The History of the Glute Ham Raise

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Owing to the inquisitive nature of a PCS reader, I’ve finally gotten my act together, or at least come close enough to some semblance of normality, to go down the rabbit hole once again. The topic of todays post, is the rather more niche but nevertheless effective Glute Ham Raise (GHR) machine.

Having spent years devotedly using reverse hyperextensions and 45 degree back extensions, my own relationship with the Glute Ham Raise only began in the last twelve months. Since then I’ve made a point of trying as many different alternatives as possible. As is so often the case, I became too engrossed in using the machine that I forgot to look into its history. An email this month asking me about the GHR finally set me straight.

So without further ado we’ll crack into the history of the GHR. What is it? Who invented it and how did it become so damn popular?

The Glute Ham Raise: An Introduction

Created primarily to stimulate the hamstrings the GHR represents one of the most effective isolation exercises around. Similar in appearance to the regular back extension machines, the GHR has become increasingly popular over the past two decades amongst the serious and even lay lifting community.

For powerlifters and athletes in particular, the GHR represents one more means of strengthening and stabilising the posterior chain. Furthermore with some creative thinking and body contortions it can be used to isolate the abdominals, obliques and lower back to great effect.

As always, its easier for me to defer to the experts here. So I’ll let Dave Tate take it from here

Moving back into my comfort zone, we can ask where this weird and wonderful piece of equipment came from. Who invented it? And how did it hit your gym floor?

Origins

Though it is likely that iterations were found across the lifting community during the opening half of the twentieth-century, many have simply explained the origins of the GHR with two simple words: Soviet Russia. Akin to the mystique surrounding the Romanian Deadlift, the GHR was associated with Soviet athletes and weightlifters from the 1970s onward, the reason for which will soon become clear.

An interesting piece from Earle Lederman in Strength and Health magazine during the 1950s however gives us reason to be skeptical of the Soviet angle. Discussing the training programme of Fred Chamberlain in 1953, Lederman described what seemed to be a rudimentary GHR

He (Fred Chamberlain of Toledo, Ohio) does a unique exercise for his leg biceps, which consists of placing a 200 lb. barbell upon boxes and kneeling under it so that his body slants forward as the bar rests on his shoulders. With his heels locked under it so that his body slants forward under another barbell to hold them firmly, he performs a sudden heave by straightening his body and contracting he hamstrings and buttocks. He is still experimenting with this special movement and hopes to eventually secure 29 inch thighs with more power by specially developing the his thigh biceps to a great degree

According to BiggerFasterStronger however, it wasn’t until the 1970s that American weight lifters were introduced to the GHR, supposedly in use for decades within the Soviet Union. The introduction stemmed from an article in Strength and Health magazine and the impact for at least one American lifter was immediate.

Seeking to emulate his Russian counterparts, the American weightlifter Bud Charniga became fixated on creating his own GHR. Working with the photographs of Russian weightlifters performing rudimentary GHRs on a pommel horse in front of wooden stall bars, Charniga made his own rather crude model. Returning to the BFS article, Charniga stated

What I did was take a padded car seat and nail it to a carpen- ter’s bench. I then placed it in front of my power rack and hooked my ankles underneath my barbell so that I wouldn’t tip over.

While not aesthetically pleasing, the training results were nevertheless effective.

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The GHR in the US had finally arrived, albeit in very few gymnasiums. The stage was set however for the machine’s mass popularisation.

Dr. Michael Yessis and the GHR

During the 1980s, the then fifty year old Michael Yessis travelled to the Soviet Union to further investigate Soviet training programmes. Already accepted by the sports science community in the US and USSR, Yessis teamed up with Yuri Verkhoshansky, one of the leader trainers of Soviet athletes. Interestingly, Yessis had already changed the nature of sports training in the US when he coined the term plyometrics alongside Fred Wilt in 1975 following their studies of Soviet warm ups. Anyone who had been forced to box jump will appreciate or agonise over this particular invention!

In any case, it was during his prolonged period in the Soviet Union that Yessis became interested in the Soviet style GHR. Seeking to promote its use within the United States and the Western World more generally, Yessis set about publicising the device through academic journals, his own Soviet Sport Review and a series of books such as Running and Hurdling alongside Fred Wilt.

Reflecting on his discovery of the GHR in Russia in Running and Hurdling, Yessis noted

For many years, I noticed that Soviet runners and other tracks and field athletes did an exercise that appeared to be what we know as back raises or hyperextensions. They would lie over a buck (short gymnastics horse) situated close to wall bars, with the feet secured between the wall bars against the wall. Since the exercise appreciated to be the same as what was typically done in the U.S., I never gave it much thought.

That is, until I talked to a Soviet coach about specialised exercises for runners and how they prevented hamstring injuries. He proceeded to describe what I thought was the hyperextension exercise. How could working your lower back develop the hamstrings? It didn’t make sense!

But, examination of how the exercise was executed gave the answer. Body support was on the middle of the thighs, not on the pelvic girdle. The ‘back raise’, therefore, was a trunk raise via hip joint extension-hyperextension in which the hamstrings play a major role. This is the same action that occurs in running!

Yessis, it’s far to say. Was a convert. Although noting that rudimentary GHRs could be implemented within gyms across the country, the Sports Scientist decided to save us all the effort. From the mid-1980s Yessis team up with Polaris Equipment to engineer the first polished GHR machine, an iteration of which is shown below.

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Though the machine would soon be produced by countless other manufacturers, Yessis has generally been cited as the man responsible for its ‘invention’ but more importantly it’s popularisation.

Closing Remarks

For those of you already enamoured with the GHR, little needs to be said. For those interested in the GHR’s training applicability but are unable to use one, Barbend has a good article on alternatives. While we cannot be sure of the GHR’s actual birth, it seems likely that the exercise if not invented in the USSR during the first half of the twentieth-century, was more widely used there at least.

 

The work of Yessis and others in promoting the GHR is a fascinating reminder of how secretive the world of Strength and Conditioning could be. Finally it is worth admiring the quick rise of the GHR from niche piece of equipment to gym stalwart.

As always…Happy Lifting!

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