Your posterior chain — back, glutes, and hamstrings — muscles play a vital role in your body. These muscles in the back of your legs help with your posture, keep your movements smooth, and ensure your spine is supported. In addition, back extensions and glute ham raise increase the strength, muscle hypertrophy, and endurance of your lower body and posterior chain muscles.
Back extensions and glute ham raise have many similarities, apart from targeting the same muscle groups. They’re both performed as accessory movements for rehabilitation, injury, or to improve athletic performance. These movements are also bodyweight exercises with options for using some form of weights.
Without a doubt, both these routines should be a part of your gym training program. However, they have some crucial differences that you should know. So here's an in-depth look into these posterior chain exercises and some details to help you decide which to go for first to maximize your performance.
Back Extension Overview
Back extensions, also called back hyperextensions, target the muscles of your lower back including your spinal erectors. This excellent exercise is often used to improve your deadlift performance and is great for the glutes. We recommend it for people with desk jobs, as it helps to counter the effects of sitting all day by strengthening your lower back and hips.
Back Extension Technique
Back extensions and glute ham raise involve similar bending and raising motions. We can also do both on the machines for each exercise. However, the techniques are different. For example, back extensions involve no leg movements, as padded bars secure your legs at the ankles. This focuses almost entirely on your lower back with minor input from your glutes. Glute ham raises, on the other hand, feature an up-and-down leg sliding that reduces lower back engagement and boosts input from your hamstring and glutes. Below is how to do both exercises with proper form.
The Hyperextension Bench
The Hyperextension Bench, is a highly effective piece of equipment for improving posterior chain strength. It is designed primarily for performing back extensions, one of the best exercises to target the muscles of your lower back. The back extension not only enhances muscle hypertrophy but also aids in rehabilitating lower back injuries and improving overall performance.
The hyperextension bench allows the user to perform exercises with a full range of motion, targeting the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. It offers adjustable settings to accommodate different body sizes and workout preferences, ensuring optimal comfort and performance.
Utilizing the hyperextension bench is an excellent way to counteract the negative effects of prolonged sitting, typical in desk jobs. It provides significant support to the lower back, promoting proper posture and reducing the likelihood of back pain. Proper usage of this bench can lead to a robust and resilient posterior chain, an essential aspect of overall fitness and athleticism.
How to Do Back Extensions?
Set your back extension machine so your thighs are just above the pads when you step in.
Put your body in a straight line with your thighs resting against the padding.
Cross your arms over your chest, tighten your back, and hinge forward at the waist till you feel the tension in your hamstrings.
Return to your starting position while caring not to round your back for a complete rep.
Back Extension Pros and Cons
Back extensions are great exercises but can work differently for specific people. Knowing the pros and cons of this routine can help you determine when best to include it in your routine.
Back Extension Pros
- You don't need a lot of weight for this exercise to be effective.
- This exercise is a great rehab for those with a lower back injury.
- This routine gives less core and lower back fatigue than hamstrings and deadlifts.
Back Extension Cons
- You need a Roman chair or hyperextension machine to get the best results with this exercise.
- Doing this routine incorrectly could make your back pain worse or even lead to more injuries.
Glute Ham Raise Overview
Many athletes use the glute-ham raise to improve the strength and power in their glutes and hamstrings. Surprisingly, despite having "glute" in its name, a study shows that the glute ham raise is the best exercise for activating hamstrings (1). Stronger hamstrings will help to create a stronger posterior chain! The glute ham raise gives excellent results over time, but you must do this routine properly.
The Glute Ham Developer - GHD Machine
The Glute Ham Developer (GHD) machine is an essential piece of equipment for executing glute ham raises properly. It is uniquely designed to allow a full range of motion and accurately target your glutes and hamstrings. The GHD has an adjustable footplate and hip pad to ensure a custom fit for any athlete, providing secure support and stability during intense workouts.
One of the best ways to utilize the glute-ham machine is by incorporating a mix of both isometric and dynamic exercises. These workouts not only stimulate muscle growth but also significantly enhance muscle endurance and power. The glute-ham machine's versatility allows for a wide range of other workouts beyond the traditional glute ham raises, making it a staple in most strength and conditioning programs. It is crucial to maintain proper form and controlled movements to fully reap the benefits of the GHD machine and prevent any potential injuries.
How to Do Glute Ham Raises?
As mentioned above, glute ham raises use a specific machine to perform the exercise. It it is known as a Glute Ham Developer or GHD Machine and there aren't not many substitute or alternatives to achieve the same functionality.
Set your glute ham developer so your knees are below the hip pad when you get into it.
Adjust the foot plate and ankle pads so that your feet are secure.
Keeping your torso perpendicular to the floor, get into a tall kneeling position.
Bend your knees and lower your torso until it gets parallel to the ground.
While keeping your back straight, raise your torso by pushing the balls of your feet off the footplate.
Pause for a second when you get to the starting position to complete your rep before going again.
Glute Ham Raise Pros and Cons
You should also include glute ham raises in your training routine to build your hamstrings and glutes. Here are some pros and cons of this exercise to help you decide how to incorporate it.
Glute Ham Raise Pros
- Glute ham raises are not as brutal on your lower back as many other exercises.
- This exercise targets and builds both the glutes and the hamstrings
- With this routine, you can do an iso hold to increase muscle hypertrophy and growth further.
- You can slow down during both the upward and downward movements of this exercise, making it great for increasing strength and muscle mass.
Glute Ham Raise Cons
- The best machine for doing glute ham raises is the GHD. You can do it on other machines, but some variations train your hamstrings less.
- While done with body weight, this exercise still requires some level of hamstring strength and body awareness that beginners might need to improve.
Back extensions and glute ham raises are great for posterior chain development. The primary muscles in your posterior chain include the gluteus, hamstrings, erector spinae, and calves. Then there are also the upper body muscles: lats, traps, and rhomboids that these movements target as well.
Training your posterior chain muscles improves performance, prevents injuries, maintains your posture, and improves lower back pain (2). However, these routines both activate these muscles in different capacities. Below are both exercises with an emphasis on which muscles they recruit better.
Back Extensions Muscles Used
Back extensions give solid training to your lower back and glutes. Plus, by positioning your thigh pads higher, you can further decrease the use of your hamstrings and strengthen your glute involvement during back extensions. It also works your lower back better, allowing for more load during the routine.
Glute Ham Raises Muscles Used
There isn’t a better exercise for working on your hamstrings than the glute ham raise. One study done in 2019 showed that this exercise activated the hamstrings by as much as 98% (3). There are variations of this exercise that you can use further to recruit the hamstrings, like the flex-hip glute ham raise.
Are you still deciding when to use either of these routines for your strength training programs? There are some other essential factors to consider.
Back extensions are best used as accessory movements; you can do them toward the end of your routines. You can also do these exercises while recovering from a particularly strenuous deadlift session. They'll help to work on your lower back strength. With this routine, you can do higher reps since you can't load on weights. Any number between 8-15 should sufficiently work your muscles and promote growth.
Glute ham raises can also be used as an accessory routine and as a sub for dumbbell or barbell exercises. This can help prevent a plateau where your body gets used to a particular movement and growth stops.
For strength training, about five, six, or seven reps of glute ham should suffice. However, athletes using these workouts to induce muscle hypertrophy should aim for about three or four sets with 8-12 reps.
When to Use Back Extensions?
Back extensions are great for people trying to strengthen their lower back. It can teach you to brace your core better during deadlifts and squats. Back extensions can also help you perfect your deadlift lockout.
When to Use Glute Ham Raises?
If you want to build strong hamstrings and glutes, glute ham raises are the answer. They'll also help you train your hamstrings without putting too much strain on your lower back. Weightlifters or powerlifters can use this exercise to improve their knee stability for squats.
When to Use Both?
If you have a glute-ham developer, you can combine both exercises. Feel free to proceed if you have enough time to do both exercises. You can do both exercises to strengthen your legs while building your hamstrings.
Glute Ham Raise vs Back Extension: Frequently Asked Questions
Which is best for my home gym?
This is a question we get pretty often - and as with most home gyms, it really depends! Every person has a different budget and equipment need. GHDs will be much more expensive and have a much larger footprint than a hyperextension bench. This is usually the limiting factor. However, many people would probably benefit more from owning a GHD than from owning a back extension making it the better choice in our opinion.
Are Glute Ham Raises the Same as Back Extensions?
Glute ham raises vary from back extensions, although they have some similarities. Glute ham raises are done on a glute ham developer (GHD) and are better at building your hamstrings. Back extensions are done on a Roman chair or hyperextension bench and are better for your lower back muscles.
Is the Glute Ham Raise or Back Extension Better?
Knowing which is better between glute ham raises and back extensions depends on your needs. None is inherently a better exercise; it depends on your target muscles. For example, back extensions work best for your lower back, while glute ham raises are best suited for your hamstrings.
Are Back Extensions/Raises Bad for You?
Back extensions aren’t typically harmful since they’re a natural movement. In addition, they help train your lower back muscles and glutes. However, you could risk getting a spinal injury if you do this exercise with bad form, so please check the technique section of this article above for the proper technique for this routine.
How Can I Do the 45-Degree Back Extension at Home Without the Machine?
Your best bet is to use a stability ball for your back extensions at home. A stability ball forces you to achieve the proper angle and causes you to use your stabilizer muscles properly.
Can I Do Back Extensions Every Day?
It’s okay to do back extensions daily if you keep the unweighted variation at three or four sets of 10-15 reps. It makes a great warm-up before training your back or doing deadlifts! But weighted back extensions should be at a frequency of about two to four days weekly. Please remember that you shouldn't load up on weight with this routine, so keep it safe.
How Can I Integrate Back Raises/Extensions into My Routine?
Back extensions can be used as a warm-up but are an accessory movement best done at the end of your workout. You can also use them to build your lower back strength while recovering from a rigorous deadlift or squat session. In this case, you can do them at the start of your exercises.
Additional Exercises for Posterior Chain Development
Building your posterior chain is essential for athletic performance, strength, posture, and injury prevention. Below are more exercises that you can use for posterior chain development.
Nordic Hamstring Curl
Lying Hamstring Curls
Stability Ball Back Extensions
Flat Bench Hyperextensions
Toes Elevated Romanian Deadlift
Back Extension vs Glute Ham Raise Conclusion
Both back extensions and glute ham raises are great exercises that can be included in your training program to build and strengthen your posterior chain. You can add glute ham raises to your leg day workouts, while back extensions are best for back day or core day. Knowing the differences between both can help you decide which best works for your fitness goals.
Remember that each exercise benefits the muscles of your posterior chain in different ways. You can tweak the movements to target specific muscle groups better. Once you've figured out which works best for you, it’s only a matter of time before you master it and harness its benefits.
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McAllister, M. J., Hammond, K. G., Schilling, B. K., Ferreria, L. C., Reed, J. P., & Weiss, L. W. (2014). Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(6), 1573–1580. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000302
Tataryn, N., Simas, V., Catterall, T., Furness, J., & Keogh, J. W. L. (2021). Posterior-Chain Resistance Training Compared to General Exercise and Walking Programmes for the Treatment of Chronic Low Back Pain in the General Population: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine - open, 7(1), 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-021-00306-w
Reiman, M. P., Bolgla, L. A., & Loudon, J. K. (2012). A literature review of studies evaluating gluteus maximus and gluteus medius activation during rehabilitation exercises. Physiotherapy theory and practice, 28(4), 257–268. https://doi.org/10.3109/09593985.2011.604981