There are a lot of great lower body exercises for improving the hamstrings.  And the hamstrings, from a sports performance perspective are either a big limiting factor or a point of injury through weakness.  Maybe its the sedentary life but regardless, taking care of your hamstrings and improving their strength and endurance are a mainstay in many sports.

The powerful Glute Ham Device

As someone trying to improve their squat and deadlift, the hamstrings are incredibly important for me to work on.  But what to use?  When I was at the University of Toronto Strength Summit we had gone through a hamstring workshop for durability and speed.  We used a variety of tools including the Glute Ham Device, which is by far one of the most awesome hamstring/glute developers ever.  It’s sadistically fun. 

But what if you’re in your average Globo Gym/LA Fitness/GoodLife where you don’t have the luxury of using a versatile device like the GHD?  You make do with this:

Not like its luxurious REVERSE hyper counterpart (popularized by Louie Simmons) the Back extension is still an effective tool in hamstring, lower back, and glute development.  Don’t want to do a deadlift variation?   You can get great hamstring work in with back extensions.

Want to emphasize the glutes?  Point your toes out, and widen your stance as comfortably possible and go for that hinge.  Want more hamstring and lower back work?  Keep the toes straight and bring in your stance.  The back extension has a great degree of versatility in what you can do with it.

Flaws in execution

With myself, I used to find it difficult to load the hamstrings on the back extension for the longest time.  The only thing I’d walk away with was a huge lower back pump and nothing else.  That is, until I started changing the way I approached the exercise and the device in general.  Specifically, it was through watching this video by Brett Contreras that really opened my eyes to using the back extension for greater hamstring and glute work.

From Brett’s video, I started to experiment with a higher height on the support pad and really make sure that I was maintaining a solid lower back on the descent and ascent.  That made a big difference in deriving tension in the hamstrings and glutes.  However, it wasn’t until I tried ROUNDING my UPPER BACK that I was able to really generate activity in the glutes.

Different Loading

Want to add some accommodating resistance?  Throw on a light resistance band behind your neck and crank out 20-30 rep sets.  The elastic resistance of the bands will force you to push through with the glutes at the top of the movement.

You can also load the back extension with free-weight by holding a kettle bell or dumbbell in a goblet squat fashion, right underneath your chin.  What many do is hold the weight much lower, by their abdomen and that makes loading easier.  Having the weight by your chin creates more mechanical tension as the load is much farther from the fulcrum, creating a longer lever.   More mechanical tension more hypertrophic pension. 

The Back Extension has Diverse Use

It also can lead to new variations of exercises.  Take in Pete Rubish’s back extension deadlift.  This exercise is a lot like what the JM press is (a hybrid between the compound bench press and the isolating tricep skull-crusher).  We’ll call it the Rubish deadlift for the purpose of this article.

By moving the weight from a dead-stop, you force yourself to brace and create total body tension before executing the lift.  Along with that, you start in a position that stretches the hamstrings far greater than you could accomplish with the stiff-legged or Romanian deadlift.  The issues of mobility are somewhat mitigated by the back extension device (which you can adjust to be able to reach and grab the bar.  Try the exercise with a snatch grip and you can foster stress in the upper back through stability as you work the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. 

In all, the back extension device is a great tool for improving lower body hypertrophy and endurance.  Whether its through isolation or compound work, it can give great benefits on strengthening your hamstrings, even if you don’t have a glute ham device.

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