Back Extensions vs Glute Ham Raise

Which Exercise is Best for Posterior Chain Development?

For posterior chain development, there are a number of exercises that should be prioritized and performed on a regular basis.

Back extensions and glute ham raises are two resistance exercises that are very commonly used for strengthening the low back, glutes, and hamstrings.

This article will provide information on the technique of the back extensions and glute ham raises, investigate benefits and explore the differences that exist between both exercises.

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Back Extensions Technique

Back extensions are most commonly performed using a back extensions bench or on a glute-ham developer (GHD) and some gyms even contain back extensions machines.

The bench put the performer in a position where the upper thighs are in contact with pads so to isolate the legs thus ensuring that movement can only occur through the hips.

Be aware that some back extension set-ups will place you either at a 45-degree angle whereas others will start you at a 90-degree angle.

The exercise particularly targets the lower back muscles – particularly the spinal erectors (1). The exercise also activates the hamstrings to a lesser degree.

To effectively perform the back extension, follow the four simple steps detailed below.

1) Adjust the bench or GHD so that the feet are anchored and the upper thighs make contact with the pads. In the starting position, the legs should be straight and the body held at either a 45 or 90-degree angle.

2) Before tipping forward, drive the chest up, pull the shoulder back and actively squeeze the core muscles.

3) Keeping the back flat, in a controlled manner hinge from the hips so that the upper body drops down towards the floor.

4) Having dropped down, focus on contracting the glutes and hamstrings powerfully in order to return to the starting position. Squeeze all posterior muscles tightly at the top before repeating these steps.

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Glute Ham Raise Technique

Glute-ham raises are performed on the GHD and are an effective developer of the posterior chain, particularly the hamstrings (as the name suggests) (2).

While the glute-ham raise places more of a demand on the hamstrings and glutes than back the back extension, less stress is applied to the spinal erectors.

With many moving parts, take care when setting up the GHD. Ensure that the pads are placed in the correct position otherwise the risk of sustaining an injury may increase.

As with the back extensions, make sure that the rear pads anchor the feet in position and that the front pads prevent the knees from moving forward.

Follow the subsequent four steps to safely perform the glute-ham raise.

1) Start by adjusting the GHD so that the torso is perpendicular to the floor with the legs anchored and the knees tight to the front pads.

2) Before dropping towards the floor, lift the chest, squeeze between the shoulder blades, and brace the core muscles.

3) Keeping the movement controlled and the back straight, slowly extend at the knees so that the trunk falls forward until it is parallel with the floor.

4) From this position, focus on contracting the hamstrings and glutes to pull the body back up to the starting position.

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Back Extensions and Glute-Ham Raises Benefits

This section will detail three significant benefits associated with both the back extension and glute-ham raise.

1) Increasing Strength
The most obvious benefit related to both of these exercises is in terms of strength development.

Regularly performing either exercise will apply stress to many posterior chain muscles and cause the muscle tissue to breakdown at a microscopic level.

Providing that recovery is prioritized, the muscles will then rebuild and become significantly stronger (3).

2) Facilitating Performance
In connection with improving strength, both of these exercises can be effectively used as accessory movements to facilitate improvements with other lifts.

Building strength and enhancing overall movement through the back extension or glute-ham raise can lead to an improved performance with compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and the Olympic lifts.

3) Injury Prevention
Finally, building stronger hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors can decrease the likelihood of injury occurring.

The spinal erectors play a monumental role in preventing excessive spinal flexion. Therefore, by increasing the strength of these muscles the risk of injury to the spine may decrease.

In a similar vein, developing hamstring and glute strength will reduce the chances of sustaining an injury to the lower extremities.

For those who participate in sport, the hamstring is a site that is commonly injured (4), therefore, for athletes, great emphasis should be placed on hamstring development.

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Differences between Back Extensions and Glute Ham Raises

While both exercises are similar in terms of set up and execution, there are slight differences to be aware of. This section will highlight four differences that exist between the two.

It is important to know these differences as this will impact your programming. At times in your training it may be necessary to select the back extensions over glute-ham raises and vice versa.

1) Hamstring Emphasis

Although back extensions do work the hamstrings, the glute-ham raise is superior for hamstring development due to the positioning of the body.

For back extensions, movement occurs at the hip joint while the legs are kept straight. The movement of the glute-ham raise originates from the flexion and extension of the knee joint.

Considering that the hamstrings cause knee flexion and the glute-ham raise requires flexion of the knee, the exercise places a great load on the hamstrings.

There are a number of methods for increasing the load on the hamstrings including adding a resistance band, incorporating isometrics, wearing a weighted vest or using free weights.

However, do take great care when adding resistance as it is imperative that the hips remain fixed and the spine stays in a neutral position throughout.

Finally, it is likely that you will not be able to load the glute-ham raise to the same extent as the back extension.

2) Lower Back Emphasis

As mentioned, during the lower back extension the legs remain straight while movement occurs through the hip joint.

Because no movement occurs at the knees, the hamstrings have less involvement in the movement and it is the spinal erectors that are subject to the greatest load.

The spinal erectors work to keep the back straight and protect the spine. Therefore, the demand on these muscles can be increased by adding a slight spinal flexion and extension.

While this is the case, ensure to avoid lumbar (lower) spine flexion especially with heavy weights as this has the potential to lead to severe injury.

In a similar way with the glute-ham raise, it is possible to load this exercise by placing a bar on the upper back on holding a weight tight to the chest.

One potential benefit of the back extension is that due to the movement patterns and muscles targeted, typically a greater load can be applied in comparison to the glute-ham raise.

3) Equipment Used

Traditionally both exercises are performed on different pieces of kit – a GHD for the glute-ham raise and an extensions bench for back extensions.

However, these two exercises are very versatile as both can be performed on an array of equipment.

As touched on previously, both exercises can be made more challenging through the use of resistance. Resistance bands and free weights are two commonly used pieces of kit.

If you are new to either or both of these exercises, ensure that you master the bodyweight version first before advancing onto resisted variations.

4) Complexity

When it comes to the complexity of both exercises, the glute-ham raise is certainly more challenging than the back extensions and therefore should be attempted by those who are at an intermediate or advanced level of training.

One of the most fundamental human movements is the hip hinge, however, it is not uncommon to see individuals moving from the spine rather than through the hips.

If you are new to either exercise, ensure that you have mastered the hip hinge first before moving onto either exercise.

From there, take care with the technique and be willing to spend a great amount of time learning and reinforcing good technique.

Doing this will effectively establish neural pathways and facilitate better movement. Only once you are proficient with the technique should you consider adding load to the exercise.

Progressive overloading the exercise will bring about the greatest gains and facilitate a better performance with a number of other lifts.

To apply progressive overload most effectively, manipulate the load, volume or intensity of the exercise.

Final Word

It is abundantly clear that both exercises are highly effective developers of a number of posterior chain muscles – particularly the glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors.

If your goal is to develop hamstring strength, it is recommended to focus on the glute-ham raise. However, if your goal is to develop your back, specifically the spinal erectors, concentrate on lower back extensions.

Let us know what you think in the comments below. Also, be sure to follow Generation Iron on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. 

*Images courtesy of Envato

References:

1 -Lee, Ho-Seong (December 31, 2015). “Enhanced muscle activity during lumbar extension exercise with pelvic stabilization”. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation. 11 (6): 372–377. doi:10.12965/jer.150249. ISSN 2288-176X. PMC 4697788. PMID 26730390.

2 – McAllister, Matt J.; Hammond, Kelley G.; Schilling, Brian K.; Ferreria, Lucas C.; Reed, Jacob P.; Weiss, Lawrence W. (2014-06). “Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 28 (6): 1573–1580. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000302. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 24149748.

3 – Brumitt, Jason; Cuddeford, Tyler (2015-11). “CURRENT CONCEPTS OF MUSCLE AND TENDON ADAPTATION TO STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING”. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 10 (6): 748–759. ISSN 2159-2896. PMC 4637912. PMID 26618057.

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Austin Letorney is a writer, actor, and fitness enthusiast. As a former rower, he has shifted his focus to sharing his knowledge of the fitness world and strength sports with others.