The Glute-Ham Raise from A to Z
The glute-ham raise (GHR) is one of the most popular posterior chain exercises in the lifting world, and for good reason. The GHR effectively strengthens the hamstrings at both the knee and hip joint by working its two primary functions, knee flexion and hip extension, simultaneously.
Being a closed-kinetic chain movement, however, the GHR is far more than just a hamstring isolation exercise. It also works the glutes, lower back, even the calves. In terms of training economy, it's literally a one-stop shop for a better backside.
Check out these benefits.
- If it's hypertrophy you're after, GHRs are superior to traditional leg curls because they work more muscles and put greater emphasis on the eccentric component of knee flexion.
- From an injury prevention standpoint, they're great for preventing hamstring strains and ACL injuries, particularly in women.
- For performance enhancement, strength coaches have long used the GHR to improve sprinting speed and jumping capability. They've also proven to translate well to other lower body gym lifts. Fact is, many of the world's best powerlifters regularly include the GHR as a staple in their programming due to its strong carryover to the squat and deadlift.
- It puts relatively little stress on the lower back since there are minimal shearing forces involved. This makes it a viable way for people with back issues – who may not be able to do exercises like deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts – to train the posterior chain in a safe manner. It can also be used as a great accessory exercise for people who squat and deadlift regularly as a way to deload the spine while still achieving a good training effect.
The biggest downside to the GHR is that it's just flat-out too difficult for many to perform properly in the beginning. I'm not just talking about beginning lifters either; I've seen 500-pound squatters that are unable to do one proper rep.
That's not a reason to avoid them, however. That's a reason to do them and get good at them.
First let's touch on how to adjust the bench for optimal results. Most commercial GHR benches are composed of three main components: the knee pad, the foot plate, and the ankle hooks. The knee pad is fixed while the footplate can be adjusted both horizontally and vertically. Here's a quick visual to show what I mean.
How the foot plate is set will dramatically affect both the comfort and difficulty of the exercise. However, the correct setting will vary from individual to individual based on a myriad of factors such as tibia length, femur length, size of the thighs, and current strength level.
Generally, the closer the foot plate is to the knee pad, the harder the exercise will be because of increasing the length of the lever arm (the body). Similarly, the higher up the foot plate is adjusted, the harder the exercise will be because the knees will be more on top of the pad as opposed to behind it, providing less leverage to push against.
It should be mentioned that some individuals experience knee pain when their knees are in direct contact with the pad, which can manifest either as anterior knee pain from the pressure on the pad or as posterior knee pain while performing the exercise. I recommend setting the adjustments as close and high up as you can go without experiencing knee pain.
That said, there's no need to set it extremely close or high up just for the sake of being hardcore. When in doubt, a little lower and further back is fine. You can always add difficulty through other means (more on that later). Take some time to experiment with different settings and find the best position for you.
The same basic form holds true regardless of your current strength level or variation you're using.
- Set up with the knees either directly on or slightly behind the pad, with the feet firmly on the platform and the back of the calves pressed lightly against the upper ankle hook.
- Begin with the torso perpendicular to the floor.
- Next, squeeze the hamstrings, glutes, and abs, and lower under control until the torso is parallel to the floor.
- From there, return to the starting position by pushing the toes into the foot plate (which activates the gastrocnemius) and pulling up with the hamstrings. Be sure to keep the glutes contracted.
I like to use two cues that apply to both the setup and execution of this exercise: get straight, and get long (get your mind out of the gutter, sicko). The goal is to maintain a straight line through the knee, hip, shoulder, and neck at all times. To achieve this straightness, think about making the body as long as possible.
The two most common form flaws are breaking at the hips and hyperextending through the lumbar spine, both of which come from not being strong enough in the hamstrings and glutes to maintain proper body alignment. If you find yourself feeling this exercise a lot in the lower back, it's a safe bet you're doing it wrong.
In that case, or if you're simply unable to complete the exercise at all, it's a sign to regress to an easier variation for the time being.
Where to Begin
Those unable to complete a proper GHR should use an easier variation of the exercise to build up strength. Be mindful not to view regressing as failing; fact is, it's just the opposite. By taking one short step back, you set up the potential for long-term gains. Trying to bite off more than you can chew will only lead to embarrassment or injury.
Here's a good progression of exercises to follow to work up to full GHR reps. Once you can do full reps with each progression, skip ahead to the next section.
Band-Assistance. The band-assisted GHR is great because it allows you to perform full range of motion reps and get the feel for the movement without having to support full bodyweight.
To set these up, loop one end of the band around the ankle hook post and put the other end across the upper chest, right underneath the armpits. Perform the reps just as you would a normal GHR. The bands offer accommodating resistance, meaning more help is provided at the bottom portion of the rep where you're weakest and less help at the top where you're strongest. Decrease the band tension as strength improves.
Short Duration Isometric Holds. One pitfall of using band assistance is that strength isn't developed in the bottom position, where it's most difficult. To combat this shortcoming, perform short isometric holds with your body extended in a straight line parallel to the floor. Your body should look almost completely flat, the exception being if you have a lot of "junk in the trunk." Start with brief, 5-second holds for 3-4 sets, progressing to 10-second holds.
Eccentrics. Once you can complete a 10-second isometric hold in the bottom position, it's time to move on to eccentrics. Start in the same position as you would for a normal GHR, with the torso perpendicular to the floor and the knees in a straight line with your neck. Maintain that body alignment by squeezing your glutes, hamstrings, and abs, and slowly lower yourself until you're parallel to the floor.
From there, simply put your hands on the knee pad or grab the handles and pull yourself back up. Shoot for 5-second eccentrics initially, extending them slowly over time. Be sure to keep the volume low or expect to be crippled with DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) the next day. Consider each eccentric rep to be its own set and do a total of 3-4 "sets" with 45-60 seconds between sets.
The Razor Curl. The Razor curl is an oddball in the GHR continuum because it's the only variation where you don't keep a straight line from the knees to the neck.
Set up with the knees on the pad, feet flat on the platform, hips flexed so that the torso is nearly parallel to the floor. Think of it as if trying to sit back on the feet – just don't go too far or you'll get the ankle hook post right up your butt, which, depending on your personal leanings, you may or may or not enjoy.
To begin, think "get straight" and "get long" and extend yourself until the whole body is parallel to the floor, just as in a standard GHR. From there, push the toes into the foot plate and pull with the hamstrings, but rather than maintain the straight line from knees to neck, consciously flex at the hip (think about pushing your butt back) and return to the starting position.
Flexing at the hips makes the exercise slightly easier than a regular GHR and allows for a stronger contraction of the hamstrings. One study performed at the University of Arkansas showed that the razor curl elicited as much as 220% of the hamstrings maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVC). This makes it a great exercise to use to build the requisite hamstring strength to perform a full GHR, and can even be used by more advanced trainees as an occasional higher-rep alternative.
Congratulations! After completing the progression above, you should now be able to complete full reps with good form. Give yourself a pat on the back or better yet, a pat on the butt. More than likely, you'll be able to crack walnuts by now.
Once you can comfortably complete 3 sets of 6-8 reps, it's time to make them more challenging. The most obvious way to do this is to add resistance.
This can be accomplished in several ways.
- By holding a weight across your chest.
- By wearing a weighted vest.
- By placing a band around your neck, or anything else you can think of. Heck, I've even seen a video of someone holding a small child.
There are a number of other techniques to increase difficulty such as altering angles, lever lengths, and tempo, all of which can be combined with added weight to further increase difficulty.
Elevate the back end of the GHR bench. I learned this technique from James Smith of Diesel Strength and Conditioning. Propping up the back end of the bench keeps constant tension on the hamstrings throughout the rep. During a standard GHR, the hamstrings lose tension at the top when the torso is perpendicular to the floor.
This doesn't happen when the bench is on a decline because the angles are shifted such that when you complete your rep, you're still on an angle relative to the ground. Be warned though, the burn is intense!
For safety's sake, make sure the bench is propped up on something sturdy. I use a 12-inch plyometric box, which is very stable and works well. I wouldn't go much higher than that for fear of the bench flipping over. Make sure to position the ankle hooks as high as possible to take full advantage of the decline.
Extend the arms overhead. Holding the arms straight overhead makes this exercise significantly harder by extending the lever length. To take it one step further, hold a small weight (less than 15-20 pounds is usually sufficient). Doing so will engage the upper back, meaning you'll be working the entire posterior chain in one movement.
Begin by only holding the arms overhead on the eccentric portion and then bringing them into the chest on the concentric. This will let you reap the benefits of the overloaded eccentric while allowing the set to extend a little further.
Once you feel comfortable, you can progress to keeping the arms extended during the entire rep. Be warned, this one is a complete bear. The natural tendency is to hyperextend the lumbar spine during the transition from eccentric to concentric. Don't do this. If you find it happening, go back to a previous variation until you have the strength to do it correctly.
Weighted isometric holds. I saved this for last in the progression, not because it's necessarily the hardest, but because it's best used as a "finisher." These are done in the same manner as the short duration isometrics that we used to progress to full reps, only here we add weight (either holding a weight across your chest or wearing a weighted vest) and hold them longer.
Perform one 30-60 second isometric hold after completing your normal GHR workout. Trust me, one is enough.
Putting It All Together
Now that you have a progression of exercises to work through, how do you fit them into your current training program? Well, for the sake of your poor posterior chain, don't run off to the gym and try them all at once, and don't whip out your Tough Guy headband and jump to the hardest ones first. Be honest with yourself where you are strength-wise and work forward in a slow yet progressive manner.
As a general recommendation, I'd suggest between 3-4 sets per workout of whichever progression, keeping the reps under 8 (the one exception being the razor curl, where advanced trainees could go up as high as 15-20 per set). Frequency can range from 1-4 days per week, depending on overall training volume, but 2-3 days a week is ideal. How you choose to implement them will largely depend on your current program. Just make sure to do them, and do them well.
Oliver GD, Dougherty CP. The razor curl: a functional approach to hamstring training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. March 23, 2009. Pgs. 401-405.
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Ben Bruno graduated Summa Cum Laude from Columbia University. He currently trains athletes at Mike Boyle Strength and Condition in North Andover, Massachusetts and publishes a blog at www.benbruno.com.