When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
By Carl Valle
The Nordic hamstring curl is one of the most popular exercises with soccer players and other athletes for a good reason, it does the job. A challenge is how to program and progress the movement so athletes adopt it more often. On the record, I support the use of Nordics because there is overwhelming evidence that it’s a great hamstring intervention. I also know we can do better.
In this article, I go into detail about how small but key modifications to the exercise are definitely worth the time investment and how to plan these into a training program. I also explain why newer glute ham raise (GHR) machines are better than ever, and how to decide what is best for your team or facility.
Why I Respect but Do Not Love the Nordic Hamstring Exercise
Most coaches, including myself, treated the traditional Nordic exercise like a machine-free reverse hamstring curl. Instead of curling or flexing at the knee with the foot moving back to the buttocks, athletes curl their body backward from the knee up (after lowering themselves forward from a kneeling position).
Strangely, this exercise is considered new, or from the Nordic region, but the history is cloudy about its true origins. Anyone, including a country, claiming they invented an exercise is likely the one that promoted it or popularized it, but is not the first to use it.
Nordics have been used in many countries in various forms for decades, and countless creative ways to use them have evolved. Some coaches have progressed athletes by using a hill of various inclinations which modulate the range of motion. This is a sane way to progress athletes. Other coaches and athletes have created their own GHR machine with traditional gym accessories. But the partner-assisted Nordic hamstring curl exercise is a staple of many teams.
The point is that hamstring injuries are still prevalent and arguably growing in some sports leagues, even though the exercise has been available for years. One exercise, or even a full arsenal of exercises, will never completely solve injury problems. And failing to apply the correct exercises at the right time shows poor reasoning. Everyone should remember that “strength and length” changes saturate during the first year. Hamstring injuries will continue if hamstring exercises are not coordinated with a good sprinting program.
Two distinct nerves innervate the primary three hamstring muscles, and I believe the faster the athlete, the more valuable this information is. Conversely, a training program that doesn’t identify the value of targeted training for this high-risk muscle group is missing an obvious intervention that does work for many teams and coaches.
Even the Experts are Missing when Applying the Nordic Exercise
Several podcasts and articles have rekindled interest in the Nordic hamstring exercise. Most of the interest now is driven by Dr. Opar’s and Dr. Shield’s research on hamstrings. The NordBord, a tool that measures both right and left differences in hamstring strength, is one of the few ideas that actually makes sense. People are surprised that I like the concept because many think it’s oversimplified or not specific.
To improve athlete resilience, the most logical approach is to address the eccentric strength and tissue length of this injury-prone muscle group. Because hamstrings are a big problem, the free market has created a big business providing equipment and education.
Bias and compartmentalized thinking have created a gap, however, that has hurt hamstring training programs. Some great research on dose-response to the exercise has been performed over the past few years, but I like to see years of demonstration, not just a few months.Four straightforward problems exist with Nordic hamstring exercises that are unique and universal. Click To Tweet
Four straightforward problems exist with Nordics that are unique and universal. None of these challenges are impossible or overly demanding to overcome, and they’re worth discussion. They are why we see athletes posting videos of bicep curls, not bicep femoris exercises, on Instagram.
Here are reasons why it’s not easy to convince athletes to commit to this intervention:
- Starting Points and Heterogeneous Development: Advanced levels of sport still inherit athletes with poor training. Talented athletes, ironically, seem to have the most baggage with injuries and preparation because nobody wanted to be the bad guy and help the athlete achieve long-term success. Also, performance coaches in charge of the weight room must deal with a wide range of athletes with different abilities and backgrounds, all at the same time.
- Progressive Overload: The Nordic hamstring exercise has very little detailed and refined progression expertise. Most programming information covers technique instruction instead of examination about how it fits into the big picture of program design. Overloading a bodyweight exercise is usually reduced to range of motion, manual unloading by a coach, or attaching a band for assistance.
- Discomfort and Engagement: Let’s be honest, love of hamstring exercises, specifically the Nordic exercise, comes with complaints of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) or reported irritation to the insertion areas in the lower limb. While Dr. Opar may talk about the Quadrant of Doom concerning hamstring strength and length, a wise coach understands that one issue is simply the location of the hamstring muscle. The Quadrant of Doom is the posterior side of the lower body. The mirror muscles, those that many athletes enjoy training, are north of the beltline on the front of the body.
- Congested Player Schedules: When looking at studies, always consider whether modern player calendars allow for inseason training and preseason development with an intervention under consideration, no matter how great the intervention is. A prime example is the English Premier League. The league’s upper echelon teams compete concurrently in the Champion’s League. Two games played in six days is far different than one game a week.
The Glute Ham Raise is Part of the Solution
Companies realize that partner-assisted Nordic hamstring curls are growing in popularity again, and in response, we see a smaller entry point option to GHR in the market. Solutions ranging from on-the-field stakes to the Sorinex and Rogue equipment lines are, in my opinion, the perfect compromise for the demands of a traditional GHR without the baggage of Nordics. A GHR apparatus also lets a partner or small group help with conventional manual assistance. And the mobile design can help with solo training and measuring progress.
Here are the differences between a standard GHR and the emerging hybrid options:
- Lower Profile Design: An obvious difference with the new “lean” GHR designs is that they are close to the ground or inches off it. Many athletes simply fear falling on their face, even when doing traditional Nordics. Also, the gap near the shins where the pad and foot holdings are set evokes a little fear to new users. Eliminating this element is a big benefit.
- Minimal Foot Adjustments: I’m a big fan of teaching and keeping athletes accountable for self-reliance, but because athletes travel and have to train occasionally on their own, a simple machine can be more practical than a customizable one.
- Mobility and Smaller Size: Some GHR machines are monstrosities and require a major investment to outfit a team or training facility. Newer options are portable and much smaller, allowing more space for movement training and other equipment.
I’m not promoting the purchase of GHR machines and accessories; we must weigh the characteristic of all interventions against sensible criteria. Equipment, be it medicine balls, weight room flooring, or barbells are typical investment decisions all coaches have to face. I’m all for principles and coaching education, but tools in the strength and conditioning field matter.
When introducing or re-introducing the movement, using the right equipment simply improves the transition better than partnered options. As mentioned earlier, manual options exist, but if one wants to maximize the efficacy of the exercise, doing it with the right equipment creates a clear advantage.A composite of exercises in and out of the weight room can create very robust hamstrings. Click To Tweet
A fair question is whether a GHR done with a straight back is really just a machine-based Nordic? Technically yes. The difference is you don’t need to do Nordics to be good at Nordics when the composite of exercises in and out of the weight room can create very robust hamstrings.
How to Measure Knee Dominant Hamstring Exercises
The qualities of the knee’s simple hinge joint make it easier to estimate torque, but coaches must be aware of a few considerations before they start making assumptions. Strain at the knee travels up the belly of the muscle. Some theories suggest, however, that the upper fibers near the muscle’s origin should be trained specifically, usually with hip extension movements.
While a systemic strain from the muscle’s distal location will likely raise the entire strength capability of the muscle, the current coaches’ theory on proper development calls for engaging the glutes with hamstring involvement. Some very good points were made years ago at T-nation regarding scientific theory and training practice, but the neurological side of the equation is still up for grabs.
To simply summarize Nordic style GHR loading, the lower the athlete can reach while maintaining control, the more stress they place on the hamstring muscle.
The Nordic and GHR exercise families are strength movements, not explosive motions or ballistic actions. For the most part, it’s not appropriate to use velocity-based training (VBT) tools to test the movements. However, a GymAware device is a good measuring alternative to the NordBord because enough repeatability exists. One warning—the unilateral option or single leg version of the Nordic Exercise and straight torso GHR are very demanding, and I don’t recommend testing them.
Asymmetry is perhaps the strongest rationale for using the NordBord; most coaches can film a slow eccentric and see where the breakpoint (loss of tension) occurs. The problem with visual analog options is that they produce indirect estimates or measures, so one has to tighten up the protocol during the test. What is measured is indeed managed, but what is measured also can be gamed by athletes.
For example, without the right instrumentation, a squat jump that requires no countermovement may lead to a score that can be protested as inflated by the athlete. To prevent cheating and to create a valid measure, an athlete must concentrically return to the starting point of an exercise. I don’t bother testing athletes who are new to the exercises or who are getting back into training because maximal effort without skill and weeks of exposure is a doomed plan.
Some criticize using a linear position transducer (LPT) because the horizontal correction sensor isn’t sensitive enough for a perfect score. But the reality is that scoring is more like a grading system than a measurement of work performed. We can do criteria-based testing in 10% increments with confidence since most coaches are looking for detail slightly more than pass or fail. Even a measure from 1 to 5 is helpful, but the percentage of 90 degrees from starting point is valuable and easy to do.
Personalizing and Modeling Hamstring Development with Athletes
It’s not very hard to plan workouts for one athlete, but designing them for larger groups is harder for several reasons. Athletes have different training histories and levels of preparation. Training in season is trickier when athletes are pushed to compete with nagging injuries and when playing time ranges from overtime to sitting on the bench, even during practices or scrimmages. A reasonable approach to hamstring development is to hit simple benchmarks and distribute the loading.
Acute and chronic load models, screening systems, and even medical imaging of the hamstring with sonography are pieces to the cliché puzzle. Extending the puzzle analogy further, many coaches don’t know what the end image looks like, and they struggle with understanding where the pieces go and whether they fit together. It’s easy to coach an exercise with decent proficiency in isolation; it’s more difficult to decide which sequence and progression make sense when athletes are tired and sore from training and competing.The key to hamstring training is to time the dose and know how to ramp up overload. Click To Tweet
Exotic periodization is unnecessary with hamstring training; the key is to time the dose and to know how to ramp up overload. Overloading too quickly at the wrong time causes the solution or intervention to become the poison. If the coach prescribes the training too slowly, even if it’s timed perfectly, the gap won’t close fast enough, and the intervention won’t hold.
Although not perfect, linear models work when there are no other resources left. The key to aggressive programming is to understand the athletes’ current readiness and their respective responses to training while adhering to practice or competition schedules. Most strength training models fail because either the team coach isn’t committed to the plan or the strength coach is too stubborn or lazy to adjust their program.
Although circumstances do occasionally change and unexpected variables pop up, the story usually is the same. Athletes need alternating periods of work and rest. This starts with rest time following a set during strength training and continues to time off after the season.
The fractal-like spiral of loading and resting isn’t complicated. It tends to be a turf war where sport science proponents must fight the desire of coaches and athletes for rehearsal. Sometimes lack of loading occurs when everyone is scared of fatigue, and athletes rest to the point where they die on the sidelines and not in battle.
I don’t think outlines of sets and reps are the right way to improve adaptation, but I do like the idea of example loading programs which improve baseline values and maintain passing strength levels. Very small volumes, such as two sets of 2 to 3 reps help bridge athletes to mechanical changes that elicit eccentric strength and morphological changes to the fascicle length, according to the literature.
My problem with this approach is that many athletes can do one rep correctly, but when they’re more motivated than prepared, poor technique rears its ugly head. Band-assisted repetitions can unload the body and allow full range of motion at incremental stages. Bands, in general, provide better manual assistance because elastic support works from day one, and practice takes time. Think about the levels of elastic when performing band-assisted pull-ups. While isometric and eccentrics work, it’s more conservative to do a repetition with all phases of the contraction.Band-assisted repetitions can unload the body and allow full range of motion at incremental stages. Click To Tweet
The coach’s goal is not to blaze the path by necessarily making things easier for athletes. Smoothing the terrain, however, is valuable today. Linear models are often fine for neophytes, and just adding reps, sets, or distance isn’t the only option. Look for ways to progressively overload more smoothly by manipulating variables beyond the exercise, such as the practice itself (rare) and other units in the training program (more likely).
Integrating the GHR Hybrid with Other Exercises
Finally, we need to think about other exercises. I look at similarities and differences to see how one can skip the line without taking shortcuts. Many experienced coaches use the term blending to describe how they move from one phase to another, or how they transition to different exercises without missing a beat. The jump from not doing general leg work to intense isolation exercises is obviously a big leap, but coaches must drive overload with even more precision.Exercises with less hamstring involvement are paradoxically the solution to hamstring training. Click To Tweet
Exercises with less hamstring involvement are paradoxically the solution to hamstring training. While recruitment of the hamstring group is submaximal with many typical exercises, the information gleaned from the response is very useful. The less prepared the hamstrings are, the more they are overpowered and respond poorly.
Instead of ramping up specific hamstring exercises with loading, ramp up the recruitment of the muscle group with incremental exercise changes, if possible. This is very difficult when sports schedules turn weight training into once a week endeavors, but it is possible with college programs. Examples of ramping up exercises are back hypers, split squats, and Romanian deadlifts.
The Razor Curl deserves special attention. While it’s similar to the GHR and Nordic, it alters the recruitment of the gluteals and places a slightly different stress on the hamstrings. Perhaps down the road, the Razor Curl will prove to be the utopian exercise and merit its own article. But for now, its many moving parts complicates its use as an intervention in sport. The exercise is becoming more popular, but there’s no specific research available about muscle architecture.
In addition to the lack of research, the fact that it’s not a common exercise means not many coaches have experience coaching it. I believe as athletes evolve, we need variations to keep them interested, but only if the variation is not shocking and doesn’t contribute to excessive soreness.
Nordics are not the Bane nor the Only Antidote to Hamstring Injuries
Don’t think this article simply suggests using the right equipment or other exercises to improve the application of popular exercises such as the Nordic hamstring exercise. The cold truth is that hamstring development is a comprehensive process. Several programs have experienced injury rates similar to those with excellent NordBord profiles because they do other preparation exercises the right way.
I’ve avoided a lot of hamstring injuries with my athletes by preparing them eccentrically using other methods, and I’ve had luck on my side. Now, however, I’m gravitating back to more isolated exercises because we have less time to work together. Most of my athletes have never done Nordics or even GHR work. Those that do follow the process I established based on my research to try to keep hamstring injuries at bay.