Your Ultimate Guide to Using the GHD Machine
The machine that'll pump your glutes and hamstrings and chisel your core.
Strut into the strength room of any gym and you'll encounter a number of machines that are pretty self-explanatory: the leg press, hip adductor or abductor machine, and the leg curl, to name a few.
The Glute Hamstring Developer (aka the GHD) is not one of those machines. (The Technogym GHD above is an example of one you might see in your gym.) A lot of people don't know how to use it, and are too intimidated to give it a try, says Libby Landry CF-L3 CrossFit coach at CrossFit Invictus and member of CrossFit Headquarters 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." And that's a damn shame because it offers up some serious and ~unique~ strength perks.
Enter, this GHD guide. Below, answers to all your questions, plus four GHD exercises to try—including the glute-ham raise, GHD hip extension, back extension, and sit-up.
What Is a GHD Machine?
The simple answer: The GHD machine is exactly as its full name implies: a piece of equipment that can be used to strengthen (or develop) your glutes and hamstrings. Of course, those aren't the only muscles it works. If the machine was dubbed for all of them—the core, quads, calves, and hip flexors, etc—its name would be too long for a cute little abbreviation like GHD.
The Benefits of the GHD Machine
While the benefits vary slightly from exercise to exercise, "in general, the GHD machine is a great way to strengthen the posterior chain and core," says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, a digital movement education platform. That's pretty mega considering most people could benefit from working both muscle groups a little more.
As a refresher: The posterior chain (PC) refers to all the muscles along the back-side of the body—most notably the hamstrings, glutes, calves, and lower and upper back muscles. "The PC contains what should be the biggest, most powerful, and strongest muscles in the whole body," explains Wickham. However, many people are weak here due to a sit-all-day lifestyle and anterior-dominant workout routine (read: lots of forward motion, like running and push-ups), he says. (Related: What Exactly Is the Posterior Chain And Why Is It So Important?)
The result of a weak posterior chain? In addition to your booty shorts being a little loose, lack of strength in the posterior chain increases risk of injury, especially in the lower back, hips, and knees, according to Wickham. "Doing posterior-chain exercises is essential for keeping your body healthy, muscularly-balanced, and pain-free," he says.
The core-strengthening perks of the GHD machine are equally noteworthy. "The core includes more than just those six-pack ab muscles you see on a lot of CrossFitters," says Wickham. "The core is all the deep layers of muscles in the mid-section, the pelvic floor muscles, and stabilizing muscles in your back," he explains. Anyone who's able to stand upright, as opposed to flopping over like a limp noodle, has their core muscles to thank. "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 benefits of a strong strong core go way beyond aesthetics.)
One more benefit: "The GHD is also a great tool for increasing your kinesthetic awareness," aka body awareness, says Landry. That translates to all your other athletic (and every day!) endeavors.
GHD Machine Exercises to Try
Convinced to give the machine a whirl? Good news: "You absolutely don't need to be an elite athlete to use the machine," says Landry. That said, you need a little lesson first. Read on to learn how to do four GHD machine exercises and drills:
- GHD Glute-Ham Raise
- GHD Hip Extension
- GHD Back Extension
- GHD Sit-up
GHD Glute-Ham Raise
If you think the OG hamstring exercise (the deadlift, duh) is hard, wait until you try the glute-ham raise. "This exercise is all hamstrings and glutes, and then a little bit of calf," says Wickham. Fun!
How to do it:
- Adjust the machine so that when your feet are pressed against the foot pad, toes facing down, your knees hit the middle of the support pad. Start kneeling tall with your feet locked in and core engaged.
- Keeping trunk in a neutral position (and without hinging at the hips), lower your entire upper body toward the floor, says Landry. Continue lowering until your torso is parallel with the ground.
- Then, engage your hamstrings and glutes to pull yourself back up to start.
- If you're new to the move, either have a spotter there to return you back to start or "use your hands to push yourself back into the starting position, making it an eccentric exercise only," she says.
GHD Hip Extension
This posterior-chain strength exercise is the most beginner-friendly movement you can do on the machine, according to Wickham. "The primary muscle group it works is the glutes, but it also works the hamstrings, calves, and lower back," he says.
How to do it:
- Start by adjusting the foot pad so that when you lock your legs in, your hips are completely free of the main pad. "You need the hip to be able to flex and move freely throughout the range of motion of the movement," says Landry. Now, climb into the apparatus so that the bottom of your feet are pressed into the foot pad, toes pointed down, and quads are bisected by the support pad.
- Before you do a full hip extension, make sure you have what Landry calls, "capacity for the movement," meaning the prerequisite amount of strength and mobility. To do that, try holding the Superwoman Position: Lower torso so it's parallel to the floor and hold your body completely still. If you feel strong, confident, and comfortable in this position—and can hold it for at least 10 seconds—you're ready to do it from a hamstring position. (If not, hop off the GHD machine and spend some time strengthening your posterior chain and core through movements like the glute bridge, hip thrusts, and deadlifts).
- From the Superwoman Position, slowly lower your torso toward the floor. As you do so, "make sure you're maintaining a neutral starting position by keeping a proud chest and tight core," says Landry. Squeeze your butt to come back up. That's one rep.
The first time you do a hip extension, only lower a few inches. "You can slowly increase this range of motion over weeks or months as you get comfortable and strong in this position until you can fold to 90 degrees," she says. Just be careful; you never want to lower to the point that you lose a neutral spine and start to round your lower back.
GHD Back Extension
At fanny (er, face) value, the back extension and hip extension look the same. But they're actually quite different. "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."
How to do it:
- Machine set-up is the most important difference between the two exercises. For a back extension, you set up the machine so that your hips can't move at all. Adjust the foot pad to be further from the main pad so that when you're face-down in the machine, your hip bones are resting on top of the main pad.
- Think of this move as an advanced iteration of cat-cow. You'll lower your upper body one vertebrae at a time towards the floor. That's why, before giving this move a try, Wickham says, "you need to have full mastery of segmented cat-cow," (moving through it so slowly and intentionally that you're articulating one vertebra at a time). If you have a hard time controlling your bod through this position, you're not ready to graduate to the GHD machine. (Related: The Best Yoga Poses for Athletes).
- To try it, get into the apparatus then squeeze the hell out of your glutes and hamstrings. Next, lower one vertebra at a time, starting with the upper back, through the middle back, and down to the lower back, explains Landry. In non-anatomy-speak, that means you're going to "tuck your chin, round and lower your shoulders, then the upper back, and then the lower back," she says.
- Return to start by squeezing your glutes and slowly rolling the spine back up to straight, starting with the lower-back back and moving inch by inch to your chin. "The slower the better with this movement. Quality over speed," says Landry.
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." (Related: How to Correct Text Neck)
But that also means it's easy to get hurt during back extensions if you're not doing them properly. To avoid injury, Wickham has three tips:
- Don't hop on the GHD if you're new to the gym. Wait until you've become a proficient mover, he says.
- The first few times you use it, make sure there's a trainer nearby to give you pointers.
- No matter how many times you've done the move, stop if it doesn't feel right. "Adjust the foot pad and try again," he says. "If it still doesn't feel good, stop completely and get a trainer to weigh in." Aye, aye coach.
Also known as the Roman Chair Sit-Up, the GHD sit-up is an explosive abdominal exercise. They may look like really fast sit-ups, but there are some key differences between the two moves, according to Wickham. "GHD sit-ups put more load on the hip flexors," he says, and they work your abdominal muscles through a greater range of motion than the classic ab movement. Ultimately, that translates to boosted gains.
How to do it:
- Set up the apparatus so that when you're sitting in the machine, heels against foot pads (toes pointing up), your glutes are off the pad. With feet in the pads, sit up tall, and bend your knees.
- Next, keeping a tight core and extend backward until your back is parallel with the floor. Return to a seated position by aggressively flexing your quads (aka straightening your legs) and reach your hands forward, explains Landry, who calls this part of the movement "the kick and reach." That's one rep. "After a number of sessions practicing lowering just to parallel, you might try lowering yourself back more and more until you feel yourself lose that tight stomach and neutral back," says Landry.
- Wickham warns against this if you have super tight hip flexors. "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 (and TBH who doesn't?), your best bet is to do GHD sit-ups only lowering only to parallel (and to start doing more kneeling couch stretches to stretch out those hips).
The GHD may be intimidating because it's unlike any other machine at the gym, but don't let yourself miss out on its posterior chain and core strengthening benefits. Like most things in the gym, "it's perfectly safe as long as you know how to use it correctly," says Wickham.
With that in mind, if you're wondering how can you add the GHD machine into your routine? In one word: Slowly. For each of the above movements, Landry recommends starting with 3 sets of 5 slow and controlled reps. "It's like hot sauce," she says. "Just enough adds some spice to your life....too much and you'll regret it for a couple of days." Lol.