Nordic hamstring curls have been popularised recently thanks to some very positive research studies and an endless stream of social media posts.
What is a Nordic hamstring curl?
As a bit of background, Nordic hamstring curls are an eccentric exercise (muscle lengthening under tension) that are usually performed with bodyweight alone.
You can perform a Nordic hamstring curl at home, using a couch or bench to stabilise your legs, or in a gym with a Nordic hamstring curl machine, set up specifically for this exercise.
Here’s how to do a Nordic hamstring curl:
What is the research on Nordic hamstring curls?
In 2011, a researcher by the name of Petersen, along with a research team, published a great study looking at how effective Nordic hamstring curls were on 942 football (soccer) players. They found a huge reduction in new and recurrent hamstrings injuries.
Other papers have been published since 2011 with similar findings – one paper by van der Horst (and friends) in 2014 found a 70% reduction in hamstring strains! You’ll often see the 70% figure quoted on a social media post declaring with smug reassurance, Nordic hamstring exercises are both magic and mandatory. It’s simple and ridiculously effective. Almost too good to be true…
Awesome right? Just add Nordic hamstring curls and stop injuries before they happen.
If only it was that simple…
Are Nordic hamstring curls the best option?
As always, social media doesn’t tell the full story, and the devil is in the detail. These studies compared regular training + Nordic hamstring curls to just regular training, that is on-field training without strength training.
As you may expect stronger athletes were more resilient to injury. Simply adding strength training improved muscle function very quickly, with one study finding significant gains after just four weeks.
But what we’re yet to see is how Nordic hamstring exercises compare to other strength exercises, such as a single leg deadlift, for injury prevention.
We’ve had studies that compare Nordic hamstring curls to deadlifts for muscle recruitment patterns. They’ve compared Nordic hamstring curls to improvements from sprint training. And in almost all comparisons, Nordic eccentric curls haven’t been superior for performance or strength gains. They’re an effective strength exercise, but they’re one of many effective strength exercises.
So at this point in time, it would seem logical to recommend that strength training has a significant effect on hamstrings injury risk.
What we can’t recommend with any great certainty is the effect of Nordic hamstring eccentric curls over other exercise options. The data just isn’t there to support that conclusion.
A simple analogy
A simple analogy to real world examples would be putting petrol in a car. We test a car without petrol compared to a car filled with Caltex-brand petrol. Not surprisingly, the petrol-filled car goes further.
We can safely conclude that petrol is great at making cars go further. But to claim that it proves that Caltex is better than Shell petrol just wouldn’t be right.
The message to take away from all this is that hamstrings strength training can offer multiple benefits including injury prevention.
Strength training should be added to every athletic training program to ensure consistency of training without disruption from injuries.
Carefully choosing the appropriate exercise for your sport follows the same principles as selecting any other exercise. It should match the demands and actions of your sport.
If you need horizontal power, such as a sprinter, a hip bridge is great.
If you need vertical power, such as a basketballer, a squat works better.
If you need hamstrings strength in a lengthened position, like a football player reaching for a tackle, a single leg deadlift seems to fit the criteria.
But don’t choose an exercise because it’s been popularised as the cure for hammy injuries in all sports for all people. It just doesn’t make sense.
Sample hamstrings strength program
Here’s an effective hamstrings strengthening and injury prevention program for runners.
Remember that any program is specific to the context that it’s designed.
So a strength program for runners will be different to a program for footballers.
Even a program for runners can vary – distance running vs sprinting has very different muscle demands.
And that’s right, this effective program covers everything you need and not a Nordic Hamstring Curl in sight…
Exercise 1 – deadlift
This is your go-to exercise for bulletproof hamstrings.
You can perform this as a barbell double leg deadlift – great for build strength.
You can do a single leg kettlebell deadlift – good for strength and control.
Just remember that strength and stability are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The more unstable you are, the less strength you’ll gain.
If you’re too wobbly on one leg, stick to double leg for now.
Exercise 2 – hamstrings bridge
Like a hip bridge or hip thrust exercise but with the leg in a longer position (foot further away from body).
This can be done on two legs or one leg, with and without extra weight and you can move or you can hold a position.
You can even mix it up and perform it differently each week.
Exercise 3 – jump lunge
This exercise challenges the bouncy parts of the muscle – its connective tissue/tendons.
While the previous two exercises are great for strength, the function of the hamstrings muscles requires effective buffering and shock absorbing from the tendons.
Perform this after a few other exercises to make sure your muscles aren’t cold.
It’s not about how high you can jump, it’s about feeling the bounce and effective shock absorbing.
Exercise 4 – hill sprints
As simple as they sound. Sprint up, easy down.
Keep them short and explosive. Longer hills seem more challenging but it just slows you down.
Perform enough reps that you’re still quick but feel it.
Don’t keep going if you begin to slow down or if your running action noticeably changes.