Glute ham raises – I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a movement that elicits as much cursing as this one. They popped up in our programming in September, and we’re going to see them with more frequency in October. What is their benefit, and why do they suck so much? Let’s dive in.
Louie Simmons famously said, “weak things break.” This especially applies to our hamstrings. We need our hamstrings to be strong through their entire range of motion. It’s very common for someone to say they have “tight” hamstrings. I would argue that in most of these cases, the hamstrings are just weak, or the person doesn’t know how to activate them, or both. Glute ham raises help us strengthen our hamstrings though their entire range of motion, so we “feel” them working in ways most of us didn’t know they could. And for many, it feels like your hamstrings are going to tear off the bone.
To understand why, let’s look at the function of the hamstrings. To keep things simple, even though it’s not 100% accurate, we can think of muscles as being 1 or 2 joint muscles. For example, the biceps and triceps can be modeled as 1 joint muscles. The biceps flex the elbow, and the triceps extend the elbow. If we think of the knee in the same way, the hamstrings flex the knee, while the quadriceps extend the knee. However, the hamstrings are a 2 joint muscle – they also cross the hips. In addition to flexing the knee, they help extend the hips. If we look at the top position of the glute ham raise, the hips are extended, and the knees are flexed, meaning that the hamstrings are maximally engaged. We also encounter this position when we run.
From a lifting standpoint, we don’t encounter this position much. At the top of a squat or deadlift, our hips are extended, but so are our knees. In the bottom of a squat, our knees are flexed, but so are our hips. Most accessory lifts tend to target one function of the hamstrings, either flexing the knee, or extending the hips. Since we’re not exposed much to movements that perform both functions in the weight room, it can be jarring when you first experience it. And that’s why glute ham raises suck.
Why bother training the hamstrings through their entire range of motion if we rarely encounter it? Well, we already talked about running. Think about how many steps you take during a 400m run. If you’re running at a cadence of 180 steps per minute, and it takes you 2 minutes to run a 400m, that’s 360 steps. Each step can be thought of as a repetition. That’s 360 repetitions through the hamstrings full range of motion. Additionally, building strength in full ranges of motion allows us to better prevent injury. Have you ever tripped, rolled an ankle, encountered an incline, or decline or change in terrain when running? Of course, you have, we don’t have the luxury of performing all our running on a track. The greater the range of motion we’re exposed to, the less likely we are to be injured if we’re forced into that range by something unexpected. Plus, we use our hamstrings in many of our lifts, so you have the added benefit of building strength for those as well.
To make glute ham raises suck less, as with everything in CrossFit, we can scale the movement. We can use a band to assist us, or we can use our arms to push off a box. Theoretically, you can generate momentum by performing a back extension first, but this puts more stress on the low back by putting you in a hyper extended position. So, it’s better to avoid this option.
Now you know why we perform glute ham raises. Expect to see them this month in our regular programming. And, even when they’re not regularly programmed, if you happen to arrive at the gym early or stay late, feel free to throw a few in there. They can only help you. See you in the gym.
By Erik Castiglione