The Nordic hamstring curl is a popular exercise in the strength training for other sports, but has not reached widespread use in rowing. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know to begin using the Nordic hamstring curl in your strength training for rowing.
Key Points: The Nordic hamstring curl (NHC) is an exercise with good application for rowers, training the glutes and back muscles for hip stability and taking the hamstrings through a underdeveloped movement of eccentric knee flexion. The NHC requires minimal equipment, so rowers and coaches can incorporate it into training just about anywhere. It is a challenging exercise that all rowers may not be ready for right away, so use variations in range-of-motion, tempo, and set-and-rep scheme to gradually progress up to full training.
Table of Contents:
- About the Nordic hamstring curl
- Nordic hamstring curl value for rowers
- Nordic hamstring curl variations for rowing training
- Nordic hamstring curl programming
About the Nordic Hamstring Curl Exercise
The Nordic hamstring curl exercise is referred to as the “Nordic hamstring curl,” the “Nordic hamstring exercise,” or both together. I tend to use both “curl” and “exercise,” and then abbreviate to “NHC” for short, but people also abbreviate to “NHE.”
Whatever you call it, it’s a challenging exercise that focuses on the hamstrings muscles and can be done with bodyweight only. The athlete kneels in an upright position, with heels held down firmly by a partner or anchoring device, and then inclines the trunk forward without bending at the hips or back. The knee joint is the pivot point for the exercise, and the athlete works very hard to control this movement with the hamstrings muscles through knee flexion. This also requires great hip stability from the glutes and back muscles to keep the hip extended while the hamstrings work around the knee.
As far as I can tell, the Nordic hamstring curl exercise appears to originate in the 1800s with the “Swedish Gymnastics” or “Swedish Movement Cure” program, which advocated for exercise and manual therapy massage techniques to improve physical health and wellness. This program was founded by Pehr Henrik Ling when he was appointed by the Swedish government to establish the Royal Central Institute of Gymnastics (RCIG) in Stockholm in 1813. American Dr. George Herbert Taylor was a student at the institute and wrote a book in 1880, “Health by Exercise,” about his experiences and the institute’s methods. On page 172 (below), we find a description and sketch of what is now known as the Nordic hamstring curl.
Nordic Hamstring Curl Value for Rowers
The NHC is popular in training for field-based and running sports to improve hamstring muscle strength and ability for athletes to absorb high levels of force while running. The NHC is less popular among rowers, though hopefully we can start to change that. The NHC offers great value for rowers as an exercise to train an underused muscle, the hamstrings, in an underused manner, focusing on eccentric muscle action. There is early information in research and practice that training this exercise for rowers can increase posterior chain strength, reduce low back pain, and improve rowing performance.
We need a little bit of background on muscle anatomy to understand why. “The hamstrings” are actually a group of muscles: the biceps femoris short head, biceps femoris long head, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. Biceps femoris (is what most people refer to when they talk about the hamstrings, and is what we’ll focus on in this article.
“Biceps” means two points of attachment at one end. “Femoris” means relating to the femur, aka the leg bone between the pelvis and knee. The biceps brachii (arm flexor muscle) and biceps femoris are anatomically similar, hence the similar names. The biceps femoris long head begins at the ischial tuberosity of the pelvis, aka the “sit bones,” and the short head begins about halfway down the femur. Both insert at the head of the fibula, below the knee. This makes the biceps femoris a two-joint muscle, acting to both extend the hip and also flex the knee. The whole muscle contributes to both movements, but due to their beginning points on the skeleton, the long head is stronger in hip extension and weaker in knee flexion, while the short head is stronger in knee flexion and weaker in hip extension. Below at left, anatomy of the long head and short head of the hamstring muscle (musclesused.com). At right, anatomy of the posterior thigh muscles (teachmeanatomy.info).
There is only one study investigating the use of the NHC with rowers specifically, a 2017 article titled, “The Effects of Nordic Hamstring Exercise on Pain and Performance in Elite Rowers with Low Back Pain.” Ten elite rowers, seven male and three female, with active low back pain participated in the study. On a scale of one-to-ten, the rowers rated their back pain as an average of 4.8, or moderate pain. Despite their pain, they completed 5-6 training sessions per week during the study. This was an off-season study, so these sessions consisted of strength training, erging, and cross-training via cycling, running, or cross-country skiing. The rowers did a 2km erg test at the start of the study, achieving an average time of 6:54. They then did six weeks of training, including the NHC twice per week for 3 sets of 5 reps with a 5-second eccentric. After six weeks, they rated their pain as an average 3-out-of-10 and achieved an average 2km erg time of 6:18. The study has some question marks, including a lack of detail as to exactly what kind of training besides the NHC the rowers did over the six weeks of study. With such a big 2km drop, we’d definitely like to know more about this. For now, what we have is at least a starting point: twice-weekly 3×5 NHC is probably beneficial for rowers.
It’s most likely that any hamstring-specific strength training is beneficial for rowers. Koutedakis et al. (1997) found that a six-month hamstring-focused strength training program decreased the number of training days that rowers with prior experience of low back pain missed due to low back pain. They did not publish their list of exercises and have not responded to my attempts to contact them about it, but we at least have the hint that direct strength training for the hamstrings is beneficial for rowers, and the direct connection from the Kasmi et al. 2017 study. Researchers of the 2021 WorldRowing Low Back Pain Pathway note that posterior chain muscles should have good strength and endurance to reduce risk of low back pain. We know that these muscles are critical for rowing performance as well.
Using the Nordic Hamstring Curl in Rowing Training
What the NHC offers is a hamstring-focused posterior chain strength training exercise that rowers can do anywhere any time, as long as they have a partner or some sort of equipment to hold their ankles down. This makes it extremely practical for rowers and coaches to use in boathouse strength training sessions, requiring no additional load or equipment beyond the partner and perhaps a pad or soft mat for the knees. Even if the NHC itself is not “magic,” it offers great practical advantages for implementation in rowing strength training.
The NHC is a challenging exercise, and most rowers aren’t ready for full training with it right away. We can use variations on the exercise, modifications to the tempo, range-of-motion (ROM), and load, and different set-and-rep schemes to progress to full training. Watch the video below, then read on for explanations of the exercise errors, variations, and programming methods for the NHC.
The “full version” of the NHC is typically considered a four or five-second eccentric phase with an assisted concentric phase (ie. pushup from bottom position). Beginning from an upright kneeling position, control the lowering phase all the way to the ground, counting a full four or five seconds. At the floor, use a push-up motion with the hands to return to the upright kneeling position. That’s one rep. Very strong people, especially those with shorter legs, can do the concentric phase without assistance, but this is not necessary to reap the rewards of the NHC. Focusing on the lowering phase eccentric action and using assistance for the lifting phase concentric action achieves the goals of training this exercise. This is yet another practical advantage offered by the NHC; its long range of scalability and progression opportunities for athletes of all strengths.
Nordic Hamstring Curl Errors
Errors to watch for in the NHC include any significant deviation from bilateral knee flexion and extension with a stable pelvis and spine. For example, sweep rowers may lean to one side on the eccentric or concentric phase due to a motor pattern habit or muscular imbalance. The NHC offers a great opportunity to teach body awareness and improve side-to-side muscular balance. Rowers also often hyperextend the spine to compensate for poor hamstring strength. The knee joint is the only joint that should be moving, with the hip, spine, shoulders, and neck all stable and in a neutral position. Cue the athlete to keep “ribs down” and a straight line from head to shoulder to hip to knee. Use an easier exercise variation if necessary so the athlete can develop good technique before moving to higher strain variations.
Warning: Potentially High Muscular Soreness!
The NHC can cause high muscular soreness at first. Eccentric muscle actions typically cause greater soreness than concentric actions, and knee flexion is an undertrained element for most rowers. The hamstrings are also a sensitive muscle group, and significant soreness in this area can really affect movement and comfort when training. I typically introduce the NHC in the off-season or early pre-season strength training for rowers, not the late pre-season or in-season when prolonged muscular soreness can derail rowing training.
Read More: Muscle Soreness and Rowing
For the first two or three weeks of NHC training, I just have athletes do the full NHC at a low intensity, without the five-second eccentric. For example, 5 sets of 5 reps with a 2-second lowering phase. The goal of these training sessions is to just move through the NHC range-of-motion (ROM). This serves as an introduction to the technique for the athlete and an introduction to the new stimulus for the hamstrings muscles.
Nordic Hamstring Curl Variations
After the introduction phase, we progress to an appropriately challenging variation for the individual athlete. Stronger athletes who learned the exercise quickly in the introduction phase might go directly to the full NHC with the five-second eccentric phase. Weaker athletes or those still requiring more practice can use an easier variation.
- Reduced eccentric time: Hold the lowering phase for 2-3 seconds. This increases tension and challenge, but not as much as the full 4-5-second lowering version.
- Reduced eccentric ROM: Reduce ROM to just what the athlete can control on the eccentric phase by setting a box or bench in front of the athlete. The athlete performs the normal NHC, but over a shortened ROM.
- Short-range NHC: Reduce ROM to just what the athlete can control on both the eccentric AND concentric phases. This feels much harder than it looks, because the athlete must reverse their momentum without assistance between the eccentric and concentric phases, but it is still simpler for the athlete due to the decreased ROM.
- Band-assisted: Use a resistance band attached above the athlete to decrease tension toward the bottom of the exercise. The athlete may be able to use the band tension alone as assistance for the concentric phase, or they can use the pushup plus the band assistance for the concentric phase.
Stronger, more experienced athletes can use any of those variations as well for variety in training. I like performing one training session with the “full version” 4-5-second eccentric and assisted concentric, and then another session using a variation like the short-range NHC or band-assisted NHC to also train the concentric action. We can use the same sets and reps with variations as the normal NHC, or we can use fewer sets and higher reps with some variations.
If the athlete has a glute-ham raise (GHR) machine available, we might just progress from the NHC to the GHR. The GHR is more challenging than the standard NHC because it trains both the lowering and lifting phases, with a challenging point of reversal between them. I most often begin athletes with the NHC to teach hamstring tension, build up the hamstring muscles, and get through the initial phase of high soreness, and then proceed to GHR variations. I have a 5-week introduction phase of NHC training followed by a gradual progression of band-assisted GHR, semi-assisted GHR (some with band, some without), and then unassisted GHR.
- Week 1: 3 sets of 3 reps with a 2-second lowering phase
- Week 2: 3 x 3 with a 3-second lowering phase
- Week 3: 3 x 3 with a 4-second lowering phase
- Week 4: 3 x 4 or 4 x 3 with a 4-second lowering phase
- Week 5: 4 x 4 with a 4-second lowering phase
- Week 6: Deload (no NHC or just 3 x 3 with 2-second lowering)
- Week 7 and Beyond: 2-4 x 6-10 reps with band-assisted, semi-assisted, and then unassisted GHR.
The GHR is still an uncommon piece of equipment, so many athletes will only train the NHC. The NHC is valuable on its own and we can use it in a variety of ways through the off-season, pre-season, and in-season training phases.
Nordic Hamstring Curl Programming
The NHC is an assistance exercise, so we don’t need an elaborate periodization strategy or advanced programming methods. Rowers tend to get better at the NHC with practice, and then are able to get more out of the exercise without additional loading. I typically use 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps on the NHC, once or twice per week depending on the individual athlete and training program. We may go on the higher volume side (ie. 5 x 5) in the off-season, and then on the lower volume side (ie. 3-4 x 3-4) in the pre-season and in-season. The NHC offers lots of flexibility in programming. We can modify the volume with sets and reps, the intensity with tension (prolonged eccentric phase and assisted concentric phase), and the challenge of the exercise with variations.
Here’s an example of NHC programming through three seasons of rowing training. We might get more complex than this depending on the individual athlete and the program, but at its most basic, the strategy is a little more in the off-season and a little less during race prep.
- Off-season training:
- Session A: 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps on the tension progression (2, 3, then 4-5-second lowering phases)
- Session B: 3×10-12 on the short-range NHC
- Pre-season training:
- Session A: 4×4 with 4-second or 5-second lowering
- Session B: 4×6-8 on the short-range NHC
- In-season training:
- Non-race week: 4×4 with 4-second or 5-second lowering
- Minor race week: 3×3 with 4-second lowering at least 4 days before racing
- Major race week: Omit, or easy 3×3 with 2-second lowering at least 5 days before racing
Rowers with access to a full weight-room and year-round strength and conditioning training should absolutely use other posterior chain exercises in addition to the NHC. The NHC focuses on knee flexion around a static hip, but the hamstrings also work to extend the hip and should be trained to work with the glute muscles of the posterior chain. The glute-ham raise requires a specialized piece of equipment, but is also a great exercise for rowers that trains the eccentric and concentric phases with more dynamic movement than the NHC. Kettlebell swings, Romanian deadlifts, hip thrusts, hamstring slider curls, and more all offer additional beneficial ways to train the posterior chain muscles in different ways. If you’re a rower or coach working with minimal equipment or only seasonal strength training opportunities, the NHC and its variations offer a practical way to incorporate hamstring-focused posterior chain strength training.
Last updated August, 2023.