The hamstrings are some of those muscles that people always seem to have problems with.
They’re weak. They’re tight. They’re one of the most common muscles that get pulled or strained.
The hamstring muscles actually consist of four muscles located in the back of your thigh—the semimembranosus and semitendinosus on the inside part of your leg, and the biceps femoris long and short head on the outside part of your leg.
Three of the hamstrings (the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris long head) cross both your hip and knee joint and extend your hip and bend your knee. The biceps femoris short head just crosses the knee joint and bends the knee.
Most hamstrings “pulls” or strains occur when the athlete is reaching their foot out in front of them while sprinting, because that’s when the hamstring is both being stretched and having to decelerate the leg as the foot strikes the ground.
Following a hamstring strain, the athlete will have increased pain with straightening their knee and will have an issue walking with a normal gait. Studies have shown up to 33 percent hamstring strain reoccurrence due to athletes having persistent weakness in their hamstring muscle and changes in their motor patterns following the initial injury.
While regular high-speed sprinting is a phenomenal way to get the hamstrings adapted to the high forces unique to that action, inside the weight room, I believe one exercise is essential to preventing strains and building stronger hamstrings.
It’s called the Nordic Hamstring Curl, and it’s used by athletes like Christian McCaffrey.
What Are Nordic Hamstring Curls?
The Nordic Hamstring Curl is my favorite hamstring exercise and one I believe should be in every athlete’s training program.
The Nordic Hamstring Curl is a way to load the hamstrings while they’re being lengthened. As we mentioned before, the hamstring is most commonly strained when it is being stretched.
Therefore, strengthening in the stretched state helps build resilience in the muscle. Due to the principle of specificity, eccentric training increases eccentric strength more than any other type of training. Studies have also found that inserting a Nordic Hamstring Curl into a training program led to improvements in 10-meter sprint time as well as repeat sprint time.
I believe the exercise improves sprinting performance due to increasing the eccentric strength and active muscle stiffness of the hamstrings.
One key thing to remember about the Nordic Hamstring Curl is that it’s a tough exercise. So tough, in fact, that most people botch the form and reduce its effectiveness.
This is why it’s important to start with regressions before tackling the full, unsupported movement.
Below, we go over two smart regressions to utilize before you build up to the full movement. It’s important to note you do need a partner holding down your lower leg just above the ankle for each variation. A foam pad on which to rest your knees will make things much easier.
The key cues here are to make sure your core is braced throughout the exercise. It’s recommended to take a deep breath before each rep. You want your body to form one solid, straight line from your knees to the top of your head.
Nordic Hamstring Curl w/ Swiss Ball
Use a Swiss ball to slowly lower yourself and make the exercise easier. Focus on moving with control and using your hands purely for support. If you’re not feeling it in your hamstrings, you’re doing something wrong.
Nordic Hamstring Curl w/ Band
The partner who’s holding down the athlete should loop a strength band around themselves. The other end of the band should be looped around the torso of the athlete. The strength band will help decrease the velocity during the eccentric while also providing support during the concentric. The idea is to “catch” yourself with your hands as you transition from eccentric to concentric.
Nordic Hamstring Curl
This is the full movement with no additional assistance. You should have mastered the previous two variations before you move onto this.
If you’ve got the strength and control to switch from the eccentric to the concentric without touching the ground, go for it. But the percentage of people capable of performing that feat with good form is very, very small.
Another thing to remember with Nordic Curls is that they can lead to high amounts of soreness due to the eccentric-heavy nature of the movement. If you’re totally new to the movement, maybe start with 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps for any of these variations. From there, gauge your soreness and scale the volume appropriately, progressing towards 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps.