Few bodyweight exercises are as difficult or as effective as the Glute Ham Raise (GHR) when it comes to building strength and muscle. The Pull-Up equivalent for the lower body, the GHR humbles even well-trained athletes when they first try it. That’s because GHRs require precise coordination to move your own body weight using the glutes and hamstrings, muscles that are often underdeveloped but play a crucial role in powerful movements like sprinting and jumping.
A unique feature of the GHR is that it trains hip extension and knee flexion at the same time, something that can’t be said for any other exercise. To put it simply, you’d need to do Leg Curls AND some sort of Deadlift or Hip Thrust to get the same effect. This level of efficiency is crucial for athletes who want to get the most out of their workouts.
With a few subtle tweaks, you can also substantially change the target muscle groups and scale the difficulty of the movement, leading to several exercises rolled into one. Let’s take a look at the basic movement before hitting on two variations that can also be quite useful for athletes.
The Full GHR
The primary GHR variation trains the knees and hips as one unit. Set up the GHR machine so your thighs are against the pad and the majority of your foot is in contact with the foot plate (it’s OK if your heels aren’t perfectly flat). Lower yourself all the way down until you’re in a hip hinge position at the bottom with your legs straight (your body should form an “L” shape, similar to a Deadlift). Then, drive the balls of your feet into the block while bending your knees and squeezing your glutes to lift yourself back up to the top. Try to get as perpendicular to the floor as possible without arching your lower back. Remember, you should feel this exercise in your glutes, hamstrings and calves, NOT your lumbar erectors (lower back muscles).
Be warned, this exercise is HARD. If you’re not quite strong enough to do GHRs on your own yet, have a coach or training partner assist you. Lower yourself down slowly, and then have your coach or partner place his or her hands on your shoulders or chest to help push you back to the top.
Variation 1: Hamstring-Dominant GHR
This variation lets the hamstrings take center stage while training the glutes isometrically. Similar to a Nordic Leg Curl or Natural Hamstring Curl, research has shown this type of exercise to be highly effective in reducing hamstring strains in athletes.
Lower yourself toward the ground like a typical GHR, but stop once your body is parallel to the floor, similar to a plank position. Keep your abs braced and glutes squeezed to prevent overarching your lower back. Then, drive your feet into the foot plate to lift yourself back to the starting position. The key here is to only bend and straighten your knees—no moving through the hips.
Variation 2: Back Extension to Neutral
Most back extension exercises do exactly what their name implies: train the extensor muscles of the lower back. However, many athletes already rely too much on their lower back muscles and not enough on their abs, glutes and hamstrings, reducing performance and placing them at higher risk of injury. In plain English, most athletes move too much from their lower back and not enough through their core and hips, so loading up on more back extension exercises won’t fix the problem.
That’s why this “back extension” version of the GHR actually trains hip extension via the glutes and hamstrings while keeping the knees locked. Lower yourself down into a hip hinge position (just like the first GHR), then squeeze your glutes and push your feet into the foot plate until you’re parallel to the floor. The legs should be completely straight and your upper back should be rounded to prevent using the lower back. More so than the first two GHRs, the heels should be as flat on the foot plate as possible to get more glute and hamstring involvement.
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