Back extensions and glute ham raises are pivotal posterior chain exercises. You want beefy glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles to support the mirror muscles of the quads. But what are the key differences?
Back extensions target hip extension while glute ham raises target knee flexion. Both work the hamstrings through different joint actions, but the back extension also targets the glutes and erector spinae.
Are these the only differences? And why would you do either exercise?
Back Extension vs. Glute Ham Raise: What’s The Difference?
While both exercises work similar muscles, the back extension targets hip extension while the glute ham raise targets knee flexion. This means they work different regions of the hamstrings, with the glute ham raise preferentially activating the lower hamstrings. In contrast, the back extension preferentially activates the upper hamstrings .
The back extension also works the glutes and lower back making it an entire posterior chain exercise. The glute ham raise only works the glutes and lower back isometrically to maintain a straight-line position.
The equipment needed for both exercises is the same. A glute ham raise or glute ham developer allows you to perform the 90° back extension and glute ham raise. But the back extension can also be done on a 45° back extension machine for variation.
Further, there are dedicated 90° back extension machines known as Roman chairs. Still, they aren’t needed if you have a glute ham developer.
The glute ham raise is far more difficult than the back extension. You’re essentially performing a bodyweight leg curl which most lifters struggle to do. The back extension incorporates the large posterior muscles like the glutes and erector spinae to help the hamstrings with hip extension.
Further, the load is reduced since the hips are fixed against the pad, so your upper body is the load.
Both exercises develop the posterior chain, but they serve different purposes. The glute ham raise strengthens and builds the hamstrings through knee flexion. The back extension targets the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back for complete posterior development.
How To Back Extension
The back extension is a hip hinge that locks in the lower body, so all movement is performed by the upper body. It’s a more beginner-friendly exercise since it doesn’t require coordinating multiple joints. Here’s how to do it:
- Adjust the Roman chair or glute ham developer to your height and secure your feet on the footpads.
- Position your hips at the edge of the pad so you can bend over the pad without restrictions.
- Lower your upper body until you are perpendicular to the floor. Squeeze your hip through the pad to target your glutes, or focus on lifting your shoulders to target your lower back.
Easy to recover from: When I was competing in Olympic Weightlifting, I would perform different back extension variations 4 times per week to strengthen my lower back. It’s such a low-stress exercise that you can get brutally strong using a high-frequency approach.
Great for high rep training: Because it’s a simple exercise with the lower body locked in place, you can perform high reps without worrying about technique breakdown. This means you can target the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings with high rep ranges and focus compound exercises with lower reps.
Decompresses the lower back: Hanging off the back extension feels amazing as it decompresses your lower back. Placing the back extension after squatting or deadlifting heavy can be a great way to end your session.
Requires a back extension machine or glute ham developer: While you can modify the back extension so you don’t need a machine, it is nowhere near as effective.
How To Glute Ham Raise
The glute ham raise is a knee flexion exercise targeting the lower hamstrings. It’s brutal. If you don’t train your hamstrings or are a beginner, you likely won’t be able to do this exercise. It requires high levels of strength to perform. Here’s how to do it:
- Kneel with your knees sandwiched against the padded surface with your feet secured under the footpad. Don’t place your knees on top of the pad, as you will not be able to get up without help.
- Slowly lower your upper body, maintaining a straight line from your knees to your head. Think about squeezing your hips forward throughout the movement.
- Continue lowering until your torso is parallel to the floor. Reverse the movement pulling with your hamstrings.
Target the lower hamstrings with knee flexion without leg curl machines: CrossFit and functional fitness gyms rarely have hamstring machines. But they do have glute ham developers. There are limited exercises to target the hamstrings through knee flexion, which is why the glute ham raise should be part of your training.
Perform supramaximal eccentric hamstring exercise: If you set the glute ham developer so your knees are on top of the pad, you can perform the Nordic hamstring curl.
Supramaximal eccentric training leads to unique muscular adaptations like increasing stiffness leading to greater force output, lengthening the muscle reducing the risk of injury, and targeting the fastest muscle fibers Type IIx.
Requires a glute ham developer: You can’t do the glute ham raise without the glute ham developer. Smushing your knees against a pad with your feet locked against a plate with a footpad is what makes the exercise doable.
Not beginner friendly: You need strong hamstrings to perform the glute ham raise. A beginner lacks the strength and will cramp trying this exercise.
Should You Use The Back Extension Or Glute Ham Raise?
If your goal is athletic development, both exercises have strong cases to be in your training program. Heavy back extensions for posterior development and glute ham raises for building the hamstrings. For building muscle, I wouldn’t use the glute ham raise much unless you didn’t have access to leg curl machines.
You can get more reps and better control with the leg curl to dial into the hamstrings. You can cycle in the glute ham raise every so often. The back extension is an excellent addition to any muscle-building program to develop the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
- Hegyi, A., Péter, A., Finni, T., & Cronin, N. J. (2018). Region‐dependent hamstrings activity in Nordic hamstring exercise and stiff‐leg deadlift defined with high‐density electromyography. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 28(3), 992-1000.