The glute ham raise and back extension are excellent exercises for hitting your posterior chain. But they differ significantly in muscles worked, injury-risk, and even accessibility. Here’s a detailed comparison including pros and cons of both.
Your posterior chain muscles—including your shoulders, lats, spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings, and calves—are some of the most important muscles in your body.
These muscles play a role in maintaining proper posture, ensure smooth movement, and keep your spine strong and supported in everything you do.
It’s absolutely imperative that you take time to train these muscles specifically. Strengthening them is the key to developing a more resilient, powerful body that is “bulletproof” against injuries.
Glute ham raises and back extensions both some of the posterior chain muscles, and they’re both incredibly effective for strengthening your core and lower body.
But as you’ll see below, they’re different enough that you should be including both in different parts of your workout.
Back Extensions – Overview
Back extensions (also known as “back hyperextensions”) are an exercise that targets your lower back muscles. It utilizes a particular piece of equipment designed for the exercise, called either the “Roman chair” or “back extension bench”.
This bench features pads to keep your lower legs securely in place, and pads to support your hips and thighs.
With your legs used to brace yourself, you raise and lower your torso using the power in your spinal erector and glute muscles.
It also increases the engagement of your hip and pelvic muscles.
Glute Ham Raise – Overview
Glute ham raises are performed on a purpose-built machine (called the GHD machine) that looks and functions similar to back extensions, but is slightly different.
With the Roman chair/back extension bench, the padding is placed beneath your pelvis to isolate your lower back. The glute ham raise machine instead shifts the padding slightly lower, placing it beneath your mid-thigh.
This ensures that through the raising/lowering motion of your upper body, your glutes and hamstrings do most of the work.
Glute Ham Raises vs. Back Extensions – The Main Differences
There are plenty of similarities between the two exercises.
Both engage your posterior chain muscles, including the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
Both utilize similar-looking benches, and involve a bending/raising motion.
However, there are a few significant differences between them that are worth mentioning:
💪 Difference #1: Leg Movement and Muscle Recruitment
The back extension involves zero movement of your legs. Your legs are secured at the ankles by the padded bars, and your knees and thighs are pressed against the padding.
As a result, the exercise focuses almost entirely on your lower back. Your glutes do help (particularly during the hyper-extension), but it’s your spinal erector muscles that do around 90% of the work.
Back extensions are typically used to strengthen your spinal muscles, which protects your lower back against injuries and enables you to lift more weight. They’re great to help you improve your deadlift, because the spinal muscles are critical for the “deadlift lockout”.
With the glute ham raise, however, only your mid-thigh is placed against the padding. The padding itself is actually designed to allow your knees to bend and your legs to slide up and down.
This reduces the engagement in your lower back and increases hamstring and glute engagement. Think about the glute ham raise like your legs are “curling” with your upper body as the weight.
Glute ham raises maximize hamstring and glute power, which translates into better performance of exercises like squats, cleans, and deadlifts.
💪 Difference #2: Injury Risk
Let’s be honest, one of the primary concerns when weightlifting is the potential for injury.
This becomes even more concerning when dealing with the posterior chain muscles, because it’s these muscles that are most likely to cause debilitating injuries that could keep you out of the gym for weeks or months at a time.
With these two exercises, the risk of injury is very real, which is why it’s recommended that you start with little to no weight, and slowly increase only as your muscles adapt.
Overloading from the beginning can put your muscles, joints, and connective tissue in real danger.
You may end up straining or moving incorrectly to compensate for a too-heavy load, which drastically increases the chance that you’ll injure yourself.
The location of potential injuries also changes with each exercise. With the glute ham raise, you’ll typically find its your hamstrings at greatest risk.
With back extensions, your spinal erector muscles are more likely to give out or spasm, which could lead to serious lower back problems.
Of the two, glute ham raises are “safer” for your lower back, but the back extension goes a lot farther toward strengthening the specific muscles that will protect against spinal injury in the future.
💪 Difference #3: Beginner-Friendliness
The glute ham raise is far from the easiest exercise to master.
You’ve got to work on maintaining the proper form in your lower body, ensuring the hamstrings curl in such a way that your knees bend and your thighs slide down on the pad.
All the while, you’ve got to focus on maintaining a stiff spine without increasing lower back muscle engagement (the prime movers are the glutes and hamstrings).
It’s safe to say that you’ll have to spend quite a few weight training sessions working on getting the form and movement just right.
The back extension, however, is incredibly easy to learn. If you’ve ever bent forward (which of course you have!), you know how to do it.
Sure, you’ll have to pay attention to the way you move—speed, extension range, etc.—but at the end of the day, it’s just a bending motion that most of us have already mastered.
You can get the exercise down in a matter of minutes, and start adding weight to make it more difficult pretty much on Day One.
💪 Difference #4: Size
If you’ve ever seen a Roman chair/back extension bench, you know how compact they are.
They can fit into pretty much any home gym, and they’re often tucked in a back corner or off to the side of the gym because of how compact they are.
The glute ham raise bench, however, is far larger. It has to be significantly heavier in order to stay securely in place while you move, and it typically features an elevated thigh pad that’s high enough for even taller bodybuilders to raise and lower without their heads touching the floor.
It’s safe to say that a glute ham raise machine is easily two or three times the size of a back extension bench, and far heavier, too. It’s definitely not the most home gym-friendly machine.
💪 Difference #5: Availability
The back extension bench is one of the most common core-focused pieces of equipment, one you’ll find in quite literally every gym.
The glute ham raise bench, however, is far less common.
Because of its size and the fact that it’s suitable for only one exercise, many gyms typically will opt for an adjustable back extension bench that can be adapted for glute ham raises (albeit, not as comfortably as the glute ham raise machine).
💪 Difference #6: End Goal
With the back extension, your end goal is more powerful spinal muscles.
You need to develop stronger spinal supporters to help get you through exercises like squats and deadlifts—or, really, anything that involves a heavy load placed on your upper body, which requires your back support.
Anyone trying to prevent future back injuries will want to focus more on the back extension than the glute ham raise.
On the other hand, the goal of glute ham raises is to build more powerful glutes and hamstrings. Both of these muscles play a critical role in lower body exercises like squats and lunges, as well as full-body movements like deadlifts and, of course, athletic performance overall.
They also help to increase knee stability, and they work the lower body muscles without increasing lower back strain.
Glute Ham Raises vs. Back Extensions – FAQs
Can you do glute ham raises on a back extension machine?
You can, but not easily. The back extension machine is designed with most of the padding placed directly beneath your lap, with the padding ending at your waist to allow for more efficient bending.
This means that if you shift your legs forward and place the end of the padding beneath your thighs, there will be some sharp edges digging painfully into your leg muscles.
To use the back extension machine for glute ham raises, you’ll want to place some sort of extra padding (mat, blanket, cloth, foam, etc.) between your thighs and the bench itself. But be aware that the padding may shift during your repetitions, so you may have to pause to re-adjust.
Are back extensions the same as glute-ham raise?
They are NOT! As we’ve seen above, back extensions focus primarily on the lower back, with some minimal glute engagement.
On the other hand, glute ham raises focus primarily on the hamstrings and glutes, with only minimal lower back engagement.
Both have their place in your workout, though—you’ve just to got to include them on the right day!
The Bottom Line
Glute ham raises should be a staple of your Leg Day workouts, because of how effectively they target the muscles in the backs of your legs.
Back extensions deserve a place in your Back Day or Core Day workouts, thanks to how effectively they strengthen your spinal muscles.
Using them each for their specific benefits will make you a stronger, more resilient athlete and weightlifter overall.
And isn’t that really what training is all about?
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