What the hell is a nordic hamstring curl? Is it some sort of cold-weather bicep curl? What makes it Nordic? Once you see it, you’ll likely know the exercise we’re talking about, because tons of crazy strong people do them on social media. In this article, I’ll explain what Nordic hamstring curls are, what their purpose is, and why you either would or wouldn’t put them in your own workouts.
A Nordic hamstring curl is an eccentric hamstring curl. There are 3 types of muscle actions: concentric, isometric, and eccentric. Concentric is when the muscle gets shorter; isometric is when the muscle stays the same length; eccentric is when the muscle gets longer, but even when the muscle is staying the same length or getting longer, it’s active, not passive. Imagine a bicep curl: concentric is raising the weight up, isometric is holding the weight in place, and eccentric is controlling the weight on the way down.
The exercise targets the knee joint and the muscles responsible for knee flexion (the hamstrings). Knee flexion is when the knee goes from straight to bent. Combining both our eccentric and knee flexion definitions: Nordic hamstring curls require the hamstrings to resist the knees going from bent to straight but actively lengthening and letting the knees straighten.
As the knees straighten, the hamstrings get longer and are consequently at a weaker joint angle; that’s why Nordic curls are easy at the top and failure happens at the bottom.
Nordic hamstring curls are one of the best exercises for developing hamstring strength. Because eccentric muscle actions are the strongest type of muscle action, Nordic hamstring curls are a unique opportunity to overload that movement (knee flexion and the hamstrings). Almost everybody has weak hamstrings. This is for a host of reasons, from how often we sit, to the sports we play, but nearly everybody should do more hamstring strenthening.
They can also help reduce injuries. Because you’re doing the exact same muscle action (eccentric knee flexion) that often happens when people pull their hamstring, you’re strengthening the hamstrings in their most vulnerable position. But because Nordic curls occur at a very slow speed, it’s relatively safe. This is one of the main reasons that this exercise is popular with athletes in particular. Have you ever seen a Nordic curl on social media done by a non-athlete? Probably not, and that’s what leads me to my next point.
The number one reason why you wouldn’t do Nordic curls in your workout is the amount of soreness and suckiness they will bring into your life. Eccentric movements are the most soreness-causing movements because the muscle is actively trying to get shorter but ripping apart and getting longer due to leverage and gravity.
For example, if you did 20 bicep curls only doing the upwards movement compared to 20 bicep curls only lowering the weight in a controlled fashion, the latter won’t let you bend your elbows the next few days to wash your hair.
They suck. Straight up. No joke. A supramaximal eccentric (supra meaning you literally can’t do the upward movement if you tried) exercises are a certain kind of vibe you don’t want to mess with just for fun. Imagine doing a bench press heavier than your max PR, controlling it down to your chest for 4 or 5 seconds, then having your friend pull it off your chest.
Similar to how bodybuilders are good at grinding through the immense burn of sets of 30 reps and powerlifters are good at grinding through incredibly heavy sets of 3 reps, supramaximal eccentric exercises (Nordic curls) take a specific mindset and motivation to grind through.
Traditionally, but not always, Nordic curls are more of a sport-specific exercise. They often aren’t used for bodybuilding because you don’t get a good pump from them. The amount of sets and reps needed for a pump and hypertrophy (at least 3 sets of 8), is not a smart idea for Nordic hamstrings curls. Put another way, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze for this exercise and that goal.
This is, unless you intelligently ease into the nordic hamstring curl with other variations.
Although Nordic curls are an eccentric movement, you don’t have to go as slow as possible. Eccentric movements often mean a solid and slow count of 4-ish seconds on the way down. Begin the Nordic curl going down in a controlled manner, slowly count to 4, really fight those last 2 seconds, then relax and put your hands out to catch yourself on the floor. Also, make sure you have something comfortable under your knees.
Start with partial range of motion nordic hamstring curl. Put a jump box or bench in front of you so you can’t go that low and can’t fall all the way to the floor. Then, over time, slowly move the box farther and farther away from you. Start with 2 sets of 3 reps and add a set every week for 3 total weeks.
Next, do band-assisted Nordic curls. Because the band reduces the load by pulling some of your bodyweight upward, it’ll be a little easier to go farther. And, as you go out further, the band’s resistance strengthens, making the strength curve of the exercise easier.
Tether a band to something above and behind you then put it underneath your arms around your chest. You want to keep your hands free to catch yourself on the ground. Consequently, because it’s easier, you’ll be able to perform the exercise through a bigger range of motion and your hamstrings will become more familiar with it. This variation is basically the opposite of the partial range of motion above. Start with 2 sets of 3 reps and add a set every week for 3 total weeks.
Lastly, it’s time for regular nordic curls. Do the full exercise with just your body weight and really try to fight the finish and see how low you can get before falling to the ground. Start with 2 sets of 3 reps and add a set every week for 3 total weeks. In this case, more is not better, better is better. Adding a bunch of sets and reps is not worth the soreness compared to simply doing a perfect 4 sets of 3.
Place Nordic curls at the end of your workouts with nothing serious to do lower body-wise in the next few days. Probably include these on your second leg-day of the week when you have 2 days off. The stress you’re going to put on your hamstrings is definitely going to detract from the rest of your workout if you do them first.
Please, and when I say this I mean it, make sure whatever is holding your ankles down is stable and secure. I guess those are the other kind of Nordic curl videos that make it on social media…the fails…
As with any exercise, there’s a learning curve. The more you do Nordics, the better you get at them (obviously). But when you first start out you might think you’re really fighting the finish but in reality, you’re not at all. You must learn how to grind and fight during supramaximal eccentrics. Sometimes you just have to embrace the suck.
The hamstrings cross multiple joints and do multiple joint actions: knee flexion (bending the knees) and hip extension (straightening the hips when bent at the waist). That’s why stiff-leg deadlifts are a hamstring exercise because they work on straightening the hips (aka a hip-dominant hamstring exercise). Nordic curls are a knee-dominant hamstring exercise. The body’s way of cheating and making Nordic curls easier (unintentionally) is by bending at the waist during the exercise.
Example of keeping the hips straight during a Nordic Curl
Example of what you should NOT do, bending at the hips during a Nordic curl.
Bring back those suppressed memories from physics freshman year of high school. The knees are the fulcrum and the body is a lever arm. When the hips are straight during the Nordic curl, almost all the weight of the lever (the hips and upper body) are moving in front of the fulcrum (the knees) making the body feel way heavier. When the hips bend during a Nordic curl, the hips are staying closer to right above the knees making it easier for the hamstrings to resist the knees getting straighter.
The hamstrings are one of two major muscle groups responsible for knee flexion. The other is the calves. If you have your feet pointed (plantarflexion) while you do this movement, the calves will take over the movement from the hamstrings. This is actually an interesting calf exercise, but the goal here is the work your hamstrings. So, when you set up, make sure your ankles are in dorsiflexion (toes pulled up).
If you have a partner holding your ankles down, make sure you dig your toes into the ground FIRST, like this.
If you’re looking to bulletproof your hamstrings for sprinting in your flag football league and walk funny for a day or 2, Nordic curls could be a solid option. When selecting any exercise you must consider 2 things: what the goal is? Does it accomplish this goal effeciently?
For more on eccentric training, check out our guide on the reverse nordic curl.