Everybody loves a pert posterior. Not only that, but trainees interested in more than turning heads alone can have much to benefit from intelligent training of the hip and spine extensors when it comes to physical performance in numerous activities and sports.
We’re all familiar with barbell hip extension exercises such as the Deadlift and Good Morning, movements which have earned the high esteem in which so many people hold them; however, this doesn’t mean that a few minor tweaks to such exercises can’t improve them. This brings us to the crux of today’s article: how can we tweak conventional barbell hip extension exercises to overcome their shortcomings and thereby elicit new-found progress?
While many people around the world have probably used some of the exercises we’ll cover today, I’d like to give credit to coach Stuart McMillan as it was he who gave me the idea to try using bands in the manner outlined in this article.
Who are these Exercises for?
While these exercises can be used by anybody with access to the requisite equipment, I’d reserve them largely for highly-experienced physique athletes looking for a novel training stimulus or athletes competing in sports in which improved hip extensor strength qualities throughout their available hip flexion range of motion are sought. In this instance these are particularly effective as stand-alone exercises for this reason. This can be very useful during a competitive period as at this time the athlete is likely to include reduced volumes of a smaller variety of exercises than during general or specific preparatory periods (i.e. the off-season). Including exercises such as these that can potentially recruit a larger number of motor units than their conventional counterparts and thereby reduce the volumes of strength training necessary to retain strength qualities. This strategy can also be used to particularly good effect by Powerlifters seeking improved hip extensor contribution and strength near the ‘lockout’ in the Deadlift and Squat.
Needless to say, many of these exercises do require a little more time than most to set up and may need some practice before an optimal equipment set-up is realised. This means that they’re probably not suited to those with very tight schedules or the attention spans of goldfish. Likewise, even in facilities with the necessary equipment, implementing these exercises when training in groups can be tedious if the trainees are of very different heights or strength levels.
Traditional Hip Extension Exercises: Basic Biomechanical Barriers
Many stimuli can serve to initiate increased muscle fibre volume and strength. Lengthening of muscle-tendon units under loads is particularly effective at inducing microtrauma of the muscles resisting this load (Clarkson & Hubal, 2002). The ensuing exercise-induced muscle damage appears to contribute to muscle re-modelling via multiple mechanisms including activation and proliferation of satellite cells, stem and progenitor cells that are essential to skeletal muscle growth (Wang & Rudnicki, 2011). Therefore, selecting exercises in which the torque at a given joint is highest when the target muscle fibres are near the limits of your flexibility, as per exercises such as Good Mornings and Romanian Deadlifts, can be an effective stimulus in initiating muscle hypertrophy. The trouble with these exercises is that as the muscles in question return to the start position their activity diminishes given the reduction in hip extension torque. The product is an exercise that is not highly demanding throughout its range of motion.
Exercises such as Pull-Throughs entail a different direction of force to the axial loading evident in Good Mornings and Romanian Deadlifts as the pulley passes rearwards between the legs; however, many find them cumbersome and they are unlikely to reach the demands that exercises like Good Mornings and Romanian Deadlifts can create when the hip extensors are at their longest. Furthermore, Pull-Through loading can be limited by the mass of the weight stack as the individual’s strength increases. Other exercises such as the 45-Degree ‘Back’ Extension are also effective and require relatively high hip extension torques throughout the range of motion, although again these probably do not load the hip extensors as greatly in the stretched position as their barbell counterparts.
Finally, flexed-knee hip extension exercises such as Hip Thrusts are undoubtedly great exercises for a shapely behind. However, such exercises cannot rival other hip extension exercises with respect to hamstring recruitment and for those seeking exercises that are specific to developing hip extensor power in sports played in standing, exercises such as Hip Thrusts arguably have less dynamic correspondence to some of the standing exercises that I will detail in this article.
Accommodating Resistance: more than a Band-aid
So-called ‘accommodating resistance’ comes in a number of guises, including bands, chains and weight-releasers. Traditionally these have been used to modify barbell exercises characterised by axial loading in which force acts along the line of an axis. An example of this would be seen in the spine during a Squat with a barbell as the load compresses the spine vertically.
Exercises such as Good Mornings have an ascending strength curve as the individual is weaker at greater lengths of the agonist musculature (in the bottom of a Squat, for example) and higher loads can be lifted as the limbs are increasingly extended. Therefore, the use of accommodating resistance providing resistance vertically downwards can be very helpful for those interesting in flattening a largely ascending strength curve and thereby increasing the demands on the target musculature throughout the exercise. This is not only of interest to Powerlifters as physique athletes should seek to maximise the demands on the target musculature throughout an exercise’s range of motion as many by-products of anaerobic metabolism are implicated in eliciting muscle hypertrophy.
Using accommodating resistance in this manner can therefore undoubtedly be useful in certain circumstances. Nonetheless, it can also be helpful to manipulate the direction of the resistive force in order to better target certain muscles. For example, the application of a force to the hips that attempts to pull them rearwards while standing upright would necessitate increased hip extensor activity to prevent the hips from flexing. When a weighted implement such as a barbell is then introduced too, the result is an exercise akin to a hybrid between the traditional standing exercise and the Hip Thrust.
The Meat of the Matter: Great Glutes and Huge Hamstrings
Using bands in the way I’ll outline below can be applied to any standing exercise that requires significant hip extension, so please don’t feel limited to the examples that I’ll outline. That being said, because that bands exert a force that must be resisted in order to maintain balance, the exercises detailed are either symmetrical or split stance movements requiring lower limb bilateral force contribution; unilateral exercises can be used if you wish to train your balance, but I’d suggest that these are generally awkward and inferior in developing outcomes like muscle hypertrophy and maximal strength development.
Band Placement and Resistance
The bands should be secured at around waist level a few feet behind where you’ll be lifting the implement (e.g. barbell). Next, step inside the band and lift it such that it wraps around the front of the hips just above the crown jewels. Step forward towards the implement ensuring that the band remains placed appropriately and, once happy with the set-up, begin the exercise. With respect to band resistance, I’d suggest beginning with a relatively extensible band; you can always progress to a stronger band as you develop proficiency in the exercises. As the resistance offered by a band increases as it is extended, it is important to be meticulous about band placement each time you incorporate the exercises.
Bands can be used in this manner with any Deadlift of your choice, including Dumbbell, Barbell, Kettlebell, and Trap bar variations. The following images are of the Romanian Deadlift:
Likewise, the range of motion of these exercises can be tweaked; the range can be increased by standing on a sturdy box or reduced by elevating the implement or simply deliberately curtailing the range of motion. Furthermore, the demands on the hip extensors during the lowering portion of these exercises can be increased by accentuating this phase (performing it with more extended knees than the lifting portion).
At the bottom of the exercise, push your knees forwards to the position below.
Finally, return to the starting position.
Stance Deadlifts Split
One oft-overlooked Deadlift variation that may be of interest to some athletes is the Split Stance Romanian Deadlift. In this exercise, the feet are hip-width apart and slightly staggered such that the toes of the rearward foot are level with the heel of the forward foot. The heel of the rear foot remains slightly off the floor throughout the exercise and the purpose of this rear leg is primarily to provide balance as the forward leg contributes the majority of the work performed. The exercise itself then adheres to the same principles as the conventional Romanian Deadlift and can of course be performed with a variety of implements.
If you try this exercise, just ensure that the knee of the forward leg tracks in line with the centre of the toes of that leg and that the rear foot points forward throughout. Begin with light loads and reinforce good technique and a pronounced stretch through the hip extensors as you descend. You can shift the emphasis away from the hamstrings to the Gluteus Maximus by flexing the knees more during the descent and thereby mimicking the conventional Deadlift. This exercise can of course also be performed using bands, as described.
Good Morning Variations
Once again, a multitude of Good Morning variations can be used. The same technical considerations apply as per its Romanian counterpart.
Stance Good Mornings Split
In this exercise the foot placement is as described above in the Split Stance Deadlift.
This exercise can of course also be performed using bands, as described.
Any bilateral Squat can be used to good effect here; I’d suggest that Single-Leg Squat and Split Squat exercises are less suited to this method. The following photos are of the Back Squat:
Bonus Exercise: Hamstring Squat
One novel barbell squat that you may wish to try if you’re keen to target your hamstrings is a kind of Good Morning/Squat hybrid. After unracking the bar, squat down as is typical.
As you ascend keep your hips flexed such that the top of the exercise now mimics that the bottom position of the Good Morning. Viewed from the side, the angle of your back would therefore remain relatively constant throughout the exercise.
I’d not that this particular exercise does not really lend itself to using bands as described in this article as the hips remain flexed throughout.
Exercise Progressions and Further Modifications
The exercises can be progressed in all of the usual ways (i.e. increased bar mass, bar velocity, range of motion, work performed, work performed per unit of time, etc). However, where bands are used, band resistance can also be increased by either stretching the same band more by standing further from its anchor points or selecting a stronger band. Increasing the band resistance will generally require a higher relative contribution of the Gluteus Maximus, specifically.
As an alternative to bands, a pulley with a waist harness attachment can be used to achieve a similar outcome. The primary difference between the bands and the pulley will be that resistance from the bands increases as the individual stands up from hip flexion, whereas the resistance offered by the pulley will remain roughly constant throughout.
These exercises can also all be performed with accommodating resistance used in the traditional manner as well as this method; chains could be draped around the barbell too, for example. This way you’ll both flatten the strength curve during such exercises in addition to enhancing Gluteus Maximus recruitment. The only drawbacks are the time taken to set up the exercises and some inevitably strange looks that may come your way!
Finally, some of these exercises could be performed as mechanical drop sets; for example, you could perform the Good Morning/Squat hybrid until near fatigue and then continue with the conventional Squat to extend the set. Likewise, you can perform exercises with bands until near fatigue and then remove the bands and thereby extend the set.
Many athletes and physique athletes alike may have much to gain from some of these exercises. If it has not already done so, I’m sure it will dawn on you the methods outlined in this article can be applied to a near-endless variety of exercises; you are only limited by your imagination and can always strive for more effective training methods. Give these exercises an honest go if your gym permits and you may just be rewarded with new-found progress.
Clarkson PM, Hubal MJ. Exercise-induced muscle damage in humans. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2002; 81: S52-69.
Wang YX, Rudnicki MA. Satellite cells, the engines of muscle repair. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 2011; 13: 127-33.