When The Glute-Ham Exercise Is Not a Glute-Ham

It now appears that the way most people execute the glute-ham raise it is not a true glute-ham raise. In essence, they are doing a reverse knee curl which is great for the hamstrings and the lower hamstring tendons that cross the knee joint. But this exercise does little for the hamstrings and glutes at the hip joint which is most important for athletes. Because of this athletes are still experiencing hamstring injuries in spite of doing this exercise. And perhaps even more importantly, they are not getting the benefits possible to improve performance on the field.

Since I introduced to the glute-ham-gastroc raise back in the 1980s I have seen this exercise gradually evolve into the reverse knee curl.  Rather than the shin being in motion, as in a typical knee curl exercise, we see the thigh -- and the rest of the body in line with the thigh -- in motion. It may look different but it is the same joint action at the knee.

As I am the one who came up with this exercise, I speak with quite a bit of knowledge about how it should be executed and what it does for the athlete. I originally called it the glute-ham-gastroc raise because it strongly involves all three of these muscles when done correctly.  I guess coaches thought this title was too long so they gradually changed the name to glute-ham so it would sound different.  In the process they also changed how the exercise was executed.

This helps to explain why the development that athletes are receiving is far from what they should be getting.  It is also why many athletes still experience hamstring pulls even though they do the “glute-ham” exercise.  They are not developing the hamstring in a manner that prevents injury or enhances performance.

When done correctly there is very strong contraction and involvement of the hamstrings at both the knee and hip joints, as well as the glutes at the hip joint and gastrocnemius at the knee joint. The way the exercise is presently being done i.e., as a reverse knee (leg) curl, there is only strong involvement of the hamstrings and the lower tendons of the hamstring. Because only one major joint is involved in execution, it is much easier than the correct and effective glute-ham-gastroc raise. This is another key reason why most coaches and athletes gradually changed to this method of executing the exercise.

But by becoming easier the exercise also became less effective. When done correctly, however, you will or should experience a feeling that you do not get on any other exercise. In the beginning stages of learning this exercise you usually let out an involuntary loud yell or groan when you execute the knee curl portion of the exercise. In fact, this is one way to gauge if the exercise is done correctly in the beginning stages of mastery. When done correctly, coaches and athletes who commonly brag about doing 30 or 40 repetitions in a workout are barely able to do one or two.

This is a tough exercise in the early stages. But when you gain sufficient strength of the hamstring at both hip and knee joints, then the exercise becomes easier and gives you the benefits that are possible.  This means beginning the exercise in a trunk down position so that it is basically perpendicular or as close to perpendicular as possible to the legs. You then raise the trunk with an arched back. This action very strongly involves the glutes and upper hamstrings.

When you reach the level position or slightly above with the legs still straight, you then flex the knees to bring in the lower hamstrings while the upper hamstring is still under maximum contraction. This is how you get a double maximal contraction of the hamstring and experience a feeling you never had before. In essence, it should be considered a compound exercise that works the hamstring muscle at both ends in sequence.

This is not possible when you begin with a straight body from the knees to the head and only use knee flexion in execution of the exercise. This applies to not only execution on the Glute Ham machine, but also to execution on the floor. In essence they are both the same when executed with only knee flexion. This is why the best name for this exercise is the reverse knee or leg curl.  It is not a glute-ham-gastroc raise which gives you maximum benefits not only in improving sports skills but in the prevention of hamstring injuries.

Also important for effective execution is to have a pad on the Glute Ham machine that allows you to correctly position the hips to get the axis in the hip joint. Bigger and rounder pads are great for doing the reverse knee curl but they are not very effective for correct positioning and execution of the glute-ham-gastroc raise. Many makes of machines also have insufficient adjustability to allow for correct positioning of the feet which plays a major role in exercise intensity.

In some cases, ineffective technique is mandated because of the machine that is being used.  The machine may not have sufficient adjustability or the support pad may not allow for overall correct positioning, especially for athletes of different heights.  Most glaring, however, is the lack of proper technique when doing the exercise.

To prepare themselves to do the exercise most effectively athletes should do supplementary exercises that are mostly possible on the Yessis Glute Ham Back Machine.  This includes back raises and hip extensions and its variations.  These exercises can properly prepare the athletes for effective execution of the glute-ham-gastroc raise to produce the phenomenal results possible.

 Note however, that most machines do not allow you to achieve the proper positioning to do these supplementary exercises. Without the physical preparation to do the exercise most effectively,  many people have resorted to only doing the knee curl in the name of a glute-ham-gastroc raise.
- Dr. Michael Yessis