There are a handful of exercises that wow people. Many are found in the world of calisthenics — planche pushups (feet off the ground), human flag, one-handed pullup. Others are incredible feats of strength — such as an 1100 pound deadlift.
The one that gets the most attention in the fitness and rehab community is the nordic hamstring curl.
From preventing injuries to improving performance
The Nordic hamstring curl is brutal and makes most individuals look silly. It takes substantial hamstring strength to lower your body to the floor and raise it back without hand assistance.
The Nordic hamstring gained popularity as a tool for injury prevention. While injury prevention can never be boiled down to a single factor, some strategies should be favored over others as part of a comprehensive plan. The Nordic hamstring may help reduce the risk of hamstring strains for sports that involve sprinting.
What isn’t discussed as often in the fitness and rehab community are the performance benefits of the nordic hamstring curl.
A recent research study — a systematic review pulls out themes and data from many studies — assessed all the available data on the impact Nordic hamstring curls have on sprint speed and hamstring strength. The results were interesting.
Short versus long term gain
Hamstring eccentric strength — the lengthening of muscle against resistance (think lowering the weight during a bench press) — is important for sprint speed. Your ability to control and slow the forward momentum of your legs allows you to increase your turnover and take another step quicker.
The study found Nordic hamstring curls can both improve hamstring eccentric strength and sprint speed, although there are important caveats to address.
The improvements in sprint speed are short-term, with some studies showing the effects lasting only 10 minutes after the intervention. That means if you are about to race someone, crank out a couple of Nordic hamstring curls as a warm-up.
When all the data were pooled together, some lasting effects were demonstrated but they were small. For example, only 0.05 seconds were shaved off of a 20-meter sprint.
This may seem meaningless, but in sports, it can be a game-changer. That time can be the difference between a baseball batter being safe or out on a groundball, a running back hitting or missing the hole on a carry, and a tennis player reaching a baseline shot.
Regarding strength, untrained individuals showed greater improvement than trained athletes. If you are untrained — meaning you don’t exercise regularly — you have nowhere to go but up. The Nordic hamstring curl is challenging and will create change. If you are trained, your weight matters.
The love-hate relationship with your weight
If you weigh more, the Nordic hamstring curl becomes harder, as any bodyweight exercise would. However, if the exercise is harder, you will achieve more gains.
Roughly 90% of the variance in strength improvements following a Nordic hamstring curl exercise program among athletes is explained by body mass. The more you weigh the more you benefit.
Keep in mind, intensity should only be high in load, not volume. The best outcomes were attained with low volume training — two sets of four performed once a week.
Yep, only 8 total reps a week. It was superior to all other protocols of higher volumes.
The nordic hamstring curl is demanding and can easily overtax an individual.
An easy addition to any workout plan
The beauty of the Nordic hamstring curl is how little volume is needed to gain the benefits. Simply adding two sets of four to one workout a week can improve your hamstring strength — translating to a bigger deadlift — and improve your sprint speed.
You also get the added benefit of reducing your hamstring injury risk.
I’d call that a good deal and worth the potential embarrassment of a faceplant on a failed attempt.