Because hamstrings are at-risk muscles for speed athletes, the Nordic hamstring exercise (NHE) has received a lot of attention. Most of the better research studies I’ve read support using the NHE but failed to explore other options. And while I use NHEs in my programming, I find it limiting to use one exercise to cover the all the bases. I support integrating the NHE in a program as long as you do it correctly—not “releasing it into the wild” and crossing your fingers.
Many hamstring exercises show great promise, and while nothing in training serves as a panacea, it’s worth noting well-structured programs that address all options. You can read my earlier comprehensive post on the NHE, where I also listed other worthwhile exercises.
If you’re serious about creating a prepared, robust athlete, especially regarding their hamstring muscle group, this article offers great alternatives worth exploring.
The Synergy of How Hamstring Exercises Work Together
Most studies on exercise interventions involve simple experiments with limited variables, especially limited amounts of exercise. I’ve been a research subject, helped collect data for studies, and helped edit peer review studies, so I’m fully aware of how evidence is gathered. The NHE has a lot of support for good reason—the research is strong.
It turns out, though, that changes in fascicle length are not as clear cut as we thought, and NordBord hamstring test scores show impressive results without the exercise. If an NFL linebacker scores off the charts when testing hamstring movement but doesn’t use the NHE to get there, what does that show for the value of specific and nonspecific training? I find isolated exercises like the NHE are functional because of the adaptations they evoke, not because they resemble playing a sport or mimicking a motion that looks athletic.
All of the exercises I list here are not meant to replace the NHE—they are complements and alternatives to solving the hamstring injury problem. As for team injury rates, why not learn from programs that historically have better than average odds even though they don’t use an intervention? One exercise alone is not a unicorn when several evidence-based programs have athletes who continue to get hurt.
It’s worth using all of these exercises in isolation. They’re also very effective when sequenced or placed in a holistic program. I wouldn’t use all of them at once, obviously. And it’s important to note that we don’t know yet how to progress and align these exercises over time.
A few of these exercises require special equipment, some you can do at a local gym, and others you can do only with a partner. You can monitor most of the exercises in real time with electromyography (EMG), and all of the exercises will show up in force analysis with load cells.
These exercises are a good fit for most coaches. If they’re new to you, I suggest experimenting with yourself or an athlete who can take time off the field or court. Learning to load and teach a new exercise does have added complications, so be patient and progress wisely.
Staggered Romanian Deadlifts
I first saw staggered Romanian deadlifts (RDL) in the late 1990s. And then they disappeared for twenty years until William Wayland started promoting them. While I was originally skeptical, if Coach Wayland was getting results, I became confident that they are safe and effective.
I love overload without distraction, and low repetition staggered RDLs offer this by eliminating the teeter-tottering found with single-leg exercises. Although I like single-leg training, it’s not a perfect solution to loading human beings because balance is an issue. Also, I haven’t seen great results with single-leg RDL variations unless they’re done with a cable or modified stance.Staggered RDLs give great feedback and are easy for athletes to learn after mastering the symmetrical RDL, says @spikesonly. #HamstringDevelopment Click To Tweet
My core reasons for including the staggered RDL in this list are athlete feedback and the rapid acquisition of the technique after athletes master the symmetrical RDL. When you can polish an RDL with a barbell, usually approaching 1.5 X bodyweight, staggering the stance makes sense. It’s also possible to stagger earlier in development, but I add it later in my program. My earlier article on RDLs argued that the exercise could help improve a program and teach useful skills like hinging patterns. I’ve also promoted flywheel methods of eccentric overload with speed before they became mainstream, as I saw the exercise in 2003.
Now comes the defense: I am fully aware of Lee’s recent study on the RDL and have corresponded with him. The data he captured for the population he studied likely is correct. But after years of working with athletes, I have to ask why newbies struggle to feel it while gym rats swear by it? I don’t have the answer, but I do believe that we can’t use EMG as the sole judge of an exercise. And although the RDL isn’t a perfect replacement or solution to hamstring health, it certainly has kept us out of the sports medicine room.
Video 1. The staggered deadlift is not magical, but it is one of the exercises that adds value to a complete program. Do not include staggered deadlifts unless your athlete can do a conventional deadlift very well, as the jump can cause problems.
In the Lee study, I found it especially interesting that he used motion capture and EMG to see how activity changes during motion. What wasn’t clear was the actual load, and we know that the mechanics of an exercise change based on very small kinematics and torque.
In no way am I concluding the readings are wrong. I’ve just seen much higher readings from experienced lifters. I also witnessed a few pilot studies where athletes used a nearly identical technique, and the more experienced lifter increased activity by a whopping 20-30% without visible change. I find athletes can learn to move and recruit muscle groups better as they become more skilled. And these changes may not show up with motion capture or the naked eye.
Modified Askling Cable Gliders
Carl Askling is one of the foremost experts in hamstring rehabilitation, and his glider exercise is awesome. There are four ways to do it. The best might be with a modified stance and eccentric cable resistance—specifically biokinetic options like the 1080 Motion Quantum. I’ll talk about the suspension curl later, which is much different technically.
With gliders, you can glide with a curling action at the knee or use a straight leg and descend with a partner or use a self-supporting approach. The main goal is to stress the stretch of the tissue carefully. It’s important to know how to apply subtle changes to the movement so it’s comfortable behind the knee and doesn’t tug too much on the tendons.
Some soreness to the connective tissue will always occur with heavy eccentrics or mechanical overload. But you want to minimize it to create only the essential stress with the ideal balance of tension. Coaches should keep in mind why athletes avoid exercises and try not to create the same baggage with Askling gliders and its derivatives. This issue relates more to an athlete’s individual experience and anatomy.
Video 2. The 1080 Motion provides feedback in real time and adds data that compares right and left symmetry, which will benefit many programs. Note the use of eccentric overload, something you can’t get with conventional cables.
Of all the exercises, this option may have the most relevance to sports medicine and return to play, mainly because it’s quantified and offers isokinetic and other options to the contraction. You can add eccentric overload and also manipulate the concentric resistance to near minimal.
Using a straight leg and a support option, athletes can do solo routines or use a partner to increase the exercise’s demand, or vary it so it’s a fresh stimulus. I’ve seen coaches use TRX and other suspension tools, though I prefer simple handles.
Force plates and EMG provide some quantification for biofeedback and record keeping. I prefer force over muscle activity, so I like using a load cell or force plate. It’s not ideal to skip getting a reference with mechanical strain.
Overload Hamstring Curls
Coaches can do hamstring curls and not worry, even though the exercise is not functional. In a tragic twist of ironic fate, those who have tossed out hamstring curls now promote Nordics like they’re completely separate exercises. True, one is a bodyweight exercise and one is not, but both movements flex the knee.Those who tossed out hamstring curls now promote Nordics like they're completely separate exercises, says @spikesonly. #HamstringDevelopment Click To Tweet
Two options exist—the conventional “two up one down” exercise proposed by Bob Alejo years ago and flywheel-based hamstring curls. Lifting the hamstring load with two legs, then lowering with one doesn’t require special calculations. A coach just needs to know the athlete’s repetition maximum for the exercise. Remember, if you’re doing multiple reps, you need to create a small overload with one leg and avoid shocking the muscle group.
If you’re doing flywheel training, the athlete should have a skilled partner or an experienced coach who can help assist the concentric flywheel tension. Eccentric overload can be produced by flywheel speed and momentum for several weeks or during a phase before adding a major resistance overload. Each athlete’s preparation and eccentric strength will determine the details of the progression.
Video 3. You can use an array of equipment to perform hamstring curls, and some machines offer ways to add isoinertial load or mechanized resistance. Old school hamstring curls are not dated, but they were unappreciated and tossed out prematurely.
I’m not a fan of using flywheel squat machines to create a hamstring device, but I am comfortable with pulley cubes or other systems. I’ve seen ankle cuffs attached to athletes with cable-based options, but I question the application. The traditional hamstring curl uses both legs at once to create the concentric overload before lowering with one leg. When you use unilateral machines or set-ups, you lose the main driver of the adaptation.
Are assisted overloaded hamstring curls just as good as the NHE? I find they are, but you need to test strength after the program. You want to see the same torque scores and fascial changes, which a comprehensive program usually does.
Suspension Sling Hamstring Curls
I recommend using a cable or suspension trainer for early-stage rehabilitation; I don’t use this exercise for general athletic development. While many exercise options are universal for both training and therapy, this is one of the few I leave exclusively for return to play.
Video 4. Adding a sling instead of a slide board increases the demand on the athlete, but it’s worth it in the long run. Make sure the athlete has experience performing the exercise, as the suspension can add unwanted movement and speed during rehabilitation.
An athlete who can add rotation or a spiral element will enhance each rep greatly. Adding a bridge won’t make a huge difference in coordination, but the exercise is better when the hips are up. If an athlete has a tear, I generally have them do this exercise for a few weeks as an early-stage scaffold to other patterns.
Athletes who use this as a strength tool stagnate after a month since progressive overload isn’t an option when they hit single-leg ability. So, while the exercise is important to many therapists, we shouldn’t view it as a replacement for other exercises that can increase torque over time. Don’t see this as a limitation. It just means you have to use it judiciously.
I don’t like supine and open-chain hamstring exercises. And while some coaches like using the Swiss ball for curling, I don’t because the ball doesn’t glide as well as I want, and it’s a bit awkward. A slide board is ok, but a suspension trainer offers more bang for the buck. I have seen some hamstring crunches, like an inversion style Nordic with the Redcord system. But these may be good only for advanced athletes who crave novelty.
Wearable Resisted Sprinting
Ultra-lite wearable loads are great for fall training for sprinters and off-season for athletes in team sports. I had overwhelming feedback after a few sessions with EXOGEN’s wearable resistance; running just a few sprints with the shin-attached loads was very effective.
We’ve certainly bought into the theory that wearing an added weight placed on the lower limb during the sprinting motion can radically improve the eccentric overload. I don’t know if the activity increased locally, but the amount of reported soreness was high enough to convince me that it did.
Video 5. Warming up with the EXOGEN system is a good bridge before high velocity sprinting. Athletes with a good eccentric strength background can progress into velocity later, as sequencing this way is more conservative.
Another option is wearing a lightweight vest to manipulate vertical forces. I’m not saying the results are dramatic, but I’ve heard athletes report the same hamstring soreness. While it’s likely the lower hip height contributes, I do believe a change in mechanical overload challenges the neuromuscular contraction—it’s not the joint angles increasing demands on the muscle.
To give due credit, I took this from Joel Smith and modified it by adding a vertical load rather than having athletes sit low. I could be wrong about the active mechanism as each athlete is different, so you’ll need to look at film. But don’t be too dismissive, as the change in technique is very small—say a few degrees.A few bouts of sprinting with wearable resistance can help break through a speed barrier, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Soreness often comes from a poorly coordinated contraction. In this case, though, a change is a way to create a small but noticeable alarm to the body. A few bouts of sprinting could be a way to break through a speed barrier if you don’t have access to speeding. Most of the time, I recommend unloaded sprinting when possible, but I find this option similar to super light resistance options that are worth incorporating into a program.
The most vanilla of exercises is the simple hyper, which I’ve recommended before. I love using them because they’re supported by research, easy to do, and athletes like them. Also, back strength is a great addition to a program when done correctly.
Hypers are one of the old exercises that comes and goes, but it’s worth including nearly year-round. It’s a great exercise because it’s never incompatible during a competitive season when you use it as an assistance exercise with moderate loads. While you can use a medicine ball or sandbag, I’ve seen snatch grip barbell options do wonders for athletes who need more overload.
Since it’s a pure hinge exercise, you may need to teach it with care. Sometimes it just takes a few sets to get an athlete ready to go. Ballistic options, meaning rapid extension speeds, are possible when an athlete has very good kinesthetic awareness, though the movement can get some athletes into trouble. I like using a pulse action of throwing and catching at end range, but this progression should be left only to athletes who are fully saturated from polishing the basics to death. You can use accommodating resistance and other techniques; for me, a good sandbag is enough.
Video 6. If athletes are not experienced with hinge activities (such as single leg options here), make sure they slow down the movement and use a range that they can control. Adding load to the exercise comes after range of motion is mastered.
A few coaches have asked me if I see a specific force-velocity relationship with medicine ball granny tosses and back hyperextensions. The truth is, it’s weak, but it’s fairly obvious. If you have sufficient back strength, your medicine ball speed and power likely will be better than those who ignore the pattern. I’ve seen some coaches who have gone to trap bar jump squats only instead of an unfolding movement. Coaches may want to rethink what core training is and not view paraspinals as taboo.
Eccentric Hip Extensions
Recently, some coaches have started bashing cable hip extensions like they’re only for wimps and the fitness crowd. My response is rather bold: if you can max out the stack, let me show how to add more weight. Usually, those who program using a straight leg will retort that the motion is so strict, it’s tough to overload. Also, athletes who aren’t comfortable with the motion or who are not strong find it annoying, so I favor a bent knee and a donkey kick rather than a swinging motion.
Achieving an eccentric overload is a key element with this exercise and requires more art than science. While there are multiple options, I prefer using a reverse leg press, flywheel, or simple weight plate during the descent.
Video 7. Those who don’t have a reverse leg press can use blood flow restriction (BFR) and light eccentric overload to challenge the hamstrings. Due to the limitations of the cable systems often used, higher repetitions are necessary if you can’t do eccentric work.
Unless you’re using a reverse leg press, you need to treat the eccentric hip extension as an accessory exercise. Don’t worry. The exercise works great for athletes who want to challenge the hamstrings while avoiding too much isolation. Yes, isolation exercises are part of the equation. But including exercises that connect other movements work great when athletes hit ceilings and need more neuromuscular challenges without mechanical overload.
I’ve seen athletes improve performance without adding more power or skill work by increasing their neural capacity with new challenges. Specific training works, but sometimes you need to improve a body system rather than refine a movement.
Video 8. This timeless hamstring device is mostly unknown in the United States but is popular in Europe with some progressive coaches. Pictured here is the Powersprint paired with Ergotest, which make an amazing combination.
Coaches looking for general conditioning training—not eccentric work—will see a lot of benefit from using Jan Melen’s invention, the Powersprint. I’ve promoted the Powersprint—a sport-specific isolated exercise—for ten years. Hakan Andersson, one of the best minds in sprinting, introduced me to both the machine and the work in January 2008.
True, sprinting is the ultimate for specificity, and mechanical tension with isolation exercises has more impact on eccentric changes, but coordination and neuromuscular changes should be valued nearly as much as fascicle changes.
Try Something Different
I don’t recommend tossing any of these exercises into a program without careful thought about what to remove or change. Adding is easy, but taking away may be infinitely harder for most coaches. If you want to add an exercise, try replacing the movement selectively and be sure to adjust other areas of the program.
The NHE has both pros and cons. The adoption rate is low because of the discomfort experienced by athletes early on with its use, even if the potential for solving injury is high. If you use Nordics, it’s fine to experiment with a combined approach as long as you’re careful about volume, as the combination of multiple exercises can cause problems. In parting, exercises do matter, so be patient with change and only make alterations you think are worth it.
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