Back extensions and glute ham raises are excellent exercises for strengthening the posterior chain, particularly the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. Both movements appear frequently in many strength training programs, but there are certain circumstances where you may wish to prioritize one over the other.
What are the differences between the back extension and the glute ham raise? The back extension is performed by standing on a back extension bench and hinging forward at the hips. It targets the lower back, glutes, and hip extensors. The glute ham raise is performed on a GHD machine. The lower back and glutes play a role in the glute ham raise, but it targets more of the hamstrings.
To help you decide which exercise may be better for you, I’ll cover the below in this article:
- The differences between back extensions and glute ham raises
- The pros and cons of each exercise
- How to perform back extensions and glute ham raises
- Variations of the back extension and glute ham raise
- Who should do the back extension, glute ham raise, or both
Back Extension vs Glute Ham Raise: An Overview
Hamstrings and lower back weaknesses are common in lifters. But they both play an important role in squats, deadlifts, and other exercises, so it’s important to have a strong posterior chain that can handle heavy loads.
Let’s take a look at why the back extension and glute ham raise are two exercises that should be incorporated into any strength training program.
The back extension is an exercise that’s performed on a back extension bench, which is sometimes called a Roman chair. Because of the spinal flexion that occurs, it targets the spinal erectors and helps increase strength and stability in the lower back and hip flexors. The hamstrings play a small role but aren’t the primary muscle group used in this exercise.
The back extension is a useful exercise for lifters because it strengthens the stabilizer muscles used in the squat and deadlift and can improve your ability to brace your core. It also targets the muscles that are used to aid in the deadlift lockout, making it a beneficial exercise for powerlifters who struggle with this.
Furthermore, it’s a good exercise for people with desk jobs because strengthening the hips and lower back helps counteract the effects of sitting all day.
Glute Ham Raise
Despite having “glute” in its name, the glute ham raise works more of the hamstrings than any other muscle.
The reason why the hamstrings play such a large role in the glute ham raise is that the knee joint flexes as you’re performing the movement. You also don’t utilize a hinging motion much in the glute ham raise, which takes the emphasis off of the glutes and hips.
The glute ham raise is often performed by powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters to increase strength in the squat, deadlift, or clean.
Like the back extension, it’s also beneficial for people who sit a lot. Sitting too much weakens the glutes, which then forces the hamstrings to overcompensate when you work out. Strengthening the hamstrings can improve their ability to handle this extra stress when you’re lifting heavy weights.
Back Extension vs Glute Ham Raise: Pros vs Cons
Back Extension Pros
- It doesn’t cause a lot of CNS fatigue. Unlike exercises such as deadlifts, the back extension doesn’t cause as much fatigue in the lower back and core. It can be used as a substitute for other compound movements that target the lower back if you haven’t recovered properly from a heavy deadlift session.
- You can use it to rehab a lower back injury. Squatting or deadlifting is usually not advised when you have a lower back injury, but the back extension can be done to continue strengthening the posterior chain while other movements are off-limits. However, you’ll still need to listen to your body and follow the advice of your doctor before incorporating the back extension into a rehabilitation routine.
- It doesn’t require a lot of weight to be effective. You can’t lift very heavy weights when doing the back extension, but you don’t have to. You can still strengthen your lower back by holding a light plate at your chest or using bodyweight only.
Back Extension Cons
- You need a back extension machine. While there are ways to emulate a back extension without a back extension bench/Roman chair, some back extension alternatives work the muscles in slightly different ways. It doesn’t necessarily make them ineffective, but using the machine specifically designed for the exercise will give you the best results.
- Doing them incorrectly can cause injuries or make your back pain worse. Doing back extensions incorrectly can worsen any pre-existing back pain. Hyperextending the back is a common mistake in the back extension. At best, it will aggravate the lower back pain you’re already experiencing and leave you more sore than normal for a few days. At worst, it can lead to muscle strains or herniated discs.
Can't do a back extension? Check out our Best Back Extension Alternatives
Glute Ham Raise Pros
- The glute ham raise is a great exercise for glute and hamstring hypertrophy. The hamstrings can be a difficult muscle group to isolate, but the glute ham raise is one of the best exercises you can do to target them.
- You can incorporate tempos or isometric holds to make them more challenging. Lowering to a 5-second count or pausing for several seconds when your chest is parallel to the floor increases your time under tension. This can help increase strength and hypertrophy as well as your positional awareness while you’re performing the movement.
- Glute ham raises don’t overload the lower back. Other movements that target the hamstrings such as good mornings or Romanian deadlifts place a lot of stress on the lower back. If your back needs a break from heavy lifting, you can use glute ham raises to continue training your hamstrings and glutes.
- You can train both the concentric and eccentric motions. It’s more common to slow down the eccentric (downward) portion of the lift when doing exercises like tempo squats. The glute ham raise is unique in that you can also slow down the concentric (upward) portion of the movement. Research suggests that eccentric training is more effective for increasing strength and muscle mass. However, concentric training can improve strength and hypertrophy as well, just at a slower rate.
Curious about the differences between a concentric and eccentric squat? Check out my article Eccentric vs Concentric Squat: What’s the Difference?
Glute Ham Raise Cons
- You need a GHD machine. Like the back extension, there are alternatives for the glute ham raise if you don’t have access to a GHD machine. But some of the alternatives target the hamstrings more or less and may involve fewer stabilizer muscles, so they aren’t 100% similar to the glute ham raise.
- It’s more of an advanced exercise. While it’s commonly done with just bodyweight, the glute ham raise still requires a certain amount of body awareness and pre-existing hamstring strength that many new lifters won’t have developed yet.
Back Extension vs Glute Ham Raise: Muscles Used
The spinal erectors, the group of muscles that run vertically along the length of the spine, and the quadratus lumborum, the muscles in the lower back that sit on either side of the spinal column, are the main muscle groups worked in the back extension.
These muscles are responsible for straightening your back whenever you perform a hinge movement. They also provide support and stabilization and allow you to keep your back from twisting or rounding.
In the back extension, the glutes and hamstrings also play a role in helping you extend the hips.
The glute ham raise primarily works the hamstrings and glutes, but the core muscles are also involved. They help your torso stay in proper alignment and stabilize your upper body throughout the exercise.
As I mentioned earlier, the glute ham raise requires a great deal of knee flexion. Unlike other exercises that only work the semimembranosus, the hamstring muscle responsible for hip extension, the glute ham raise also works the bicep femoris, the muscle of the hamstring that’s responsible for flexing the knee.
Back Extension vs Glute Ham Raise: How to Perform
How to Do Back Extensions?
- Adjust the height of the back extension machine. When you step into it, your hips should be just above the pads.
- Let your thighs rest against the pads. Your entire body should be in a straight line.
- If you’re not using any weight, cross your arms over your chest or place your fingertips on the back of your head with your elbows flaring out to the sides.
- Keeping your upper back tight and without allowing your shoulders to round, hinge forward at the waist. Keep bending down until you feel tension in your hamstrings.
- Return to the starting position, being careful not to arch your back on the way up or hyperextending it after you’ve returned to the starting position.
- Pause at the top for a second, then repeat.
How to Do Glute Ham Raises?
- Adjust the foot plate on a GHD machine so that when you climb into it, your knees are just slightly below the hip pad.
- You may also have to adjust the ankle pads so that your ankles are secure when you’re on the machine.
- Assume a tall kneeling position so your torso is perpendicular to the floor.
- Bend your knees and lower your torso until it is parallel to the floor. You can also continue lowering all the way down if you want to add a back extension to it.
- Pushing the balls of your feet off the foot plate, raise your torso. Avoid rounding your lower back.
- Once you’ve returned to the starting position, pause for a second, then repeat.
Back Extensions vs Glute Ham Raise: Incorporating Variation
Back Extension: Variations
While there aren’t many back extension variations you can do on the back extension machine, there are other exercises you can do to target the same muscle groups. Some of them can even be done at home with just a few simple pieces of equipment.
Supermans are a bodyweight exercise that is done by lying on the floor on your stomach and lifting your chest and legs off the floor. Even though you can only move through a limited range of motion, doing this exercise is a good way to strengthen your lower back.
Flat Bench Hyperextensions
If you have a home gym with a regular bench but don’t have room for a back extension machine, you can do hyperextensions on your bench.
This exercise requires you to lay face-down on your bench with your hips near the top of the bench and your heels up against the underside of the bench for support. You’ll then be able to bend forward at the waist to emulate the action of performing a back extension.
Flat bench hyperextensions can be uncomfortable on the hips, so you may want to place a folded towel or exercise mat underneath them when you’re performing this movement.
Stability Ball Back Extensions
The stability ball back extension is another alternative to the traditional back extension that you can do at home. By lying face down on the ball and placing your feet on a wall or other sturdy surface behind you, you can hinge forward at the hips to work the lower back muscles.
The only drawback to this exercise is that many stability balls can only support about 250lbs. Depending on your weight, you may only be able to do it with light weights or bodyweight only.
Good mornings are a barbell exercise that strengthen the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. They’re performed by holding a barbell across your back and hinging forward at the waist as if you were bowing.
Maintaining proper form when doing a good morning is crucial, and it’s not an exercise that you’d want to use to try to find a 1RM. Because it requires your lower back to be in a compromised position, you shouldn’t treat it as an ego lift and should stop if you feel like your form is incorrect.
Back Extension + Glute Ham Raise
Back extensions can also be done on a GHD in combination with the glute ham raise. You’ll be able to work the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings all in the same exercise, which could help you save some time in the gym.
Looking for other alternatives to the back extension? Check out the article 10 Best Hyperextension Alternatives (With Pictures).
Back Extension Programming Considerations
The back extension should be done as an accessory movement towards the end of your workout. However, if you’re injured or can’t squat or deadlift for some reason, you can also do them near the beginning of your workout to get some lower back strength work done.
I recommend keeping the sets and/or reps higher since back extensions aren’t a movement that you can do with a significant amount of weight and aren’t as taxing on the body. Three to four sets of 8-10 reps is a good place to start. If you feel like you can handle the additional volume, you can increase the reps per set to 12-15.
Glute Ham Raise: Variations
Nordic curls are a suitable alternative to the glute ham raise if you don’t have access to a GHD. They require you to have a partner to hold your ankles or another anchor point at your ankles for support, but they isolate the hamstrings even more than the glute ham raise.
Toes Elevated Romanian Deadlifts
The traditional Romanian deadlift is a deadlift variation that targets more of the hamstrings than the standard deadlift. You can activate the hamstrings even more by elevating your toes on a plate.
Lying Hamstring Curls
Another effective way to isolate the hamstrings is to do hamstring curls on a prone leg curl machine. They target the glutes and also work the calves to some extent.
If you don’t have access to a leg curl machine, you can also lie on the floor or a bench and hold a dumbbell in between your feet while bending your knees.
There are also several other hamstring curl alternatives you can do if you want to add some variety to your routine.
For more alternatives to the glute ham raise, check out my article 12 Glute Ham Raise Alternatives (At Home, Dumbbells, Bands)
Glute Ham Raise Programming Considerations
The glute ham raise can be trained for hypertrophy or for strength. Like back extensions, I recommend using them as an accessory movement, but you can do them as a substitute for other barbell or dumbbell movements if you need to give your body a break.
If you’re training for hypertrophy, stick to three to four sets of 8-12 reps. You may have to start at the lower end of that range in the beginning and then work your way up.
If you’re training for strength, you can do them as five sets of five, three sets of six, or four sets of seven while holding a weight at your chest.
You can also add a 3-5 second tempo or incorporate pauses to increase your time under tension.
Which Exercise Is Best for You?
When To Use The Back Extension?
- You need to strengthen your lower back.
- You need to improve your ability to brace your core during squats and deadlifts.
- You’re trying to improve your deadlift lockout.
When To Use The Glute Ham Raise?
- You want to increase the size of your hamstring and glute muscles.
- You’re a powerlifter or weightlifter and need to work on knee stability for squats.
- You want to train the hamstrings without placing extra stress on your lower back.
When To Use Both?
- You want to strengthen your squat and deadlift while improving hamstring hypertrophy at the same time.
- You have enough time to do both exercises in the same workout.
- You have access to a GHD machine and can combine the two exercises into one.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Glute Ham Raises the Same as Back Extensions?
Glute ham raises are not the same as back extensions. The glute ham raise is done on a GHD machine and involves more hamstring isolation. The back extension is done on a hyperextension bench/Roman chair and works more of the lower back.
Is The Glute Ham Raise or Back Extension Better?
Neither the glute ham raise nor the back extension is inherently better than the other one – it just depends on which muscles you want to target. The glute ham raise is better for hamstring isolation while the back extension is better for strengthening the lower back.
Even though the back extension and the glute ham raise both work the posterior chain, I recommend prioritizing the glute ham raise if you need to strengthen your hamstrings and the back extension if you need to address a lower back weakness.
You can also include both exercises in your strength program if you have the time and access to the necessary pieces of equipment. And because the glute ham raise doesn’t involve much lower back work, you can do them on the same day.
They’re best done as accessories after your main lifts, but you can also use them as a substitute for deadlifts or other hamstring and lower back exercises if you need a break from heavy lifting.
Other Exercise Comparisons
- Glute Ham Raise vs Nordic Curl: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Back Extension vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Good Morning vs Romanian Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Hip Thrust vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Leg Extension vs Leg Curl: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Kettlebell Swing vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
About The Author
Amanda is a writer and editor in the fitness and nutrition industries. Growing up in a family that loved sports, she learned the importance of staying active from a young age. She started CrossFit in 2015, which led to her interest in powerlifting and weightlifting. She's passionate about helping women overcome their fear of lifting weights and teaching them how to fuel their bodies properly. When she's not training in her garage gym or working, you can find her drinking coffee, walking her dog, or indulging in one too many pieces of chocolate.