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October 09, 2022
One of the most gratifying parts of resistance training is looking in the mirror and visibly seeing your hard-earned muscles. We all love checking out our bulging biceps (insert pose strike here), but if you’ve been at the gym game for a while, you have hopefully realized that aesthetics should only make up a small part of why we lift.
Even more important than being able to flex with the best of them are the benefits that come from strengthening the muscles responsible for helping you successfully accomplish daily tasks. Your posterior chain muscles, which include all the backside muscles from the back of your shoulders to your heels, play an important role in your body's ability to successfully function.
In addition, improving your posterior chain strength also boosts your speed and athleticism. The primary lower body posterior chain muscles include the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves, and the glute ham raise is one of the best ways to train those muscles for a bulletproof body that is functional, healthy, and developed in all the right places.
This post will discuss:
Let's master the glute ham raise, so you can get it into your routine ASAP!
The glute ham raise is a bodyweight exercise (but can be loaded) that builds the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and to some extent, the calves. It works these muscles in unison, making it a great exercise to prepare your body for athletic movement.
Primarily performed on a piece of equipment known as the GHD (glute ham developer), it was created by Soviet weightlifters in the 1970s. Fun fact: The Soviet weightlifters dominated the sport for decades and were far ahead of their time regarding the training methods they used.
It is an assistance exercise that helps build muscle conditioning and muscular hypertrophy, and it doesn't require loading weights, adding to its benefits even more so. It can be easily confused with a back extension or a nordic hamstring curl since they have a similar setup and look.
The key to the glute ham raise machine is its setup and the change it creates with your body's position. Unlike the nordic hamstring curl, your positioning allows you to work your posterior muscles without focusing too much on one specific muscle group. Don't get us wrong. The nordic hamstring curl is still a great exercise, but it doesn’t work the posterior chain quite the way a glute ham raise does.
So how exactly do you do them?
In a best-case scenario, this movement pattern is done using the glute hamstring developer. We will touch on some alternatives in a bit if you do not have access to one, but it's important to note that these instructions are written for the GHD.
How to perform Glute Ham Raises:
Whether your goal is to increase muscular endurance or simply ensure your posterior chain is functioning optimally, it's important to focus on correct form so you can avoid injury and see your best results. Here are four mistakes to avoid when performing this fantastic exercise.
Ensure your knees are on or behind the pads. If you are too far forward and have too much of your knee on the pad, it may cause knee pain. Also, if you're too far forward, the move will more closely resemble a nordic hamstring curl.
The difference is that with a nordic curl, your knees start at almost the top of the pad, putting a tremendous load on the hamstrings. That is not what you are after with the glute ham raise.
This exercise requires keeping your back flat. If your back begins to arch or round, it means it is compensating for weak hamstrings or glutes. If you cannot do this, it’s possible you need a different variation, and a band may be useful until you are strong enough for bodyweight reps.
After you have lowered down to parallel to the floor, it is common for the hips to want to break first on the way back up. This means that your hips will move backward to compensate, either because your glutes, hams, or both cannot keep them extended.
Remember, your hamstrings work to flex the knee and extend your hip. Keep your back flat, and do not let your hips break first.
This may be splitting hairs, but once your body gets to parallel to the floor, try letting the hips release a little bit. Your body will lower another couple of inches at most.
This will allow you to use the stretch reflex to start the motion and bring you back to the starting position. As soon as you begin to come back up, squeeze the glutes and low back, drive the knees into the pad, and finish the rep.
It absolutely builds muscle! When we think of making muscle gains, heavy barbells and dumbbells likely come to mind, but that does not mean this exercise shouldn’t be included on the list. Along with the Romanian deadlift, the glute ham raise was ranked in the top two spots for hamstring activation1.
This is an excellent hypertrophy exercise because it works the posterior chain as a whole. Yes, it places major emphasis on your hamstrings, but it will also build your spinal erectors, glutes, and calves. Serious lifters know that competitions are won from the backside, and this exercise is an excellent addition to building muscle in that area.
After you have mastered the bodyweight version of this exercise, it’s important to remember that weight can also be added for progressive overload, especially since the hamstrings are a fast twitch muscle group and prefer a maximum of 8 reps for best results. This will allow you to work in that prime muscle-building rep range, all while creating more explosive lower body muscles for optimal sprinting.
The glute ham raise is a closed chain kinetic movement that activates multiple lower body muscles at once.
Here's a look at the muscles worked in the glute ham raise:
Whether you're looking to improve your athletic performance or find a move that places less strain on your spine, the glute ham raise provides plenty of benefits. Here are 6 benefits that will convince you to add this move to your workout split.
Since the glute ham raise focuses more on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the hamstring, it will help bulletproof your body against hamstring strains and even help prevent ACL tears. It also will improve back strength and spine health.
When your foot hits the ground during sprinting, your hamstrings function to pull it underneath and behind your hips, bend your knee, and then propel your body forward. The glute ham raise trains all of the muscles that assist with this motion, which is why it is a favorite when training for athletic purposes.
It will also help ensure you don’t get the dreaded pulled hammy during a sprint, and it has a direct carryover to increase jumping capability. Get ready to see improvements when performing your plyometrics exercises!
Since the glute ham raise takes your body through a full range of motion, it directly enhances elasticity in all the muscles working during this exercise. As we age, strength and mobility are among the first things to go unless you are training with the correct exercises. This makes the exercise essential!
This exercise was developed by powerlifters and is a favorite for Olympic lifters. It will help strengthen your posterior chain, resulting in a stronger squat and deadlift, if that is what you are chasing after.
In a tech-heavy world in which we are destined to slouch and slump forward during most of our screen-based activities, the glute ham raise forces your spine into an upright posture. This will help you develop and keep good posture, while strengthening all the muscles that support it.
One of the reasons the glute ham raise is such a dynamic exercise is that it builds strength without the stress of a barbell on your back. You can do Romanian deadlifts and good mornings, but most people cannot recover from constantly loading their spines.
This is an effective way to train these muscles without being too hard on your body. Remember, it doesn’t matter how strong you are if you are constantly injured.
The glute ham raise can be a challenge at first, even for strong and seasoned lifters. The motor control required for this exercise is difficult and requires using your body differently, meaning even if you're squatting 500 pounds, just using your body weight for this exercise may be more than enough. Your brain needs to teach these muscles how to work together in this closed chain movement.
If you struggle to perform even one rep, there are some band-assisted options we will discuss in the next section. Your starting goal when adding this move to your exercise program should be to perform 3 sets of 6-8 reps before moving on to the next progression.
If you try to perform a glute ham raise and aren't able to complete more than a few reps, we suggest starting with the band-assisted move and then working your way through this list.
If the glute ham raise is too challenging to perform, don’t worry. Tie a band around the footplate, and then loop the other end around your chest. This enables the band to help pull you back to the starting position.
We suggest using this band-assisted option to develop the strength and control needed while safely getting your body used to the movement as you build more confidence.
Band-Assisted Glute Ham Raise demo on YouTube
The band-assisted option is an amazing starting point, but it is lacking in one area. It does not do the best job of building muscular strength at the bottom position of the exercise when your body is flat and parallel to the floor.
To help with this, try adding 3 sets of 5-10 seconds of the isometric hold glute ham raise, holding at the bottom portion of the exercise. This will help build the strength needed to raise your body back up.
Isometric Hold Glute Ham Raise demo on YouTube
You are moving right along! Once you can hold the isometric move for 10 seconds, it’s time to progress to the eccentric, aka the lowering portion of the exercise (we recommend reading up on the differences between concentric and eccentric muscle contractions to learn more about this movement). You'll use the exact same set-up as you would for the glute ham raise.
The only difference is that you will lower down as slowly as you can. Shoot for 5 seconds to start. Once you reach the bottom position, pull your hips back and grab the handles to help yourself back up. You should only do this when performing eccentric-focused exercises in which all you're working on is the lowering portion.
Eccentric-Focused Glute Ham Raise demo on YouTube
You’ve officially graduated to the bodyweight glute ham raise! Take a look at the how-to steps and start trying to build up to 3 sets of 6-8 reps. Once you can do that, it’s time to progress again.
Before adding weight, you can change the tempo of your reps and focus on 5 seconds down and 5 seconds up. This is another technique for increasing your strength before adding resistance.
Glute Ham Raise demo on YouTube
It’s finally time to add some weight. You can do this by holding a weight plate or dumbbell across your chest, wearing a weighted vest, or using a band (looped around the bottom of the GHD, not the footplate). Start light and progress just like you would any other exercise. Some day, you may even progress to a barbell.
Weighted Glute Ham Raise demo on YouTube
Ok, we realize that for lifters, learning about a new exercise is like receiving a bunch of new shiny toys to play with. But just remember not to play with them all at once. Shoot for adding this exercise 2 times a week to your leg workout. It is not your main movement, so it likely will fit after a compound exercise like a squat or deadlift.
Start at whatever progression you need and aim for 3 sets of 6-8 reps. Once you're able to complete 3 sets of 8 reps, move to the next progression.
Although it is a great exercise, we know the GHD won't be found in every gym in America. If you don't have access to a machine, we highly recommend checking out these 7 best GHD machines and adding one to your home gym. You'll find a wide range of options, including everything from a budget-friendly one to a GHD machine that fits in a small space.
It's important to note that there will not be a perfect glute ham raise alternative, but there are some decent options if you don’t have access to the machine.
Nordic hamstring curls can be done by using a barbell on the ground, or simply using something, like a low step-up box, that you can use to hook and brace your feet. It will place more load on the hamstrings and knee flexion than a GHR, but it is still a similar movement. Use a resistance band or stability ball for assistance if needed.
Most gyms will have this piece of equipment, angled at 45 degrees. It is a bit easier due to the angle but will still have some similar benefits to training the entire posterior chain.
If you are in a pinch, the lying hamstring curl is an effective exercise for targeting the hamstring's knee flexion. You can do this move either on a bench or on the ground, using your bodyweight or a dumbbell.
Placing a barbell on your back, the good morning hinge pattern allows you to use much higher loads than a GHR. This will be more taxing on your body, but it will build tremendous strength in the low back, glutes, and hamstrings.
Like the good morning, the stiff-leg deadlift is a barbell exercise that trains the hamstrings during hip extension. This is an excellent deadlift assistance exercise that also allows you to use heavier loads.
Another hinge pattern, the kettlebell swing is an explosive movement that will improve your athleticism. Make sure you are hinging and not squatting with the bell.
No gym membership? No problem! There are several great glute ham raise alternatives to add to your at-home workout routine.
Lying on the floor on your back, start with your legs straight and your heels on a stability ball. Drive your heels into the ball and lift your hips toward the ceiling. Drag the ball in toward you while keeping your hips up. Slowly return to the starting position. This is a great at-home alternative that will simultaneously build your hamstrings and glutes.
Tie a resistance band around something secure that can't be moved easily. Reach between your legs and grab the band, starting in an upright position. Hinge and allow the band to pull your hips back, squeezing your glutes to drive your hips forward. This great alternative builds the glutes in the horizontal hip-hinge pattern.
If you have someone at home who can put pressure down on your feet to keep them in place, you can perform a nordic hamstring curl without the barbell set up.
Alternatively, if no one is around to help, you can replicate the set up using a resistance band and finding something to put your feet under (this imitates a partner holding them down). This will give you similar benefits to the GHD with slightly more emphasis on the hamstrings and knee flexion.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a perfect way to do a glute ham raise without a GHD. If you're going to try replicating it without the equipment, it's important to know which movements your exercise needs to include.
The movement you choose must strengthen the entire lower posterior chain, including the lower back, butt, and hamstrings. You can certainly train them one at a time, but remember, the GHR is a closed-chain exercise, so they all work together.
Your exercise variation must also build core strength. You can perform hip thrusts all day, but you will be in trouble if you have strong glutes and a weak core.
You can use any of the variations we mentioned, or check out our article on best glute ham raise alternatives for more in-depth information. If you have access to it, the glute ham raise is one of the best exercises for building the posterior chain. As we discussed, the benefits are endless, and if you have one in the gym, we highly suggest using it.
It is so effective that if you are considering investing in a piece of equipment for your home gym, it’s a can't beat option. Affordable and beneficial, we're shocked that not all gyms have one. But, honestly, getting your own may be an even better option anyway. Take a look at the best GHD machines on the market so you can pick the best fit for you!
Glute ham raises will increase your functionality, athleticism, lower body explosiveness, and muscle mass. So however you choose to do them, just start doing them!
Related: The Definitive Guide to Nordic Hamstring Curls
Prepare to maximize your gains with our exclusive 12-week hypertrophy training program. Choose between a 4 or 5 day training split and gain 2-12 pounds of muscle over 90 days...
McAllister MJ, Hammond KG, Schilling BK, Ferreria LC, Reed JP, Weiss LW. Muscle Activation During Various Hamstring Exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2014;28(6):1573-1580. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000000302
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