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Knee flexion for stronger legs

A plea for more Glute Ham Raises

A few years ago I was doing tons of squats and deadlifts, but neither of them were really going anywhere. My hamstrings were suspect for being weak, but even doing all kinds of deadlifting variations that supposedly accentuated them didn't really seem to help. It wasn't until I got serious about the Glute Ham Raise (GHR), a less popular hamstring exercise, that I started progressing again. Recently I have been having great results with some of my clients performing lots of GHR's as well, so it was time to put pen to paper. Figuratively speaking.

The thing with the hamstrings is that they are a group of muscles that - with exception of the short head of the biceps femoris muscle - cover both the hip and knee joints. What this means is that they've got two major functions: hip extension (moving the thigh back) and knee flexion (bending the knee). Deadlifts, squats, and all their variations are terrific hamstring developers, but they only train hip extension, while knee flexion is neglected. This means that if you're not supplementing your traditional barbell work with knee flexion exercises like the GHR, you're missing out on leg development.

"if you're not supplementing your traditional barbell work with knee flexion exercises like the GHR, you're missing out on leg development."

It's not just performance that will benefit from doing more knee flexion exercises; there is a case to be made for injury prevention as well. The hamstring muscles help take strain off the knee and its ligaments, so the stronger they are, the better. Also, it is the short head of the biceps femoris muscle that tends to strain or tear in athletes (while sprinting). And as stated earlier, this part of the hamstrings is really only strengthened when performing knee flexion exercises. It should therefore come to no surprise that implementing GHR variations into training routines of athletes has consistently shown to reduce hamstring injuries.

So, how to go about including some knee flexion in a training routine? Let's start with the choice of exercises. I personally regard the GHR as the main lift to focus on, using all kinds of variations: with straight hips, bent hips, going parallel to the floor, going all the way down, and while using various types of additional weight. Then, since GHR's can be quite tough, I also use a selection of easier exercises. Think machine leg curls, band leg curls, or leg curls with the feet on a swiss ball. If you're unfamiliar with these exercises, check out the videos for some examples.

When it comes to programming, it works well to treat knee flexion like any other major movement pattern: a frequency of at least twice a week, while using both low and high training volumes. What I personally like is to do two knee flexion workouts per week, with the first session focusing on heavy GHR's for low repetitions, and the second session performing one of the lighter knee flexion exercises for higher repetitions. The heavy day will then typically consist of 4-6 sets of 5 to 8 reps (+- 30 total reps) of GHR's, while the light day will consist of 3-4 sets of 15 to 30 reps (60-90 total reps) on, for instance, a band leg curl.

Alright, time to wrap it up. If you've never given the GHR a serious thought, then I envy you. Simply because taking up this exercise in your training repertoire is bound to give a serious boost to all other lower body stuff that you are already doing. Just make sure to switch up the exercises once you get stuck, and you should be on your way. Give it a go, and let me know how you're doing. Cheers.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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