Ah, the hamstrings. Most of us don't really think about them that often unless they’re really tight or injured, but they are so important to focus on from not only a mobility standpoint, but also from a position of maximizing strength.
Why are the hamstrings so important?
The hamstrings are mainly responsible for hip extension as well as knee flexion. Therefore, they're really important for maintaining our torso position as well as stabilizing the knee joint. As an athlete, that means that focusing on strengthening your hamstrings can really help to increase your speed, your change of direction, and your agility as well as prevent injuries. Even if you're not an athlete, strengthening your hamstrings can be really important to make sure that you have good posture. It’s also important for maintaining the ability to do everyday living activities like standing up out of a chair, bending down to reach for something or going up and down the stairs.
Here’s the thing though: most of us have overactive quads and underactive hamstrings. This combination creates the perfect storm for injuries to that group of hamstrings. Hamstring strains, for example, are one of the most common injuries amongst athletes and everyday active individuals. These injuries often don’t get rehabilitated properly leaving a high likelihood that they will reoccur. If you have ever had one yourself, you know they're not fun to experience and you definitely don’t want to keep getting these injuries over and over. The other thing that happens when we have overactive quads and underactive hamstrings is we tend to feel like our hamstrings are tight. And what do most of us do when we feel like our hamstrings are tight? We try to stretch them out. But there's a reason that when you do static stretching for your hamstrings you don't really see much long term improvement to your range of motion and how flexible your hamstrings are!
Why stretching your hammies doesn’t usually help for long
You've probably spent a good amount of time trying to static stretch your hamstrings only to realize that by the next day or the day after that, you're back to square one. You see, the cool thing is that the human body's neuromuscular system will always try to protect itself from getting injured. One of the ways it does this is to make those muscles feel stiff or tight to prevent us from getting that full range of motion, hence protecting us from the perceived risk of injury. However, it's very rare that the tightness you're experiencing is actually due to a physical shortening of the muscle. Rather it’s the brain not allowing the muscle to stretch due to instability or weakness and therefore trying to prevent an injury. Isn’t that so cool?! Our neuromuscular connection is so amazing that our brain is literally trying to look out for our muscle tissue being like “Yeah, that's a little weak. I wouldn't stretch that too far” and “I wouldn't do that motion because we're not really prepared for that so we're going to make it feel like it's really tight to prevent you from overexerting that muscle or utilizing past a range of motion that we think is safe for you”. If you think of it this way, it's kind of like an override. If your brain is telling your body that a certain area is not stable or feeling weak, and that's why it's creating some feelings of tightness, then what would be the resolution to that? Strengthening it.
The Importance of Eccentric Hamstring Training
Now in this article we're focusing on the hamstrings. There is a huge body of research focusing on eccentric movements for hamstring strength and injury prevention versus concentric movements.
Concentric movements can definitely be beneficial. It’s where you are shortening the muscle tissue and strengthening it through the shortening range. But a lot of the times the injuries in the hamstrings tend to happen while we are in that lengthening phase and trying to exert power through the lengthening phase. Think about a sprinter, for example. Right when they are changing their gait and they're really reaching one leg forward and trying to plant that foot down onto the ground and push it forward, the hamstring is in a very stretched out phase. That tends to be where a lot of athletes will develop those types of strains. With that, strengthening the hamstring through a lengthening range of motion is actually going to be extremely beneficial to help get it stronger.
This is where my favorite hamstring exercise comes into play; the Nordic hamstring curl. One recent study demonstrated that having athletes do Nordic hamstring curls actually reduced their injury rate by up to 51%. What is so great about this particular exercise? Well, like I said before, it's an eccentric exercise. As you are moving your body forward, you're actually increasing the load into the hamstrings.
Therefore the load is increasing more and more and more as you are lengthening the hamstrings more and more and more. You're actually building length, mobility, and flexibility into the strengthening motion at the same time, which is fantastic! This particular movement is creating more work for the distal musculotendinous junction that is working eccentrically during this movement, while the proximal musculotendinous junction is working isometrically.
Though I love love, love the Nordic hamstring curl and I think it is the number one exercise to help prevent injuries and strengthen the hamstrings, I do think it's actually best combined with another hamstring exercise. This other exercise is called the contralateral offset Romanian deadlift. Why is this the perfect exercise combination? It's because it actually flips the loading. Like I had mentioned before, the Nordic helps eccentrically load the distal musculotendinous junction. The contralateral Romanian deadlift is going to load the proximal musculotendinous junction eccentrically while, of course, the distal is then put in an isometric hold. You're basically flipping the loading between the two, and you're still focusing on an eccentric movement. In both exercises, however, you're loading both junctions of where the hamstrings are positioned from the hip to the knee. If you combine those two hamstring exercises, you can seriously bulletproof your hamstrings. With this said, if you're going to start with any one exercise, start with that Nordic hamstring curl.
Let’s dive in a little bit more about the Nordics. Personally, I've been working on my Nordic curls for probably eight months now. And it has taken some time! Give yourself patience. This is not going to be something you're going to be great at right off the bat. You will get DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness from this because you are going to be really effectively tearing some of those muscle fibers and rebuilding them because you are strengthening through a length of motion. Be prepared because you're going to get way more sore than you're probably used to if you've never done any kind of eccentric hamstring training before - just keep that in mind. Overall though, it is something that has been really great to incorporate.
Why I love The Nordic Weight Bench
The Tib Bar Guy was kind enough to send me one of his Nordic weight benches to try out and I have been absolutely loving it! It's actually one of my favorite designs for a Nordic bench that I've seen thus far. This is because you can regress the movement very easily with this bench. Not only is it a full bench that you can use for other things like doing chest press, shoulder press, trap 3 raises, and basically anything that you'd use a normal bench for, but the fact that it hinges up and that you can create an incline with the back part of the bench is so great for regressing the Nordic movement. For me personally, I have not been able to get a full Nordic in yet I'm still working on it. Having that part of the bench being able to come up and being able to regress the movement until I can get myself down farther over time is so very helpful.
The other feature I want to point out about this bench that I find really cool is that the part that you put your knees down for the Nordic curl is actually a little bit wider than the other part of the bench. That just helps you make room to spread out your knees and to get comfortable in an optimal Nordic hamstring curl position. This also still keeps the bench functional for other movements because the back portion of the bench where you need be laying down if you're doing a chest press, for example, is still narrow enough to allow your shoulders to drop and your arms drop by your side to get a full range of motion.
The multi functionality aspect of this bench is something I really appreciate. I live in a small apartment space so it's really great to have something that can be adaptable for multiple uses of different types of exercises. It's also incredibly sturdy and stable and doesn't teeter. It’s clear that it is very well made. On top of also being incredibly lightweight it is also super easy to pick up and move around, which, again, I absolutely appreciate due to my living space.
It's really nice to just be able to pick this bench up super easily and carry it to the next room without really stressing about it. I highly recommend getting this Nordic weight bench if you are doing any types of Nordic exercises or if you really want something that's multifunctional that you can use for different types of things.
Written By: Victoria Dorsano
Check out more about Victoria on her website here.