How To: Glute Ham Raise

The glute ham raise is the only exercise that takes the hamstrings through their complete range of motion. It’s one of our favorites for building muscle in the posterior chain of intermediate lifters. Learn more below!

Grow Your Hamstrings

The glute ham raise is one of our favorite lower body accessory movements for building stronger hamstrings. In order to perform the exercise, a specialized piece of gym equipment is needed—often referred to as the “glute ham calf developer,” the “glute ham raise machine,” or as it is known in the CrossFit games, “the glute ham developer” (or G.H.D.). The main drawback of this machine is its large footprint for only one exercise, making it fairly impractical for most home gym setups. However, if you can find the space (and justify the cost), or have access to one at a commercial gym, this accessory movement is a great addition to an intermediate program, and trains the hamstrings very effectively.

So why is it such an awesome exercise? It is the only exercise that takes the hamstrings through their full range of motion. All three of the muscles in the hamstrings are two-joint muscles, meaning this muscle group crosses both the hip and knee joint. They originate on the ischial tuberosity of the pelvis, making them a powerful hip extensor. At the same time, they are prime movers of knee flexion, with strong, thick attachments on the tibia and fibula.

Besides their role as primary movers of hip extension and knee flexion, the hamstrings are primary stabilizers of the trunk and important for maintaining body posture. Without the hamstrings anchoring the pelvis at the ischial tuberosities, the muscles working to hold the spine and pelvis in extension would be ineffective as the legs moved during jumping, running, or walking. The hamstrings allow force that the lower extremities produce to be transmitted through the pelvis and spine into many useful human movements, including squats and deadlifts. This makes them a critical component of the posterior chain.

Stiff-legged deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts result in full extension (lengthening) of the hamstrings, but not complete contraction (shortening). On the other hand, leg curls result in full contraction, but not complete extension.

How To Use the Glute Ham Developer

Hold your feet in the machine so that you are in plantar flexion—a calf raise against the foot plate. Your knees should be pressing into the back of the rounded saddle, so that if you were to relax the calf raise you would start to fall through the gap. At the top of the movement, hips are fully extended and the knees are bent—resulting in a vertical torso and thighs. This is where the hamstrings are the shortest, or the most contracted.

Once you are set up, begin the movement by straightening the knees, keeping the calves raised and feet pushing on the plate. Once the knees are fully straightened (your body will be roughly parallel to the floor), flex at the hips while maintaining a flat, rigid spine. At this point, the hamstrings are fully lengthened. Be careful to not let your back “round” over, as this will slacken your hamstrings and defeat the goal of this exercise. To return to the starting position, reverse the movements you just performed—straighten out your hips, then flex your knees until your upper body and thighs are vertical once again.

Programming the Glute Ham Raise

Be careful the first few times you perform and program the glute ham raise exercise. Because of the heavy eccentric component, or lengthening of the muscle groups under load, you could potentially become very sore. It is best to perform the easiest variation of this exercise for a couple sets, and see how feel a few days later.

Regardless, novice trainees should not be doing glute ham raises. This is a movement that is appropriate to introduce into an intermediate program. If you are on a 4-day split, for example, including this accessory exercise at the end of lower body days is a great option. You will likely see the most carryover benefit to your deadlift.

When you first introduce the glute ham raise into your programming, start with 3-4 sets of 8. Begin with only body weight, and adjust the foot plate so your knees are as far back on the rounded saddle as possible, to make the movement as easy as possible. Once you have acclimated to the movement and are able to complete 4 sets of 12 reps, increase the difficulty slightly (more on this shortly). This will cause the reps to drop down a bit for each set. Continue progressing by working back up to 12 reps across, then increase the difficulty slightly again. This simple programming should work for a very long time.

There are three glute ham raise variations that can make this exercise more difficult as you progress: 1) Move the foot plate closer to the pad. This will force your knees forward on the pad, resulting in more of your body weight being suspended out in front of the machine—increasing the resistance. 2) Raise the foot plate (or the entire back of the machine) up towards the ceiling. This will result in a more declined bottom position, increasing the difficulty. 3) Finally, strapping a resistance band across your shoulders (anchored on the machine) can increase the effort needed to complete the movement. Alternatively, holding a weight plate against your upper body can accomplish the same effect—with the subtle difference of the held weight being most difficult at the bottom of the range of motion, and the resistance band being most difficult at the top.

Watch the video above for a complete tutorial on how to perform glute ham raises!



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