I often talk about the benefits of focusing on exercises that give you the most bang for your buck. These are exercises that involve a large amount of muscle mass and create high levels of muscle tension. Cable crossovers? No, despite the fact that they look good in photo spreads. Triceps kickbacks? Hell, no! Power cleans and military presses? Yes. Squats and deadlifts? Yes, absolutely. Add to that list the glute-ham raise.
The glute-ham raise – or, more appropriately, the glute-ham gastrocnemius raise, because it also works the calves – enables an athlete to work both the knee and hip extension functions of the hamstrings. It also works the entire length of the erector spinae muscles, especially the middle portion, which is often exposed to high forces in athletics. The back extension is a good exercise, but because the legs are straight throughout the exercise, it only works hip extension and not knee extension. Besides that, some sport scientists consider the glute-ham raise a more natural movement because in this exercise the hip and knee extensors work together instead of in isolation.
What many trainers don’t realize is that although the quads are impressive muscles, approximately 40 percent of the power for sprinting and jumping comes from the glutes, 25 percent from the hamstrings, and about 5 percent from the calves. That’s why it’s imperative that all athletes concentrate on strengthening these muscles with assistance exercises such as the glute-ham raise.
I also consider the glute-ham raise to be one of the most important exercises for preventing back and knee injuries. The spine is exposed to great compressive forces in many sports, and I’ve found that athletes who are weak in the hamstrings, glutes and lower back not only are more likely to injure their lower back but also are especially prone to tearing their ACL. Because the glute-ham exercise increases muscle mass and strength in the back, glutes and hamstrings, athletes who include this exercise in their programs are better able to withstand the compressive loads and other disruptive forces that occur in sports such as football and Alpine skiing. Further, the glute-ham raise strengthens the spine without the high compressive forces that exercises such as deadlifts place on the spine.
For trainees who think they can do fine by focusing on core lifts such as power cleans and squats, consider the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link – and in power cleans and squats that weak link is often the lower back and hamstrings. The lower back muscles help transfer the force from the legs to the upper body and then to the bar in these exercises, so neglecting the back will compromise a trainee’s technique or will force them to use lighter weights. If heavy weights are used without adequately strengthening the muscles of the spine, the back will round, placing harmful stress on the ligaments and disks of the back.
When it comes to the importance of lower back training, history bears me out. The Russian weightlifting coaches placed a great deal of emphasis on the erector spinae muscles. In fact, at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, US weightlifter Tommy Suggs observed that the Russians would assess their competition by the thickness of their erector spinae muscles. As a Russian coach or athlete shook a competitor’s hand, he would reach behind the athlete with his free hand and touch the athlete’s back muscles to check their tone and thickness. Another US weightlifter who attended training hall sessions in Russia said that he saw the Russian athletes perform back extension movements such as the glute-ham raise twice, once at the beginning of the workout as a warm-up with no additional resistance and again at the end of the workout with resistance as a strengthening exercise.
The first appearance of the glute-ham raise in American media was in 1971 in Strength and Health
magazine, which showed photos of Russian weightlifters performing the lift on a pommel horse with the athletes securing their feet on wooden stall bars. The rounded edges of the pommel horse allowed the athletes to flex their knees at the top to achieve a greater range of motion. In later years they would secure their legs with straps attached to the stall bars.
Mastering the Glute-Ham Raise
Because most gyms in the US did not (and still do not) have stall bars and pommel horses, eventually a special exercise unit was developed to perform the glute-ham raise. Rather than having a flat bench on which to rest the upper thighs, the bench was curved to facilitate the bending of the knees – I especially like the Atlantis version because it has two pads, separated down the center, making it more comfortable for men. The better units have a footplate that secures the ankles between two roller pads; also, the footplate is adjustable vertically and horizontally to accommodate all body types.
Before performing the glute-ham exercise, it’s important to adjust the machine for your height. Start by adjusting the footplate so that when your feet are secured, your upper thighs are resting on the center of the bench and you can hang your upper body over the edge of the bench so that it is perpendicular to the floor. Next, adjust the height of the footplate to a comfortable position – if the footplate is too low, the pad will dig into your thighs.
Begin by lying facedown on the unit. Using the hand grips for support, place your feet on the footplate with your toes pointed downward. Hang over the bench, bending at the hips so your upper back is at a 90-degree angle to your lower body. Place your hands across your chest, and raise your trunk so your upper body is perpendicular to the floor – keep your back straight (i.e., in a neutral position) throughout the exercise. From here, continue raising your trunk by flexing your knees – you should be pushing the footplate with the balls of your feet to activate your calves, as they are involved in knee flexion. If you are not strong enough to lift your trunk to this position, try the exercise with your hands on your hips, as this will lower your center of mass. If it’s still too difficult, a training partner can essentially reduce the weight of your upper body by standing in front of you and pushing upward on your shoulders.
When this version of the exercise becomes easy, perform the eccentric portion of the exercise with your hands placed behind your head – this moves the center of mass closer to your head. In other words, perform the concentric portion with your hands across your chest (which will make the movement easier), and at the top of the movement place your hands behind your head for the eccentric portion (which will make the exercise harder). Soon you will be able to perform all the reps with your hands behind your head. You also can make the exercise more difficult by placing your knees on the pad (which requires moving the footplate closer to the pad) and raising the height of the footplate.
When you become strong enough to add more resistance, you have several options. For example, you can hold a medicine ball or weight plate or dumbbell against your chest. If you are strong enough, you can place a barbell behind your shoulders; position the bar the same as you would with a back squat – not on your neck. I do not recommend bands or chains because the movement has a descending resistance curve, meaning that this exercise becomes harder as you reach the top of the movement. Using chains or bands would make the exercise too difficult at the end of the movement instead of at the beginning, where you are stronger.
Besides changing your hand position from the chest to behind your head, you can change the position of the additional weight to increase the eccentric overload. Here’s how to do it: Grasp a weight plate or dumbbell and hold it against your chest. Perform the concentric portion of the exercise, and then at the top position extend the weight in front of you and slowly return to the start position. Extending your arms increases the lever arm, thereby increasing the resistance during the eccentric portion of the exercise. This is surprisingly difficult. If you can perform 10 perfect repetitions of this exercise in the normal fashion, you might find that just five pounds of additional resistance is all that is necessary to sufficiently overload your muscles. Because the hamstrings are composed primarily of fast-twitch muscle fibers, they respond well to this variation because you can create a higher level of muscle tension with eccentric contractions.
Because you are weaker during the second portion of the exercise, you can perform a form of pre-exhaustion to more effectively match the strength curve of the muscles. For example, you can perform 5 repetitions of back extensions (i.e., the first part of the exercise) with resistance, and then immediately perform 5 reps of the full movements – what you’ll find is that during the last several reps, the exercise will feel “smooth” throughout the entire movement. You also can use a form of post-exhaustion by performing 5 full repetitions without resistance, and then grasping a weight and immediately performing 5 back extensions.
I should also mention that the glute-ham raise can be used to resolve structural imbalances between the medial hamstrings (semitendinosus and semimembranosus), which rotate the foot inward, and the lateral hamstrings (biceps femoris), which rotate the foot outward. For example, if an athlete runs with their feet turned excessively outward, I would have them perform the glute-ham raise with their feet turned slightly inward. If they run with their feet turned excessively inward, I would have them perform the exercise with their feet turned slightly outward.
The glute-ham raise is an exercise I consider a must for athletes who want to run faster and jump higher. But more than that, it is an exercise that will help improve athletes’ structural balance so they can perform better with less risk of injury. I hope the glute-ham raise is already in your exercise toolbox, but if not, be sure to add it. You’re sure to see great results by including it in your workouts throughout the training year.