The glute ham raise and the nordic curl are great for maximizing hamstring muscle activation, and depending on experience level and available equipment, there are circumstances where one can be more effective than the other.
So, what is the difference between the glute ham raise and the nordic curl? The nordic curl is a more difficult option that requires a partner or a solid anchor point to support the feet in lowering yourself to the ground. The glute ham raise requires a glute ham developer (GHD) to support the knees to allow for optimal positioning and greater range of motion.
If I had a GHD machine, and my goal was to build hamstring size and strength, I would pick the glute ham raise over the nordic curl every time.
But circumstances may be different for you. So, in this article I will cover:
- Why the glute ham raise is the better option
- Why the nordic curl is a strong alternative if you don’t have a GHD machine
- Tips on how to perform each exercise
- The muscles used for each exercise (backed by research)
- The pros and cons of each movement
Glute Ham Raise vs Nordic Curl: An Overview
Hamstrings are a difficult muscle to target in lower body exercises, especially since the glutes and quads are much more activated in compound movements like the squat, deadlift, and lunge.
However, a well developed hamstrings still supports the bottom of phase of a squat or the start position of a deadlift, which makes hamstring isolation fundamental to any successful strength program.
This is why I implement either the nordic curl or the glute ham raise to isolate the hamstrings.
Let’s dive into a quick overview of these exercises.
Glute Ham Raise
While the glute ham raise suggests the exercise targets the glutes, the reality is that the hamstrings are activated to a much greater extent.
This is because in order to target the glutes you need “hip extension”, much like doing a barbell hip thrust or Romanian deadlift. But, in the glute ham raise, you only have minimal hip extension, and the majority of the movement revolves around the knee joint.
Why is the knee joint important? Because the hamstrings are most activated when the knee joint flexes (like flexing your knee to bring your ankle toward your butt), which is the primary action that occurs when performing the glute ham raise.
So while you’ll still incorporate your glutes, and other muscle groups like the spinal erectors, during the glute ham raise, the main muscle being used is the hamstring.
The glute ham raise is used by Olympic lifters and powerlifters looking to improve lifts such as the power clean, squat, and deadlift.
Wondering whether hamstrings improve deadlifting performance? Check out my article: Do Leg Curls Improve Deadlifts
Due to the positioning and anchor point of the knees, the nordic curl requires only knee movement which promotes even further hamstring muscle isolation.
The challenge of this exercise is that the entire upper torso is only being supported by the hamstring muscle, which if your goal is to build hamstring strength, can be extremely desirable.
This exercise is common in the clinical setting for strengthening the hamstrings and promoting muscular health. The Nordic curl has great versatility as well, allowing you to do it anywhere you have a partner or an anchor point.
Glute Ham Raise vs Nordic Curl: Pros vs Cons
Glute Ham Raise Pros
- The glute ham raise can produce greater overload. Due to the support of the GHD pad, and the suspension above ground, there is greater assistance from other muscle groups to add additional weight and loading for this exercise.
- The glute ham raise can use greater time under tension. Additional pad support allows for greater control and stability, which allows you to implement tempo reps for greater gains.
- The glute ham raise is a much easier variation. The leg support system makes the glute ham raise a much easier variation compared to the nordic curls.
- The glute ham raise allows for greater range of motion. Contrary to the nordic curl which is anchored to the ground, the glute ham raise is fairly above the ground allowing for greater range of motion.
- The glute ham raise can be modified to do a back extension as well. The addition of a back extension can make this exercise effective in hitting a combination of the glutes, hamstrings, and core stabilizers.
Glute Ham Raise Cons
- The glute ham raise requires a GHD. The glute ham raise requires a very expensive piece of equipment that isn’t commonly seen in commercial gyms.
- The glute ham raise requires secondary muscles, which can take away from hamstring activation. Even though the glute ham raise isolates the hamstrings, other muscles such as the glutes and core stabilizers might overpower the exercise depending on fatigue and technique.
- The glute ham raise can be somewhat difficult to learn. For the glute ham raise, the equipment set up and the knee placement can be quite challenging to figure out.
Nordic Curl Pros
- The nordic curl isolates the hamstrings more. The anchor point of the nordic curl allows for a greater focus on the knee joint alone, this isolates the hamstrings.
- The nordic curl is a more difficult exercise. The only support for this exercise is the anchor point at the ankles, thus making this exercise much more difficult to achieve by relying on the hamstrings alone. This can be good if you are looking for a challenge or primarily a hamstring exercise.
- The nordic curl can be regressed to a much easier variation. With the addition of a stability ball to guide you through the exercise, the nordic curl can be much easier which can be beneficial if you are a beginner.
- The nordic curl can be done anywhere. Regardless of where you are, you can do this exercise with a stable leg support or another person. This makes it perfect for being on the go or versatility when at the gym.
Nordic Curl Cons
- The nordic curl often requires a partner to be effective. Typically, a nordic curl requires a partner, but can be equally effective by setting up an anchor point at a lat pulldown knee support or setting up a sturdy barbell anchor point in a power rack.
- The nordic curl is more difficult. The lack of knee support for this exercise, makes it completely dependent on the hamstring. To make it easier, you can do controlled eccentrics then use your hands to push you back into the starting position.
Glute Ham Raise vs Nordic Curl: Muscles Used
Even though the glute ham raise primarily targets the hamstrings, glutes, the core stabilizers are targeted to maintain rigidity of the torso to maintain posture. While the nordic curl targets the muscles of the hamstrings, specifically the biceps femoris, the semitendinosus, and semimembranosus.
A paper by Mccallister et al. (2014), looked at the romanian deadlift, glute ham raise, leg curl, and good morning exercises and compared hamstring EMG activity.
They found during the lowering (eccentric) phase that the romanian deadlift and good morning showed total hamstring activation. This is because the hamstrings are primarily responsible for the initial phase of this movement.
In contrast, during the upper half of these movements (concentric phase) the glute ham raise displayed total hamstring EMG activation.
While there were different muscles that were predominantly involved in the phases of the romanian deadlift, glute ham raise, good morning, and leg curl, they all proved to be effective in targeting muscles of the posterior chain.
Having difficulty targeting your leg muscles? Here is an article where I compare the leg extensions and the leg curls.
Glute Ham Raise vs Nordic Curl: How to Perform
How To Do The Glute Ham Raise?
- Securely fasten your feet in the leg lock, with your knees firmly planted into the pad.
- Start with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your torso perpendicular to the ground.
- While maintaining hip extension, lower your torso until legs are completely extended.
- Pull yourself back by pulling your heels through the leg locks and bending the knees back to return to the starting position.
How To Do The Nordic Curl?
- To make this exercise more comfortable, rest both your knees on an airex pad or foam pad.
- Have a partner hold down both your heels firmly as a secure anchor point.
- If you don’t have a partner you can utilize leg locks on a lat pulldown machine or a barbell from a power rack set to a comfortable height above your heels.
- Have an upright posture with your torso perpendicular to the ground and your knees bent at 90 degrees.
- While maintaining proper posture, allow your knees to extend to lower yourself to the ground.
- Gently push yourself away from the ground, while pulling through heels to return to the starting position.
Glute Ham Raise vs Nordic Curl: Modifying Difficulty
The glute ham raise and nordic curl can be modified to be easier or harder depending on your experience level.
Glute Ham Raise How To Modify:
The assistance of a band can be great for people who are just learning how to do the glute ham raise.
The band will be fixed to an anchor point behind the GHD and then placed across your shoulders. This way the band is guiding you through the different points of the exercise, thus making it a much easier starting point.
Back Extension + Glute Ham Raise
While it is common to do the glute ham raise by itself, the GHD doubles as a back extension machine. In this way, we can add challenge by implementing the back extension to the bottom half of the movement.
The back extension can provide additional momentum to perform the glute ham raise as well. This addition of momentum can allow for further loading of weight which can be beneficial for producing additional overload in the hamstrings.
3 Second Tempo Glute Ham Raise
One way to increase the difficulty of this exercise is to increase the time under tension. Greater muscular fatigue can be achieved by doing controlled lowering, therefore improving the size, strength, and health of the hamstrings.
Tempos can also improve control and feel with the muscles that are involved in the movement, this can promote greater carry over to exercises such as the deadlift or back squat.
Glute Ham Raise Programming Modifications:
Now that you know the glute ham raise modifications, programming them effectively into each block of your training can be pivotal in your ability to accomplish the exercise
- Week 1 – 4: Band Assisted Glute Ham Raise: 5 sets of 5 reps
- Week 5 – 8: Glute Ham Raise: 4 sets of 6 reps
- Week 9 – 12: Glute Ham Raise + Back Extension: 4 sets of 4 reps
Nordic Curl How To Modify:
Stability Ball Nordic Curl
Nordic curls are considered to be one of the more challenging exercises, by adding a stability ball to guide you into the different positions of the exercise. This makes the nordic curl much easier and allows you to focus on the hamstring muscles.
Eccentric Lowering Nordic Curl
Another way to make this exercise easier is to just do a 3-5 second tempo during the lowering phase, then subsequently pushing yourself back into the starting position.
This allows for some muscular fatigue and motor pattern development to still occur, while allowing you to use the momentum of pushing yourself to get back to the starting position.
Reverse Nordic Curl
While controlling yourself into the forward position works the hamstrings, controlling yourself backwards will work the quads.
You can super-set the nordic quad with the nordic curl to work both the muscles in the front (quads) and the muscles in the back (hamstrings) of your thighs.
Nordic Curl Programming Modifications:
Since the nordic curl is such a challenging exercise, the starting point should most of the time be an assisted variation whether it be a stability ball nordic curl or broom assisted.
Then further developing the nordic curl by only focusing on the lowering phase, to then further complicate it by doing the movement in its entirety.
- Week 1 – 4: Stability Ball Nordic Curl: 5 sets of 5 reps
- Week 5 – 8: 5 Second Eccentric Nordic Curl: 4 sets of 6 reps
- Week 9 – 12: Nordic Curl: 4 sets of 4 reps
Which Exercise Is Best For You?
The glute ham raise and the nordic curl are both effective exercises to implement into your program, however there might be certain circumstances where one is more effective than the other.
When To Use The Glute Ham Raise?
- You have a GHD available to you, implementing the GHR is a no brainer.
- You want to maximize the growth of your glutes and hamstrings.
- You want to improve exercises such as your squat and deadlift.
- You want to isolate the glutes and hamstrings as much as possible.
When To Use the Nordic Curl?
- You have a partner or accessible set up.
- You want to maximize the growth of your hamstrings.
- You are on the road or don’t have access to a GHD.
- Your goal is to improve your hamstring health and strength.
- Your goal is to improve your hamstring flexibility.
When To Use Both?
- If you have the ability to place them on separate days. You can achieve optimal hamstring and glute development.
- You have extra time and resources at the gym.
- You want to improve hip and hamstring strength and flexibility, especially if you are a beginner.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions for the glute ham raise and the nordic curl:
Why Are Nordic Curls So Hard?
Nordic curls are challenging because the entire body is being supported by the knee joint alone. Consequently, the hamstrings alone are being utilized at a high rait to accomplish the lowering and upward phase of this movement.
How Do You Do A Glute Ham Raise At Home?
A close glute ham raise or nordic variation can be done from home by finding a sturdy anchor point, which can be a couch or a loaded barbell. By using a yoga ball or a broom you can regress this exercise to guide you through the different phases.
What Can I Use Instead Of Glute Ham Raises?
While glute ham raises are a great exercise, you might not be able to do them. Strong alternatives include romanian deadlifts, good mornings, hamstring curls, glute bridges, and cable pull throughs. Included are a variety of exercises that utilize barbells, dumbbells, a cable stack, or bodyweight so there’s plenty to choose from.
If I had to choose one, the glute ham raise is most effective by placing the hips and knees in an optimal position to target the muscles of the posterior chain.
The glute ham raise is great for overall muscular development and has greater carry over to lifts like the squat, deadlift, and clean. This makes it a perfect addition for powerlifters or olympic lifters who are looking to improve their lifts, or the regular gym goer who is looking to improve their hamstrings.
It goes without saying that the nordic curl is a strong alternative, by mimicking the glute ham raise without the equipment, it produces great versatility in your ability to successfully target and develop the hamstring muscles.
About The Author
Javad Bakhshinejad was born and raised in the Washington Area. Currently, he is a student at Seattle University where he’s been pursuing an MS in Kinesiology, and has been a Strength Coach in the athletic department. He was a competitive bodybuilder for 8 years where he later transitioned to competitive powerlifting for 4 years. Currently, He has his own personal coaching business, where he works with powerlifters and bodybuilders.