Your Ultimate Guide to Using the GHD Machine

The GHD machine will pump your glutes and hamstrings and strengthen your core. Here's how to use it, plus four exercises to get you started.

photo of a TechnoGym GHD machine, aka a glute hamstring developer machine
Photo: Technogym/kundoy/Getty Images

Strut into the strength training 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 glute-ham developer or GHD machine) is not one of those machines.

A lot of people don't know how to use the GHD machine and are too intimidated to give it a try, says 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 says. And that's a damn shame because it offers up some serious strength perks.

Benefits of Using the GHD Machine

If you're wondering what a GHD machine is, it's exactly what 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, hip flexors, etc. — its name would be too long for a cute little abbreviation.

The GHD machine's 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., a physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault. That's pretty mega, considering most people could benefit from working both muscle groups a little more.

As a refresher, the posterior chain refers to all the muscles along the backside of the body — most notably the hamstrings, glutes, calves, and lower and upper back muscles. "The (posterior chain) 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 (looking at you, desk job) and anterior-dominant workout routines (read: lots of forward motion, such as running and push-ups), he says.

The result? Lack of strength in the posterior chain increases the 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. TL;DR — Use the GHD machine and it will have your back, literally.

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 midsection, the pelvic floor muscles, and stabilizing muscles in your back," he explains. And all those muscles do much more than help you do 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 benefits of a 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 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 Safely

If you're wondering how to add the GHD machine into your workout regimen, try starting with the four exercises below, recommend Landry and Wickham. If you choose to sprinkle any of these movements into 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 benefits, 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 working out, 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: Do each exercise for a total of five reps 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 need: A GHD machine

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! If you're new to the move, either have a spotter there to return you back to the starting position or "use your hands to push yourself back into the starting position, making it an eccentric exercise only," suggests Wickham.

A. Mount the GHD machine and start by kneeling tall with feet locked in and core engaged. Press feet against the foot pad and adjust the machine so that knees hit the middle of the support pad.

B. Keeping spine neutral, lower upper body toward the floor. Do not hinge at hips. Continue lowering until torso is parallel to the floor.

C. Engage hamstrings and glutes to pull torso back up to starting position.

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 explains.

But before taking a stab at this exercise, make sure you have what Landry calls "capacity for the movement" — meaning the prerequisite amount of strength and mobility needed to prevent injury. To check your capacity, try holding the superwoman position on the machine: Lower your 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 such as glute bridges, hip thrusts, and deadlifts.

Also, only lower a few inches the first time you do a hip extension, recommends Wickham. "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," he says. Just be careful, as you never want to lower to the point that you lose a neutral spine and start to round your lower back.

A. Start by adjusting the foot pad so that hips are completely free of the main pad when legs are locked in.

B. Mount the GHD machine and ensure that feet are pressed into the foot pad, toes are pointed down, and the support pad bisects quads. Hips should be able to move freely throughout the range of motion of the movement.

C. From a superwoman position, lower torso toward the floor. Maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement by keeping chest tall and core engaged. Squeeze glutes to come back up to starting position.

GHD Back Extension

The back and hip extensions may look the same, but they're actually quite different. GHD machine set-up 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 vertebrae at a time. Round and lower shoulders first and then the upper back, followed by the lower back.

C. Squeeze glutes 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 Sit-Up

Also known as the Roman chair sit-up, the GHD sit-up is an explosive abdominal exercise. It 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," and they work your abdominal 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 sit-ups 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 glutes are on the downslope of the pad. Bend knees and sit up tall.

B. Keeping core tight, extend backward until back is parallel to the floor.

C. Flex quads by straightening legs, reach hands forward, and sit back up to return to starting position.

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