When I first saw the Reverse Nordic Curl it was called a ‘Natural Leg Extension’. And this is essentially what it is: using your bodyweight to target your quads.
I didn’t even know it was a ‘thing’. I knew about the classic hero pose from yoga but I didn’t have a clue you go down without breaking the hip line, let alone go down without breaking the hip line.
Then I met up with my good friend Wes (Beautiful Strength when he was on Instagram) and he was knocking these out for fun and even hovering on his ankles as and when he wanted to.
Obviously as the movement scene has grown and grown – particularly with the forced minimal/home training – this move has come more into the centre of the radar instead of flying under it, as it did for some time.
If we were to categorise this move we would have to call it a ‘long range’ or ‘outer range’ quadriceps & hip flexor exercise; targeting the rectus femoris in particular.
Whereas a traditional leg extension on a seated machine would be categorised as a ‘short range’ or ‘inner range’ quadricep & hip flexor exercise.
It took me a while to fully grasp this concept.
A regular leg extension involves the quadriceps being fully shortened at both ends (the attachments) – i.e. flexed hips & extended knees. Whereas the reverse Nordic has the quadriceps fully lengthened at both ends – i.e. extended hips & fully flexed knees.
Most people are stronger in the shortened position as it’s much more conventional, at least for this move. I mean we sit all day anyway so what challenge is it to straighten the knees in this position?
Whereas to even get into a hero is a big challenge for many. I know and have seen plenty of people (that are decently able-bodied) that can’t get nicely down in a passive, relaxed hero pose/stretch.
Which leads us nicely to the biggest and most obvious benefit of this move: improved mobility. Being able to get into this position demonstrates freedom in the hip flexors and quadriceps – the rectus femoris to be more precise.
When you have better hip/quad mobility your glutes & hamstrings are able to work better & more efficiently. This is KEY to athletic performance. All too often you’ll see athletes that are quad/hip dominant with dormant/underactive glutes & hamstrings. When this goes on too long and/or gets pronounced enough, knee pain is almost an eventual given.
(Functionality in the real world)
Empirically speaking, your ability to absorb force (downhill running for example) will improve substantially from getting better with this movement. This was the DISTINCT difference I noticed when I did my 3 Peaks Challenge for my 30th earlier this year. When I climbed the mountains before I was great on the way up and shocking on the way down. Training the reverse Nordic curl and its cousin, the sissy squat, was the big difference. I could run down the mountains easy and pain free!
This speaks volumes for a lot of the moves in the infamous KneesOverToesGuy’s system. They’re all about making you move better across a vast scope of athletic endeavours. And one of his go-to’s is the reverse Nordic curl and its progressions.
(Retention of range of motion)
It’s one thing to be mobile in a position, it’s another to be strong there. They’re not usually automatically synonymous. We’ve already seen the myriad of benefits getting strong in this outer/longer range offers in terms of performance, but even for staying mobile easier (as the hands of age come inevitably knocking), being strong here will retain mobility much easier than being weak and having to keep stretching the position, in order to keep the range.
From an aesthetics standpoint I’ve also found this to be decent for hypertrophy too. The outer sweep of my quads has certainly got a little bigger/more pronounced during my reverse Nordic journey. Obviously it’s not going to be the optimum choice for quad size in the world but the strong stretch element certainly isn’t harmful for blowing the quads up a bit!
There’s also some good research emerging showing strong correlations between regular reverse nordic training & reductions in knee injuries/pain (1), (2).
Oh and lastly, who doesn’t like a party trick that’s not only functional but requires no equipment and can be done anywhere?!
This movement ticks all those boxes and can make you more popular at parties. It’s confirmed.
Sexy Vs Crappy Form
Like with almost any move, the ego can take over here as you’ll see lots of ‘reverse Nordics’ where the back is excessively arched, the pelvis is in the wrong position and only the head barely touches the floor.
This might fly with the unwoke folk but not here! So let’s clarify what ‘ideal form’ means for our purposes today: The hips must be in a posterior pelvic tilt or at the very least, neutral – and there should be a straight line from your knees, through your hips, shoulders and even the ears.
When you do the arched back version here you’re cheating by not fully stretching the quads/hip flexors. This could be an ego thing or a straight up lack of range of motion thing. Or even both!
Even if you’re able to lower down all the way to where your back is down, hips are down & your pelvis is still posteriorly tilted, you’ll be at risk of cheating the other classic way – by flexing/rounding the upper spine – if even only a little.
Some people will lower down perfectly and then try to come back up by rounding the back, folding at the hips. This again makes it much easier as the center of mass goes forward, taking the load off the quads/hip flexors.
If you can’t maintain these key points for the whole range of motion it’s important to regress the move in the right way (discussed shortly).
Anyone can start training this movement within reason but it goes without saying, your success will depend on your passive flexibility limit here. If you can’t even get into the full pose, you can’t expect to be able to train it.
This is why I think it’s a tidy idea to start freeing up the position alongside wanting to train the pose dynamically. A good benchmark for the hero pose is being able to relax there for 60-90 secs. Yep, back, butt and head to floor.
And you would do this alongside the strength training. An even slicker approach would be to clear the tension away with the stretching first, then work your dynamic reps after…..
Banded Vs No Bands
When I first ever saw this move it was from my good friend Wes when we finally met up in person after striking up a friendship through Instagram. He had this at beastmode standard – could rep the sissy squat combined with these for multiple reps, easily. He could even hover on his ankles in this position and if I’m not mistaken, he could do them on a deficit where he would lower his head & shoulders below his hips and still lift out from the position.
Anyway, I’ll stop fanboying.
The point of this story is he was my initial mentor with this move even though I didn’t really understand it like I do now, back then. But he suggested I use it to benefit the hip position of my front lever training (particularly the halflay shape)
I was pathetically weak at it then so he suggested using a band, which made sense at the time but upon reflection I now think the band isn’t the greatest way to go about getting the full move.
The banded approach is subjective and as we know, subjective isn’t conducive to success. The band is subjective because there are lots of variables wanting to trip your progress up like landmines.
For one, unless the band is the exact same band every time, the assistance will vary. Pretty obvious.
Then, where you attach the band will make a big difference. The higher the anchor point the easier it will be as the band will assist more. Even a 6 inch difference will skew things, believe me.
If that’s not enough, how you hold/grip the band will play a big part, too. Even if you standardise the grip (1 finger, 2 finger or more etc), the angle of your arms relative to the body will play a big part. And you’ll find they vary throughout the rep. This happened to me; I’d go down with the arms airing towards overhead without thinking and then they’d end up right down low on the way back up.
Basic physics at work! My point is: it’s hard to truly standardise the assistance of the band(s). I trained it as an assistance exercise with bands for ages with no real progress on the real move.
Anytime I tried I would just fall into the bottom and felt like I had a fat hooker pinning me down to the floor anytime I even attempted to create any motion.
The only caveat I’d have with the band is it’s useful for those who need it to move in and out of a range of motion they can’t access without it. Doing some banded sets for the full range can be beneficial here but I’d strongly advise doing objective partial reps alongside for the best possible results.
The better approach?
Incremental range of motion increases aka using a marker/blocks and working your way down over time. It wasn’t until I did this that my progress really accelerated. This gave me no option of cheating without even knowing (like I was doing with all the banded shit) and instead, forced me to really use the muscles in the same way I would need to for the full range version, particularly if I used the right intensity (usually 1 yoga block – 3 inches from the floor).
This allows you to use less height on stronger days and add height on weaker days. But generally you’ll have a solid idea of where you’re at with the move and will be able to tell when you’re making real progress with it.
This is the wonder of objectivity on display yet again. And it leads us to the next important question…
Sets, Reps & Frequency?
I’ve played around with lots of rep approaches with this move and I am certain this is a lower rep movement – particularly if you have aspirations of doing the full range unassisted version one day.
This means high quality sets of 3-5 reps. 3-5 sets of these. I actually like to superset these in with the Classic regular Nordic curl, the hamstring version. This makes an awesome combo for knee health and overall balance within the knee joint.
1-2 sessions per week is plenty too. I did these at the start of my lower sessions and when I started doing this, the movement took off even more. Who knew?! I used to do them as a later-in-the-session assistance move and it never really went anywhere. Again, who knew?!
When you start getting close to the full range of motion, the time-tested GTG (‘Grease The Groove’) method can work very nicely too. Just like you would if you were looking to up your pull ups, you would do a few reps every half hour to an hour.
You don’t even need to do it every day. I did it one or two days per week on rest days. I’d take 5 minute computer breaks and do the odd set of 3 here and there to a block. I didn’t get overly caught up in exacts and micro-management; I just enjoyed practicing the movement.
Like Ben Patrick (Knees Over Toes Guy) endorses, less is more. He only encourages working on this once per week. Go hard, then go home and recover. Repeat next week, and so on!
BEYOND The Reverse Nordic Curl
No good walkthrough is complete without futuristic suggestions and carrot dangling for what’s next, so here are a few harder progressions that you can move onto if/when you find the full range of motion version ‘easy’ for reps – and you’d better have sets of 5 available whenever, wherever before you even seriously think about some of these, as an FYI/disclaimer.
1. Arms Overhead
A not so commonly seen but very valuable progression is using leverage to your advantage, in the form of raising the arms overhead and keeping them there for the whole movement. This will make the movement considerably harder as your centre of mass will be shifted further back and cheating is almost impossible.
Like the name implies, you’re simply increasing the working range of motion. It should go without saying that you need a good passive mobility here first for this to be a viable option, as this is a reverse Nordic curl on steroids. A plyo box would be the perfect object for the progression as it will allow the head/shoulders to go below the hips & knees.
3. ‘Matrix Squats’
This is a massive WTF move, or at least that’s what I said out loud when I first saw it. As you can see in the video below, this is a blend of a sissy squat and a reverse Nordic curl…
The variation shown above has a HUGE range of motion. Most examples you’ll see only go to horizontal and not as far back as this. Suffice to say going this far back will amp up the difficulty massively.
4. Weighted Reverse Nordic Curls
Probably the most quantifiable and logical option is to add weight over time. The only downside to this is the weight can be easy to use as a counterweight, where you use the weight to throw you up and forwards, thus cheating the reps somewhat.
In the clip below you see my good friend Jonas Martini demoing some reps with a 2kg dumbbell. Jonas is very experienced with reverse Nordic curls and sissy squats alike, and you can see how hard he’s working with just 2kgs added!
5. Combos Of All Of The Above
As ridiculous as it sounds there’s no real reason you couldn’t (at least theoretically) work up to doing a deficit reverse Nordic curl, holding a weight overhead. Or even a weighted full range of motion Matrix Squat!
Where are you at with this move? Has this walkthrough made you want to get working on it?
Also, I have a YouTube video version of this tutorial available…
I’d love you forever if you could give it a watch and a thumbs up (only if you enjoyed it of course ;))
Thanks for reading/watching. Keep me posted with any progress you make!
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.