Strut into the resistance training room of any gym and you’ll come across a variety of machines that are pretty self-explanatory: the leg press, hip adductor or abductor machine, and the leg curl, to mention a few. The glute hamstring developer (also known as the glute-ham developer or GHD machine) is not one of those machines.
A lot of individuals don’t know how to operate the GHD machine and are too intimidated to give it a try, states Libby Landry, a CF-L3 CrossFit coach at Invictus Fitness and member of CrossFit’s seminar staff. “I see GHD machines being used as a hanger for sweatshirts or a shelf for water bottles more than I see them actually being used,” she reveals. And that’s a shame because it offers some significant strength advantages.
Advantages of Utilizing the GHD Machine
If you’re curious about what a GHD machine is, it’s exactly what its full name suggests: a piece of equipment that can be used to fortify (or develop) your glutes and hamstrings. Naturally, those aren’t the only muscles it targets. If the machine was named after all of them — the core, quads, calves, hip flexors, etc. — its name would be excessively long for a cute little abbreviation.
The benefits of the GHD machine differ slightly from exercise to exercise. “In general, the GHD machine is an excellent way to strengthen the posterior chain and core,” says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault. That’s quite impressive, considering most individuals could benefit from giving both muscle groups a little more attention.
As a quick reminder, the posterior chain refers to all the muscles along the backside of the body — primarily the hamstrings, glutes, calves, and lower and upper back muscles. “The (posterior chain) contains what should be the largest, most powerful, and strongest muscles in the entire body,” explains Wickham. However, many people are weak in this area due to a sedentary lifestyle (referring to you, desk job) and workout routines that focus more on the front of the body (such as running and push-ups), he adds.
The result? Insufficient strength in the posterior chain heightens the risk of injuries, particularly in the lower back, hips, and knees, according to Wickham. “Engaging in posterior chain exercises is essential for maintaining a healthy, well-balanced, and pain-free body,” he states. In summary, utilizing the GHD machine will genuinely have your back.
The core-strengthening advantages of the GHD machine are equally noteworthy. “The core encompasses more than just those six-pack abdominal muscles you see on a lot of CrossFitters,” says Wickham. “The core is all the deep layers of muscles in the midsection, the pelvic floor muscles, and stabilizing muscles in your back,” he explains. And all those muscles do much more than assist you in performing crunches. They also keep you standing upright and balanced, for one thing. “If your midsection isn’t strong and stable, you increase your risk of injuring yourself doing moves every single day like twisting, bending down, or walking,” says Wickham. (That’s right, the advantages of a strong core go way beyond aesthetics.)
One more benefit: “The GHD is also an excellent tool for increasing your kinesthetic awareness,” also known as body awareness, says Landry. That translates to all your other athletic and daily endeavors. For example, you may realize how much core stabilization it takes to bring your filled-to-the-brim coffee cup from the kitchen to the living room.
How to Use the GHD Machine Securely
If you’re wondering how to incorporate the GHD machine into your workout routine, try starting with the four exercises below, recommend Landry and Wickham. If you choose to add any of these movements to your routine, the key is to start slowly. “It’s like hot sauce,” notes Landry. “Just enough adds some spice to your life — too much and you’ll regret it for a couple of days,” she says.
If you’re still feeling intimidated by the GHD machine, the good news is, “you absolutely don’t need to be an elite athlete to use the machine,” says Landry. Yes, the GHD is unlike any other machine at the gym, but don’t let yourself miss out on its posterior chain and core-strengthening advantages, she notes. Like most equipment in the gym, “it’s perfectly safe as long as you know how to use it correctly,” adds Wickham.
That said, it’s always good to take some safety precautions. For instance, if you’re new to exercising, the GHD machine is not for you, says Wickham. Wait until you’ve built some foundational strength and have become a proficient mover, he adds. Also, the first few times you use the machine, make sure there’s a trainer nearby to give you some pointers.
With that in mind, try these four common GHD machine exercises from Landry and Wickham the next time you’re in the gym.
4 GHD Machine Exercises to Try
How it works: Perform each exercise for a total of five repetitions before moving on to the next movement. Aim to repeat the circuit three times for a total of four sets. Focus on your form and remember that these exercises aren’t about speed, but rather slow and controlled movement.
You’ll require: An apparatus called GHD
GHD Glute-Ham Raise
If you believe the original hamstring exercise (the deadlift, obviously) is challenging, wait until you attempt the glute-ham raise. “This workout targets the hamstrings and glutes primarily, and also engages the calves to a certain extent,” states Wickham. Exciting! If you’re new to this exercise, either have someone assist you in returning to the starting position or “use your hands to push yourself back into the starting position, turning it into an eccentric exercise only,” suggests Wickham.
A. Sit on the GHD machine and begin by kneeling upright with feet secured and core activated. Apply pressure to your feet against the foot pad and adjust the machine so that your knees align with the center of the support pad.
B. While keeping your spine straight, lower your upper body towards the floor without bending at the hips. Continue descending until your torso is parallel to the floor.
C. Activate the hamstrings and glutes to raise your torso back to the starting position.
GHD Hip Extension
According to Wickham, this exercise targeting the posterior chain is the most beginner-friendly movement you can perform on the machine. “It primarily works the glutes, but it also engages the hamstrings, calves, and lower back,” he explains.
However, before attempting this exercise, ensure that you have what Landry refers to as “the ability to perform the movement” — meaning you possess the necessary strength and flexibility to prevent injuries. To assess your capacity, try holding the superwoman position on the machine: Lower your torso until it is parallel to the floor and hold your body completely steady. If you feel strong, confident, and comfortable in this position — and can sustain it for at least 10 seconds — then you’re prepared to perform the exercise from a hamstring position. If not, dismount the GHD machine and dedicate some time to strengthening your posterior chain and core through exercises such as glute bridges, hip thrusts, and deadlifts.
Additionally, Wickham recommends only lowering a few inches the first time you do a hip extension. “You can gradually increase the range of motion over weeks or months as you become comfortable and stronger in this position, until you can lower to 90 degrees,” he advises. Just exercise caution, as you should never lower to the point where your lower back rounds or loses its neutral alignment.
A. Begin by adjusting the foot pad so that your hips are completely off the main pad when your legs are secured.
B. Sit on the GHD machine and ensure that your feet are firmly pressed against the foot pad, with your toes pointing downwards, and the support pad dividing your quadriceps.
Hips must possess the capability to move unrestrictedly within the entirety of the motion span of the action.
C. From a Wonder Woman position, lower lower body towards the floor. Maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement by keeping chest tall and core engaged. Squeeze buttocks to come back up to starting position.
GHD Spinal Extension
The back and hip extensions may look the same, but they’re actually quite different. GHD machine configuration is the most important difference between the two exercises. “In the hip extension, you’re moving the hip dynamically while holding a static trunk,” explains Landry. “In this slightly more advanced movement, you’re working your trunk while keeping your hip static,” she continues.
If you’ve done basically any exercise ever, you might be wondering, “Why the heck am I deliberately rounding my back when literally every other exercise requires that I keep a ‘flat back’ or ‘neutral spine?'” It’s a valid question! “It takes a ton of body awareness to be able to control your spine bit by bit as the back extension requires,” explains Landry. “This movement helps you become more aware of what a non-neutral back feels like, so you know how to correct it,” she says.
But that also means it’s easy to get hurt during back extensions if you’re not doing them properly. “No matter how many times you’ve done the move, stop if it doesn’t feel right,” says Wickham. “Adjust the foot pad and try again. If it still doesn’t feel good, stop completely and get a trainer to weigh in,” he suggests.
A. Adjust the foot pad to be further from the main pad. Mount the GHD machine facedown and make sure hip bones are resting on the main pad.
B. Tuck chin and lower upper body one vertebra at a time. Round and lower shoulders first and then the upper back, followed by the lower back.
C. Squeeze buttocks and slowly roll spine back up to starting position, starting with lower back and moving inch by inch back to chin. The slower the movement, the better. Focus on quality over speed.
GHD Abdominal Curl
Also known as the Roman chair sit-up, the GHD abdominal curl is an explosive core exercise. It may look like really fast sit-ups, but there are some key differences between the two moves, according to Wickham. “GHD abdominal curls put more load on the hip flexors,” and they work your core muscles through a greater range of motion than the classic abs movement, he explains. Ultimately, that translates to boosted gains.
If you have super-tight hip flexors, you prob shouldn’t try this move, warns Wickham. “When you lower past parallel, it’s going to stretch your hip flexors,” he explains. If you don’t have adequate mobility in your hips, your lower back has to compensate, which can lead to lower back pain. If you have tight hips, your best bet is to do GHD abdominal curls only lowering to parallel (and to start doing more hip mobility exercises).
A. Set up and mount the GHD machine so that heels are pressed against the foot pads, toes are pointing upward, and buttocks are on the downslope of the pad
- A. Crouch down and maintain an upright posture.
- B. Maintaining a strong core, lean backwards until the back is level with the ground.
- C. Activate the quadriceps by straightening the legs and stretch the arms forward, then stand back up to the initial position.