One of the great fallacies of resistance training is the assumption that, through years of technical advancement and muscle growth and increased strength, we eventually elevate to a point where bodyweight exercises are no longer effective.
Outside of the fact that these variations come in all shapes, sizes and intensities, calisthenics and movements of the like are damn near infinitely scalable if you just know the right ways to approach and implement them.
When most people think of bodyweight exercises, they will invariably default to the most obvious: squats, pushups, pull-ups, walking lunges, etc.
But this surface level thinking tends to overlook handstand pushups, pistol squats, and glute-ham raises; all of which are uncommon ways we can use just our bodyweight to create a MASSIVE stimulus.
Narrowing our focus a bit, glute-ham raises (or GHRs) also happen to be incredibly unique.
GHRs (and their sister exercise, Nordic ham curls) present a novel way to train the posterior chain that promotes not just the typical adaptations we would be after like hypertrophy and strength but, more distinctively, resilience to injury and improved athletic performance.
It has been shown through multiple studies that the eccentric overloading placed on the hamstrings with this class of exercise greatly reduces the instance of acute hamstring strains and tears. Additionally, this novel stress can actually improve the force production from the hamstrings when performing explosive activities such as a sprint or long jump.
For most readers who are exclusively interested in maximizing their hypertrophic potential, these benefits may ring somewhat hollow. But it cannot be understated how important it is to find movements that "cross-pollinate" different effects.
Why would we not want to favor movements that provide not just muscle growth but also qualities such as improved strength and mobility, reduced risk of injury, lower systemic stress, higher neural output, and even technical ease? If we can get two, three or even FOUR of these for the price of one, it would make a lot of sense to add in higher utility variations.
But in the case of GHRs, we run into a small problem—the technical ease part.
They are incredibly challenging to set-up and execute correctly!
Beginning with the need to actually have access to the apparatus and ending with the prerequisite strength/proprioception to maintain challenging body positions, GHRs are equally demanding as they are rewarding.
Let us start with an overview of the apparatus: this pommel-horse-looking piece of equipment is going to have three defining parts that need to be clearly understood for the most optimal outcome.
First, we have the thigh pad. This will typically look like a half circle and will act as the fulcrum through which the load is transferred through. Having it higher on your thighs will make the movement easier and vice versa. Getting the thigh pad position wrong will doom your GHRs from the get-go. Also of note, it's not going to feel amazing on your quads...suck it up.
Next comes the ankle rollers, and as the name suggests, you will be putting your ankles in between them so you don't faceplant. These will generally be adjustable up and down in order to find where you're the most comfortable but, similar to the thigh pad, you will also be able to adjust the difficulty of the exercise here. Moving the rollers higher will slightly decrease your body angle and increase the demand on your posterior chain. Likewise, adjusting the rollers down will do the opposite and make the movement easier.
Lastly, we have the foot plate. This will be adjustable forward or backward and will control where your quads are contacting the thigh pad, which in turn, controls the difficulty of the exercise. Most people do not understand how to properly use the foot plate for their benefit. Rather than it just being an end point, it should be used to generate more force and leverage. By actively driving the balls of your feet into the plate while curling your body through the concentric, our calves can actually assist in the force production! While it may seem counterintuitive to seek ancillary muscle contribution outside of the hamstrings, it is important to view GHRs more like a full-body exercise rather than an isolation.
So now that we have the pieces in place, how do we actually perform the movement properly?
1) After adjusting the apparatus to your specifications, start at the top with your torso perpendicular to the floor and hamstrings shortened. Your pelvis should be neutral with hips extended. The balls of your feet should be driving into the foot plate.
2) Slowly allow your torso angle to drop and shift forward placing more demand on your hamstrings and posterior chain. The further out you go, the more challenging it will be to maintain your rigidity. Your thighs should be acting as the pivot point and your heels should be pushing back towards the foot plate.
3) The pelvis must remain neutral throughout! If the hips begin to flex or the low back hyperextends, the execution is flawed.
4) Once achieving full knee extension with your body parallel to the floor and feet now flat against the foot plate, you can reverse the motion being deliberate to maintain the same rigidity on the concentric as was present during the eccentric.
All of this sounds easy enough right?? Ehh, not so much...Most people will find that they don't even have the necessary strength to maintain their pelvic position much less to actually curl themselves back up. The initial resistance of their bodyweight is just too much for their present capabilities.
But we can work around this by adding assistance!
Assistance on GHRs is actually something I recommend for most people, even those that can perform them with bodyweight or even weighted! And the reason for this is that the execution and positioning is far more important than the absolute load being used. Even if you're able to knock out 10 seemingly perfect reps unassisted, there is a strong chance that you'll be able to get MORE stimulus and control from the addition of assistance, though at the expense of your ego.
For doing these assisted, I like to implement three different ways:
1) Use of a band
2) Use of a pole/bar/PVC
3) Use of a partner
Now all of these are going to have vastly different feels and use cases (which are too long for us to get into today), but just the ability to adjust and vary the difficulty of an otherwise exclusionary exercise is a powerful tool!
Though GHRs can be challenging to set-up, adjust and execute, the juice is well worth the squeeze here.
Don't sleep on bodyweight movements; they may just have the ability to transform your physique and performance.