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.
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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.
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.
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 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.
The Best Nordic curls for more powerful hamstrings
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).
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.
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.
1. van Dyke, Nicol et al (2019). Including the Nordic hamstring exercise in injury prevention programmes halves the rate of hamstring injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 8459 athletes. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30808663/
2. van der Horst, Nick et al (2015). The preventive effect of the nordic hamstring exercise on hamstring injuries in amateur soccer players: a randomized controlled trial.
3. Kromes, K. et al (2017). Sprint and jump performance in elite male soccer players following a 10-week Nordic Hamstring exercise Protocol: a randomised pilot study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5716363/
4. Ishoi, L. et al (2017). Effects of the Nordic Hamstring exercise on sprint capacity in male football players: a randomized controlled trial.