Why The Nordic Curl is Older Than You Think

I like to consider myself to be a semi-decent researcher. Coming up to nearly a decade of historical work, I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying the origins of certain exercises, foods and workouts. Don’t get me wrong, I love it … Most of the time. Research for this exercise was not one of those times.

The Nordic Hamstring Curl is the chameleon of the lifting community. It goes by many names and many alias. Since the 1990s, it has been referred to as the Russian Leg Curl, the Natural Glute Ham Raise, the Nordic Hamstring Exercise, the Inverse Leg Curl and, on more than one occasion, a glorified leg curl. Admittedly that last term came from an old Bodybuilding.com forum user, but it did make me chuckle.

In any case, you can imagine how difficult it is to search for something with so many different names. And I’m sure there’s more. What I do know after several hours down this rabbit hole is this

1) The Nordic Curl Movement has been used for decades

2) I need to think of easier histories in future – seriously, this took weeks and I am almost positive the first comment on this article will prove me wrong in some way

But … and most importantly

3) The popularity of the Nordic Curl after the year 2000 reveals some rather interesting developments in the field of sport science and strength and conditioning.

What is the Nordic Curl?

If you are unfamiliar with this exercise then the above writing will seem incoherent and bordering on rambling. That is my natural writing style but I accept the criticism with good grace. The Nordic Curl (or the Russian Leg Curl, or the Natural Glute Ham Raise, or the … actually you get the idea by now), can be described simply as an eccentric hamstring exercise which can be done alone or with a partner.

There is little to no chance that I can probably describe this exercise so, like all good researchers, I’m going to give someone else’s explanation in the hope I will appear as smart as them.

This definition comes from a 2020 paper by Matthew Cuthbert et al. (link here)

The NHE (Nordic Hamstring Exercise) is understood to be an eccentric exercise that is performed on the knees with ankles held/strapped with subjects lowering their upper body towards a prone position, as slowly as possible.

Simple right? Well I will help you out a little more and include a wonderful instructional video below.

I suspect some of you reading will have taken to the Nordic Curl in earnest during the Covid-19 Lockdowns when access to a gym became nigh on impossible. I know I certainly did, especially in the period when I didn’t have access to dumbbells or barbells.

The Nordic Curl is a highly effective substitute for the traditional leg curl and, in the past twenty years, has become highly popular among professional sports teams. Heck, I still remember in 2016, the BBC linked Leicester City’s unlikely Premier League title win to the team’s strength and conditioning practices which included (you guessed it!), the Nordic Curl.

So When Did People Begin Doing This Exercise?

As I said, I struggled to find historical information on this exercise so I went back … very far back into the literature. I had a hunch that the Nordic curl was likely something people did in the nineteenth-century when calisthenics was all the rage.

Additionally the Nordic curl seemed like something that would have fit neatly into the Ling Gymnastic movement which often promoted different forms of ‘medical gymnastics.’ Put simply, medical gymnastics is the idea that certain ailments (be they muscular or not) could be cured through movement.

As we have discussed elsewhere on this website, the Ling gymnastic movement was founded by the Swedish trainer Pierre Henrik Ling in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the end of the century this form of gymnastics was one of the world’s most popular systems. It was used across Europe, the Americas and the colonial world. It comprised several different strands (military, educational, medical etc.) and was driven by a belief in bodyweight exercises.

Ling’s disciples – be they Swedish or not – were also very enthusiastic writers. One such example was George Herbert Taylor, a New York based physician, who began writing on the Ling system in the early 1860s. His 1860 book Exposition of the Swedish Movement Cure, which underwent several re-editions, included an early example of the Nordic Curl.

Early Nordic Curl ImageImage Source

It was the ‘wing kneeling/knee stretching’ exercise … and you taught Nordic curl was a bad brand name!

Position – The hand are placed upon the hips, trunk, or kneeling position, with a cushion under the knees, and the heels prevented from rising by being forced down by some firm object, as the frame of a sofa

Action.

-1. The trunk inclines gently and slowly forward, without bending at the hips or in the back, the knee only being slightly straightened or stretched.

-2. It rises upward and backward till it regains its erect position. The cut shows the commencing, and the dotted outline the extreme position of the movement. This movement should be repeated five or six times.

Effect.- This movement powerfully affects the muscles and fascia of the thigh, its influence extending to the hips and back, also to the calves of the legs. It is derivative, and counteracts the ill effects of too much exercise of the muscles of the anterior portion of the thigh

I was right! Huzzah for me!

Sadly I was beaten to the punch by Physio Digest, which posted about this exact book on Facebook in 2017. Can’t win ’em all right?

When Did It Become Popular?

Angered, but not defeated, by Physio Digest (who are now my sworn researcher enemy), I kept researching, hoping to find a breadcrumb as to the modern popularization of the NHE. I mean, after all, I remember this exercise first being introduced to the gym floor when I began training. So something had to have happened right?

From an English speaking perspective, a 2004 paper by Mjølsnes et al. is a really neat starting point for the modern popularization of the NHE. Done using the NHE with soccer players, researchers showed that the NHE was more effective than the traditional hamstring curl when it came to improving hamstring strength.

This paper, which has been cited over 500 times (compared to my own book … which has been cited 3 times), helped it seemed to kickstart the exercise performance community’s interest in the NHE. Certainly among the general fitness public it is nearly impossible to find articles on the NHE prior to 2004.

For anyone who wants to go down a real time warp, Bodybuilding.com forums from 2010 talk about the Nordic exercise as a relatively new phenomenon. Little they knew!

In Summary

I learned three things with this post

  1. I am not as good a researcher as I thought
  2. The Nordic Hamstring Exercise has an older history than I thought
  3. There is nothing new under the sun

As always …. Happy Lifting!

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