For over two decades I have been promoting the reverse hyper exercise (i.e., reverse lower back extension). Although a relatively simple movement, it has multiple benefits in terms of spinal health and athletic performance. Here I’ll take a closer look at these benefits and at how the design of reverse hyper machines continues to evolve.
In the early days of the iron game and the strength coaching profession, athletes would perform many great exercises that worked the lower back – powerful multi-joint movements such as squats, deadlifts, good mornings and power cleans. But these exercises gradually were de-emphasized, and now the lower back is often a weak link in an athlete’s development.
Two individuals we can point to for this unfortunate trend are bodybuilding guru Vince Gironda and Nautilus founder Arthur Jones. Gironda was an accomplished bodybuilding coach who believed that squats would widen the hips, an idea without any scientific or empirical basis. In fact, when the gluteus maximus develops, it grows back, not outward. I say this because neither its insertion point nor origin attachment is at the hips. If squats did widen the hips, Olympic lifters would be built like mailboxes. However, Gironda’s propaganda stuck, as it was much easier to do leg presses and leg curls than squats.
As for Jones, he decided it would be better for athletes and muscle builders alike to avoid squats and instead focus on isolation movements with machines. Jones’s observation was that since muscles function in a rotary fashion, barbells were inadequate tools because they provided unidirectional resistance, which is why barbell exercises have sticking points. As such, his opinion was that the only way to work the muscles evenly through a full range of motion was with machines possessing shell-shaped cams that provided heavier resistance when the athlete was stronger. Jones considered an ideal lower body workout would include just one set of four exercises; namely, leg extensions supersetted with leg presses (using the Nautilus Compound Leg Machine), leg curl (Nautilus Leg Curl machine), and the hip and lower back machine (Nautilus Hip and Back Machine). The last machine, which is no longer produced, produced a motion resembling that of a squat, but performed from a supine position. Nice try.
According to German sport scientist Dietmar Schmidtbleicher, machine exercises (especially when performed on variable resistance machines such as those produced by Nautilus) are not as neuromuscularly challenging as complex exercises with free weights. In other words, drawing on Gestalt psychology, the “whole” of a complex exercise such as a squat or a deadlift “is greater than the sum of its parts.” In fact, one of my colleagues came across a bodybuilder who could routinely pump out sets of 10 reps with 800 pounds on the incline leg press but struggled trying to do 3 reps with a parallel squat with 225 pounds – that’s just wrong.
What Jones did get right was the importance of training the glutes and hips, especially for athletes. The three major gluteal muscles are the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. They are a key muscle group for running, jumping and kicking because they work with the hamstrings and lower back muscles to extend the trunk and pull the pelvis backward. The erector spinae contains three parallel sets of muscles (iliocostalis, longissimus and spinalis) that run from the sacrum to the base of the neck. These muscles extend and laterally flex the spine.
Although squats and deadlifts strengthen the erector spinae muscles in compound exercises, if these muscles are relatively weak, they will hold back your progress in these exercises. For example, a weakness in the erector spinae muscles could result in an athlete rounding their spine during the squat or deadlift, increasing the risk of injuring the disks of the spine. You are only as strong as your weakest link, and this explains the search for special assistance exercises that target these muscles.
Further, strengthening the erector spinae creates what is known as an “irradiation effect,” such that when you strengthen this muscle group, you also strengthen many other muscle groups. For example, by strengthening your lower back you can increase your performance in the military press and biceps curl. Nevertheless, I see many strength coaches still focus their lower body training on exercises for the quadriceps.
With that background, let’s take a close look at the reverse hyper.
A Look Back, and Forward, at the Reverse Hyper
The reverse back extension has been used in gymnastics for a long time. I’ve seen two gymnastics books, one from East Germany and the other from Hungary, that show this exercise being performed with resistance over a pommel horse, with the athlete holding a medicine ball between their feet or, alternatively, having a kettlebell strapped to their ankles. The German physiotherapy book Training Therapy: Prophylaxis and Rehabilitation by Rolf Gustavsen and Renate Streeck shows the performance of a variation of this exercise. Another interesting variation was developed by American weightlifter Roger Quinn.
At a bodyweight of 181 pounds, Quinn snatched 303 pounds, clean and jerked 385 at the 1972 Olympic Trials, and attempted a 402 jerk to try to make the Olympic Team. Impressive, but even more so was the fact that chronic knee injuries prevented him from squatting heavy. As such, he would focus on the Olympic lifts and then substitute a combination of other exercises for squats. One of these was a reverse hyper using manual resistance.
Describing the exercise in an article he wrote that was published in the March 1974 issue of International Olympic Lifter,
Quinn lay facedown on a pommel horse and had his coach, Bob Hise, Sr., apply manual resistance to his legs. Quinn’s legs were straight throughout the exercise to avoid stressing his knees. “These reverse hyperextensions…seem to work the buttock muscles in the same fashion that the two-hand curl works the biceps,” said Quinn. “I feel that this exercise comes close to really isolating the buttocks while at the same time employing the spinal erector muscles of the lower back.”
In a physical therapy textbook from Australia published in the early ’80s called Posture Makes Perfect
, Dr. Victor Barker provided an illustration of a reverse hyper performed on a specially designed bench that enables the user to anchor the torso and lift the legs. The resistance was applied to the back of the lower legs with the roller pad of a leg extension machine. But it appears that the first working prototypes for a reverse hyper machine were developed by powerlifting guru Louie Simmons of the US and Canadian competitive powerlifter Tony Dolezel.
In 1976 Dolezel seriously injured his lower back performing a good morning exercise. In looking for a way to stretch and decompress his lower back due to the chronic pain he was suffering, he developed a bench for performing the reverse hyperextension, which was installed in the Spartacus Athletic Club in Vancouver, British Columbia, on December 13, 1979.
Simmons also suffered a back injury and sought to rehab it by developing a reverse hyper extension machine. The resistance was applied by a strap that wrapped around the ankle. The strap attached to a lever arm that had a pivot point under the bench. This design enabled the legs to be pulled in line with and even under the hips, increasing the range of motion of the exercise and thus providing traction on the erector spinae. In 1993 Simmons received a patent for the first reverse hyper machine, and it became a hit with powerlifters and, later, with strength coaches.
Because so many basic weight training movements require the lower back to be arched, using the reverse hyper can help decrease muscle tension in the lower back. Further, the movement is ideal for many individual with disk injuries. I say this because the compressive forces on the spine can be much lower on a reverse hyper machine than on conventional back machines. Research by Alf Nachemson of Sweden in 1975 showed that leaning forward about 15 degrees from a seated position can nearly double the compressive forces on the L2-3 vertebrae. I should also note that because the feet are not in contact with the floor or a footplate, the reverse hyper is an ideal exercise for those with a foot injury.
Many design changes have been made in reverse hyper machines to make the exercise more comfortable. Instead of positioning the pivot point of the lever arm under the chest, some machines place it in line with the axis of rotation of the hips. Ultimately, the strap was replaced with roller pads, some of which are adjustable, as the strap would often slip during the performance of the exercise. Some newer units have a step to make it easier to enter and exit the machine.
Another valuable feature, one that is included on the Atlantis version, is a range-limiter device. For those with flexibility issues, this design prevents the lever arm from swinging too far forward and causing injury. Finally, there have been many changes in the machine’s support pad.
The first hyper extension machines had the chest pad horizontal to the floor. Later versions had the chest (or torso) pad is tilted downward so that the head is lower than the hips. This latter design has two advantages. First, it reduces the stress on the lower back by posteriorly rotating the pelvis and flattening the lower back into a neutral spine. With a conventional chest pad, lifting the legs to parallel can place a high level of stress on the L3 to L5 vertebrae – you don’t want to hyperextend the spine (and as such, the exercise should be called a reverse back extension). Also, this position changes the resistance curve so that more resistance is felt earlier in the movement; in the Atlantis version, two loading pegs are provided to overload either the beginning or end range of the exercise. This allows you match the resistance curve to the force curve. But this pad has evolved a step further.
Many chest pads have a slit in the center at one end, making it more comfortable for men. Atlantis took it a step further with what I would describe as a half-moon pelvic bench rather than a chest pad to reduce the stress on the abdomen, a common complaint among users (especially women) of other reverse hyper machines. Having said that, those who experience abdominal discomfort when performing this exercise usually are improperly positioned on the chest pad.
Although the reverse hyper is a valuable exercise, I still recommend the performance of other back exercises such as conventional and incline back extensions. For example, from a muscle recruitment standpoint it appears that incline back extensions and reverse hypers target more of the lumbar spine below L3, and conventional back extensions recruit more of the spine above L3. Thus, in a six-week program, a trainer could perform reverse hypers for two weeks, followed by two weeks of back extensions, followed by two weeks of incline back extensions.
Because the erector spinae are composed of both high-threshold motor units and low-threshold motor units, you should perform a combination of high-rep and low-rep protocols. The low reps will help with performance in heavy compound exercises such as squats, and the higher reps are important to help prevent and rehabilitate conditions that cause back pain. In fact, the current thinking in back pain rehabilitation is that muscular endurance is more important than absolute strength. For more on this subject, I highly recommend Dr. Stuart McGill’s extensively researched but highly readable textbook, Low Back Disorders, 2nd Edition
(Human Kinetics, 2007).
The reverse hyper has gone through many changes, especially in the past two decades, and all for the better. I strongly recommend you incorporate this exercise into your workout programs.