Lifestyle

Want Bigger, More Powerful Legs? Consider the Nordic Bench

No one enjoys Nordic curls, which is how you know they work.
By Will Price
May 22, 2023

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When it comes to leg day, for most guys, the quads get all the love. And while big squats and driving leg presses are their own sort of egotistic currency, the hamstrings are the unsung heroes of the lower body. They do all the knee bending, hip flexing, and gait control while walking or running. They’re also criminally under-trained by most men. Hence why you and everyone else you know should incorporate the humble, effective, and extremely challenging Nordic curl—performed on a Nordic bench—into your workout routine. Here’s why.

BUILD YOUR BODY

What Is a Nordic Bench?

A Nordic bench is the tool that allows you to perform a Nordic curl, which is a bodyweight exercise that targets your hamstrings (and your glutes, to a lesser extent).

Nordic benches come in many shapes and sizes, but they all must feature foot hooks to securely anchor your ankles. Once your feet are secured in the hooks and you’re effectively kneeling upright, the exercise is performed by simply falling forward in a controlled manner, using your hamstrings to stall your descent. It’s basically a trust fall, but instead of trusting your friends, you’re trusting your hammies.

What Muscles Does a Nordic Bench Work?

Nordic benches are used for targeted hamstring isolations, mostly, but they also hit your glutes and erectors to different extents.

Hamstrings

The biggest and most targeted muscle grouping is the hamstring. Your hamstrings are massively important to all movement, but especially to stability and explosive movements (like running). Nordic benches put the pressure of your body weight on your hamstrings and force you to control the eccentric motion as gravity forces your upper body toward the floor. There aren’t many hamstring exercises that place such an emphasis on loading the eccentric of a movement, which is another reason the Nordic bench and associated curl are unique. It should also be noted that the hamstrings connect to the pelvic and lower back area as well, so by strengthening them you can potentially alleviate lower back pain or discomfort.

Glutes

This is a hamstring-heavy workout, but your glutes fire at the top of the workout as well. When you begin your descent, your glutes will be what is initially holding you upright before handing off that duty to your hamstrings when you hit a 60-degree angle or so. So, your glutes will be handling the weight of your body for that 30-degree period at the very start and at the very end, if your hamstrings are strong enough to lower your body and hoist it back up.

Erectors

Erectors are a tertiary muscled worked in this movement. The erectors run up either side of your spinal column and are in charge of straightening and rotating your back. You can see how they’d be strained by a workout in which you are lowering your body to the ground with only your hamstrings as support. The back has to be tight for a controlled fall, so the erectors will put in some work during a Nordic curl.

GEAR UP

Nordic NordStick Pro

Best budget optionThe Nordic curl came before the Nordic bench, because, in its infancy, the Nordic curl was performed by two people. One person holds the curler’s ankles to the floor, and the other does the curl. This means you can do a Nordic curl anywhere you have a friend who’s willing to hold your feet. The NordStick is the next best thing. At $35 (and often on sale for cheaper), it’s affordable, fits in a duffel bag, and makes virtually any doorframe a Nordic bench. Simply slide the back half of the foot anchor under a door, close the door, and place the anchor between your feet like you normally would.

The Tib Bar Guy Nordic Weight Bench

Best for beginnersThe benefit of getting a full-sized Nordic bench is pretty obvious: you can use it for a lot more stuff than just Nordic curls, which should only be one part of a training regimen. The Tib Bar Guy’s version supports up to 700 pounds and comes assembled and ready to curl. More importantly, though, it also allows you to work your way up to a proper Nordic curl. Here’s what nobody wants to tell you about the exercise: it’s really difficult to perform. Unless your hamstrings, knees, and back are already in incredible condition, I highly doubt you’ll be able to perform a single full-range rep on the first try. It’s a workout that requires a build-up phase. This is why Tib Bar Guy’s bench is perfect—you can adjust the angle of the bench itself to be closer to you, thereby shortening the range of motion of the exercise. Basically, it comes with training wheels which almost everyone will need.

Freak Athlete Nordic Mini

Best for knee comfortIf you’re hard as nails and want to get right to bulletproofing your hammies, this option from Freak Athlete is sturdy, compact, and comfortable to use. The last point there is critical because, during a Nordic curl, your knees are carrying the fully load of your body. If they’re not pressing against something soft or at least a little forgiving, you will feel pain unrelated to the muscles worked in the exercise.

MUSCLE BUILDING 101

Benefits of Using a Nordic Bench

Dramatically reduce hamstring injury risk

If you’ve ever played sports (or play too much fantasy football) you know the devastation a hamstring injury can cause. What feels like relatively mild pain sticks around far longer than it has any right to. Because of this, researchers have spent a lot of time identifying ways to mitigate hamstring injury risk. Nordic curls are at the very top.

One study found including Nordic hamstring curls in an athlete’s routine reduced hamstring injury risk by more than half (1). Another, this time studying soccer players (2), found it “significantly reduced” the frequency of hamstring injuries (though it wasn’t found to reduce the severity of hamstring injuries that did occur).

Increase explosiveness

The reason so many athletes use Nordic benches and Nordic curls is two-pronged. Injury prevention is probably the top reason, but increased speed and jumping ability is a close second. Another soccer player-focused study found (3) that 5m and 10m sprint split times were notably improved, while another study (4) focused on football players identified “small to medium” improvements in sprint performance. If you’re looking to pick up the pace, get a Nordic bench.

Build muscle

The base function of a Nordic bench is to facilitate Nordic curls, which absolutely stimulates hypertrophy. As you progress from assisted, semi-assisted, and eventually to full-range-of-motion Nordic curls, your hamstrings will become stronger and thicker.

References