Nordic hamstring curl that extend further than strength development.

Reduce The Risk Of Injury

Plenty of research has assessed the Nordic hamstring curl and reductions in sporting injuries. Unfortunately, many compare the Nordic hamstring exercise with doing no hamstring training. All this tells us is doing something is better than doing nothing.

However, a meta-analysis compiling all Nordic hamstring research found a 51% reduction in hamstring injuries compared to a control group or continuing regular training [4].

Target The Inner Hamstrings

The Nordic hamstring curl as a knee flexion/extension-based exercise primarily targets the inner hamstring of the semitendinosus [5]. Specifically within the middle region of the semitendinosus [6].

Therefore, the Nordic hamstring curl can round out a complete hamstring training regime and be prescribed as end-stage rehab for bottom to middle hamstring strains.

Eccentric Specific Adaptations

Eccentric adaptations can only be simulated using loads greater than concentric one rep maximums. The Nordic hamstring curl fits this category as you can only lower yourself and not curl back to the top (unless you are very strong).

The beneficial eccentric adaptations range from preferentially targeting Type IIX muscle fibers [7] to large strength increases [8] to shifting the length-tension relationship up and to the right, enhancing force generation at longer muscle lengths [9].

These are all advantageous adaptations for explosive sporting movements.

Lengthen The Hamstrings

Many people will turn to static stretching when they feel tight hamstrings. However, stretching only gets you so far and doesn't make any structural change to the muscle [10]. As explained above, eccentric exercise shifts the length-tension relationship up and to the right.

It does this by adding sarcomeres in series (increasing the length of muscle fibers), so you develop longer hamstring muscles.

Nordic Hamstring Curl Technique Progression

If you haven't been training your hamstrings or aren't very strong in knee flexion or extension, be aware that this is the most intense hamstring exercise you can perform. You will likely feel a hamstring cramp part way through doing this for the first time. It just means you’re not conditioned yet for these high forces.

This is why you can use the progression below, so you don't' run into these problems.

Band Assisted Nordic Hamstring Curl

Using a band to unload a portion of your bodyweight is the most efficient way of starting the Nordic hamstring curl. You will need a sturdy chin-up bar or power rack to tie your band. Here's how to do it:

  • Tie a strong resistance band to the top of a power rack of chin-up bar. To set up, place your arms through the band, so it wraps under your armpits and against your chest.
  • Kneel onto a soft pad and have a partner push on your Achilles tendon at the bottom of your calves. This is the most comfortable position.
  • Have your hands in front of your chest, palms facing forward, which act as your brakes to stop your face from hitting the floor.
  • While keeping a straight line from your knees to your head, slowly fall forward, extending at the knees. Your hips should not bend.
  • Resist as long as possible. Once you reach "breaking point," fall to the ground and push yourself back to the starting position with your hands. The breaking point is the point you no longer can control the movement.

Nordic Hamstring Curl

Once you've built the strength with the band-assisted Nordic hamstring curl, you're ready to remove the training wheels.

  • Kneel onto a soft pad and have a partner push on your Achilles tendon at the bottom of your calves. This is the most comfortable position.
  • Have your hands in front of your chest, palms facing forward, which act as your brakes to stop your face from hitting the floor.
  • While keeping a straight line from your knees to your head, slowly fall forward, extending at the knees. Your hips should not bend.
  • Resist as long as possible. Once you reach "breaking point," fall to the ground and push yourself back to the starting position with your hands. The breaking point is the point you no longer can control the movement.
  • The goal is to finish with your body in a straight line with enough control to kiss the floor.

What Position Should You Have Your Feet?

how to do nordic hamstring curls

The two positions you can have your feet are in a dorsiflexed or plantarflexed position. The dorsiflexed position has your toes against the floor, while the plantarflexed position has the top of your foot flat on the floor.

Research has shown that a plantarflexed ankle position may be superior for maximizing eccentric force during the Nordic hamstring curl [11]. However, this study showed there were vast individual differences, and you'll need to try both positions to see which feels stronger.

Personally, plantarflexing my ankles makes my calves cramp, and I feel much stronger with a dorsiflexed ankle position.

How To Secure Your Feet Without A Partner

Not all of us a lucky to have an epic training partner. Or maybe you're a lone wolf, and the gym is your "me" time. Doing the Nordic hamstring curl becomes more difficult in this situation. However, there are ways to master the Nordic hamstring exercise without a partner.

Lat Pulldown Machine

Who knew you could fry your lats and hamstrings on the same machine. Instead of using the knee pad to hold your legs in place during lat pulldowns, you’ll turn around and place your knees on the seat with your ankles under the pad.

This turns the pad into the equivalent of your training partner pushing on your ankles. I don’t like this variation so much as the pad sits too high. So, it raises your feet above your knees, making the exercise much harder than it needs to be. But if you have no other option, it's a good one to use.

Seated Calf Raise Machine

This is my favorite option without a training partner. The pad to hold your legs in place can be adjusted much lower than the lat pulldown securing your feet in line with your knees. Just place your knees on the seat and face away from the machine.

You will need to place a box in front of you to push up at the end of each rep. Otherwise, the floor is too far away to reach.

Barbell Inside Power Rack Or Against Plates

Using a barbell is my last resort. It works, but it's not that comfortable. You can wrap towels or a squat pad around the barbell to make it more comfortable, but it's awkward setting up. Place a 45 lb plate on each end inside and push it against the rack.

Face away from the barbell and dig your feet under the barbell. As you perform in the Nordic hamstring curl, this will act as your anchor.

How To Nordic Hamstring Curl At Home With No Equipment

It becomes a little trickier to perform the Nordic hamstring curl at home, especially if you have no training partner. If you have a home gym setup, then the barbell can work. However, if you’ve got nothing, using furniture is your only option.

If you have a couch that has a large enough gap underneath and is heavy enough to stay in place, then this can work.

Nordic Hamstring Curl Alternatives

For an exercise to be a Nordic hamstring alternative, it needs to be a supramaximal eccentric contraction. The load must be so heavy you cannot lift it during the concentric action. Here are some example alternatives.

2 Up, 1 Down Lying Leg Curl

A traditional lying leg curl targets the same hamstring muscles as the Nordic hamstring curl. However, the load is too light to stimulate eccentric specific adaptations. This is why the 2 legs up, 1 leg down technique circumvents this issue, allowing you to overload the hamstrings eccentrically. Here’s how to do it:

  • Select a weight heavy enough that you couldn't lift concentrically with one leg. Perform the leg curl with two legs, then remove one leg, so you must resist the heavy load with the other leg.
  • Aim for 3-4 seconds during the lowering phase until the leg is straight. Repeat the process for the prescribed reps.

2 Up, 1 Down Seated Leg Curl

The 2 up, 1 down seated leg curl is similar to the lying leg curl. However, you train the eccentric portion into longer hamstring muscle lengths leading to potentially greater strength and muscle-building stimulus. Here’s how to do it:

  • Select a weight heavy enough that you couldn't lift concentrically with one leg. Perform the leg curl with two legs, then remove one leg, so you must resist the heavy load with the other leg.
  • Aim for 3-4 seconds during the lowering phase until the leg is straight. Repeat the process for the prescribed reps.

2 Up, 1 Down Swiss Ball Leg Curl

A Swiss ball can also work if you don't have access to the machine. However, if you have a decent base level of strength, then the 2 up, 1 down won't be hard enough to overload the eccentric phase. Regardless, it’s a viable option when you have no other choice. Here’s how to do it:

  • Lie flat on your back with your heels and calves on a Swiss ball. Push with your feels to elevate your hips, so there's a straight line between your feet and upper back.
  • While maintaining this hip position, curl your feet towards your bum. Once there, remove one leg and slowly straighten the other leg.

Nordic Hamstring Curl Limitations

There is no doubt the Nordic hamstring curl can play a significant role in your training for reducing the risk of injury and targeting important eccentric specific adaptations. However, don't rely solely on this exercise as the holy grail of hamstring development.

Many hamstring injuries occur when high forces at long muscle lengths are produced during an eccentric muscle action—for example, sprinting or rapidly bending over to pick something up.

The Nordic hamstring curl does not train these ranges of motion, leaving you susceptible to force deficits at long muscle lengths. Therefore, hip extension hamstring exercises like Romanian deadlifts and kettlebell swings can round out an excellent hamstring training program.

Summary

Nordic hamstring curls are a simple, bodyweight exercise to train the hamstrings eccentrically. If your goals are purely physique related, there isn’t any real reason to use this exercise. However, if you are an athlete who plays a sport involving running and sprinting, then the Nordic hamstring curl is a great option to add to your training routine.

References

1. Yanagisawa, O., & Fukutani, A. (2020). Muscle recruitment pattern of the hamstring muscles in hip extension and knee flexion exercises. Journal of human kinetics, 72(1), 51-59.

2. Bourne, M. N., Williams, M. D., Opar, D. A., Al Najjar, A., Kerr, G. K., & Shield, A. J. (2017). Impact of exercise selection on hamstring muscle activation. British journal of sports medicine, 51(13), 1021-1028.

3. Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Tiryaki-Sonmez, G., Wilson, J. M., Kolber, M. J., & Peterson, M. D. (2015). Regional differences in muscle activation during hamstrings exercise. The Journal of strength & conditioning research, 29(1), 159-164.

4. Van Dyk, N., Behan, F. P., & Whiteley, R. (2019). Including the Nordic hamstring exercise in injury prevention programmes halves the rate of hamstring injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 8459 athletes. British journal of sports medicine, 53(21), 1362-1370.

5. Bourne, M. N., Opar, D. A., Williams, M. D., Al Najjar, A., & Shield, A. J. (2016). Muscle activation patterns in the Nordic hamstring exercise: Impact of prior strain injury. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 26(6), 666-674.

6. Hegyi, A., Péter, A., Finni, T., & Cronin, N. J. (2018). Region‐dependent hamstrings activity in Nordic hamstring exercise and stiff‐leg deadlift defined with high‐density electromyography. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 28(3), 992-1000.

7. Douglas, J., Pearson, S., Ross, A., & McGuigan, M. (2017). Chronic adaptations to eccentric training: a systematic review. Sports Medicine, 47(5), 917-941.

8. Douglas, J., Pearson, S., Ross, A., & McGuigan, M. (2018). Effects of accentuated eccentric loading on muscle properties, strength, power, and speed in resistance-trained rugby players. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(10), 2750-2761.

9. Brughelli, M., & Cronin, J. (2007). Altering the length-tension relationship with eccentric exercise. Sports Medicine, 37(9), 807-826.

10. Konrad, A., & Tilp, M. (2014). Increased range of motion after static stretching is not due to changes in muscle and tendon structures. Clinical biomechanics, 29(6), 636-642.

11. Nishida, S., Ito, W., Ohishi, T., Yoshida, R., Sato, S., & Nakamura, M. (2022). The Effect of Ankle Position on Peak Eccentric Force during The Nordic Hamstring Exercise. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 21(1), 43.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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