The Nordic hamstring exercise or Nordic curl, is an exercise many of you might be familiar with from clips and videos around the internet. Although it’s an exercise we know to be hugely beneficial to every type of athlete from the weekend warrior all the way to professionals, it’s use and uptake can be hit and miss.
So what is the Nordic curl? It’s a simple hamstring strengthening exercise with minimal equipment, needing only a partner or anything heavy enough to hold your ankles down. In a kneeling position, keeping a straight line from your knees to your shoulders, all you have to do is fall forward in a slow and controlled manner. Sounds simple eh? To make things even better, we know that using the Nordic curl can reduce new hamstring injuries by over 60% (Arnason et al., 2008; Peterson et al., 2011 ) and repeat hamstring injuries by 85% (Peterson et al.,2011). A meta-analysis of over 8000 athletes also showed that when used in a preventative programme it reduces the rate of injury in general by more than half (Van Dyke et al., 2019). It’s been shown to improve short distance sprint performances and has even improved counter-movement jump heights when used in pre-season training (Ishøi et al., 2018; Krommes et al., 2017).
You might wonder how it does this? The Nordic curl contracts your hamstring muscle eccentrically, meaning that the muscle lengthens as it’s working. This is really helpful way for us to train the hamstrings as this is how they work while we are sprinting, which is when most hamstring strains occur. The Nordic curl helps us improve a number of hamstring injury risk factors in particular – it increases eccentric hamstring strength, increases fascicle length (this is a fancy way of saying the length of bundles of muscle fibres) and possibly alters some neural factors that are thought to contribute to the risk of re-injury following a hamstring strain (Timmins et al. 2015; Hanci et al. 2016; Bourne et al. 2017; Behan et al, 2019). So an easy to do ‘vaccine’ for hamstring strains that makes you run faster and jump higher would seem to be a no brainer right? Surely every Tom, Dick and Harry have this as part of their prep for sport? Not so much…
As much as we scream from the rooftops that this is something that can make a huge difference to athletes there have been barriers to implementing it. As helpful as we know eccentric strengthening is, when doing exercises for the first time it can cause muscle soreness for a few days afterwards. Anyone who has had DOMs before knows how uncomfortable this can be and its proven to act as a huge issue when trying to get athletes
or coaches to buy in.
In a study I did with the Camogie Association, after implementing an injury prevention programme over half of participants thought the Nordic curl was too difficult to use with their teams (O’Connor et al., 2019). So how can you get the most out of an exercise that could be so beneficial to you? The off-season from sport is a golden opportunity to implement a demanding exercise like this and allow yourself to become accustomed to it before training gets up and running again. Slowly integrating a small number of reps into your own training to begin with can make the high dosages needed for it’s full benefit so much more tolerable. Once you’ve become accustomed to it and gotten the DOMs out of the way there are a number of ways to get the most bang for your buck. Either progressively increasing your dose over ten weeks or using a two week loading phase with large sets and reps (something in the range of 3-4 sets of 8 reps 4 times a week) has been shown to increase eccentric strength and fascicle length significantly (Behan et al., 2019, Peterson et al., 2011). As with all strengthening though, if you don’t use it you lose it, and detraining can occur quickly so ideally continuing to do the exercise once a week for maintenance will help make sure the benefits last. Maybe this is one to add to your routine going forward!
Certified Athletic Therapist
Research Assistant School of Health and Performance Science DCU