In this "Tools of the Trade" series, we highlight important pieces of training equipment and how to implement them into a training program. This post will focus on the most important training apparatus your gym is probably missing: a Glute-Ham Developer (or GHD for short). And if you're into this kind of stuff, be sure to check out my first Tools of the Trade post: Barbells.
If I tell you to envision a fully built-out weight room, chances are you immediately think of squat racks, barbells, benches, and platforms. Fair enough. The vast majority of weight rooms will contain those items. But what are most weight rooms missing? The Glute-Ham Developer. The GHD is one of the most valuable athletic development apparatuses around. And while they can be rather expensive (usually $500-$1000 each), they more than make up for their cost in increased performance and decreased injury risk.
From novice to elite, the GHD is a highly effective tool for all athletes and can be utilized in training for nearly every sport. Early Soviet weightlifters brought the GHD (or "Roman Chairs" as they were referred to early on) to prominence in the 60's and 70's, and it has since become a primary tool in many top-level strength and conditioning programs. Soviet lifters utilized Roman Chairs to build strength in the lumbar spine, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles, all of which were considered essential for competing in Olympic Weightlifting. So why the name change? Well, the primary purpose of the GHD is to develop the posterior chain. So maybe Posterior Chain Developer (PCD) would be an even more appropriate name.
Whatever you call it, there's little argument that developing the posterior chain increases the potential power output of an athlete. Moreover, a strong posterior chain helps stabilize the spine, allowing for better force transfer and safer mechanics when executing other athletic movements (i.e. performing hang cleans or tackling an opponent). And here's where it gets cool: the GHD not only helps build the strength of contraction while the muscle shortens (concentric contraction), but it also helps increase the muscle's ability to contract as it lengthens (eccentric contraction). Developing the eccentric strength of the hamstring is a proven method of reducing or avoiding nagging hamstring and lower back injuries. WIN! And increased strength in the hamstring is correlated with a lower risk of ACL injury. DOUBLE WIN! Performance enhancement AND injury reduction?? Sign me up!
SO WHAT MOVEMENTS DO I IMPLEMENT IN MY PROGRAM?
PAUSE BACK EXTENSIONS
The low back is consistently weak in most athletes, predisposing them to injury. And when it comes to keeping the low back injury-free, the best defense is a strong offense, so start training it!
Begin by hanging perpendicular to the floor and use a strong contraction to bring the torso up to parallel. Lead with the shoulders and keep them pinched back, keeping the chest proud. Pause for two seconds in isometric contraction and then lower yourself under control to the starting position.
Trains concentric/eccentric strength.
Back extensions on the GHD specifically target the erector spinae and strengthen your ability to maintain a stable spine position. This helps develop stronger mid-line stabilization, a helpful attribute in both training and competition. Adding resistance bands or holding a plate on the shoulders can add resistance to help increase adaptation to higher loads.
Trains "hip hinge" mechanics.
Being able to hinge at the hip while maintaining a locked core is a key skill to develop for safety in the weight room and the efficient production of force from the hamstrings. The GHD allows you to use the pad as a blocking mechanism to keep a strong lumbar position as the hips shorten in distance. Learning this skill early will make RDL's and Hang Cleans much easier and more efficient.
Develops local muscular endurance.
Training higher volumes (upwards of 15-20 reps) will help increase the ability of the low back (read: "core") to maintain a strong position while resisting fatigue. This takes some time and practice, but once accomplished it will help set a strong foundation for you to stay safe and keep training progressively.
A primary risk factor for hamstring injury is imbalance in strength across the musculature in the legs, typically represented as a deficiency in the strength of the hamstring as compared to the quadriceps (weak hamstrings, strong quads). The glute-ham raise is an awesome way to target and specifically strengthen the hamstrings to overcome common issues surrounding quad-dominance.
Training the hamstrings to be stronger eccentrically (and concentrically - obvi) helps to reinforce the muscle's ability to withstand force. Glute-ham raises stress the concentric contraction on the ascent and the eccentric contraction on the descent. If the hamstrings are your weak link, this movement will be VERY CHALLENGING. I highly recommend easing your way into it at first. But the stronger your hamstrings become, the safer your knees will be as well. Why? Well, weakness in the hamstrings translate to higher risk of ACL injury due to a lack of compensatory stability. If your hamstrings are weak and you refuse to stop half-squatting, this imbalance will only get worse (seriously, stop half squatting).
So, if you have some extra room on the far side of the weight room and an extra $500, I highly recommend outfitting a GHD. Its versatility lends itself to everyday use and it will serve every athlete in your program regardless of sport. Okay, enough reading. Its time to go have yourself a Glute-Ham Sandwich.
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