Strength training predates bodybuilding. With humble beginnings, a mainstay of early programs was the barbell. This allowed for classic exercises like squats, dead-lifts, bench & overhead presses.
They remain great choices, especially for trainees at home without much equipment.
However, many ascribe mystical qualities for these crude exercises. Support like an elevated anabolic response to using lots of muscle at once has been debunked as meaningful, just occurring temporarily within a still-normal range.
As bodybuilders, we should use whatever tools suit our needs, limitations, preferences & goals. Many professionals rely increasingly on machines as they become stronger, and they do just fine.
So long as we choose exercises developing the muscle regions we demand growth from, we have flexibility in the implements wielded.
Both hip extension and knee flexion have unique value for the hamstrings.
The long head of the biceps femoris & the semimembranosus are preferentially activated on hip extension while addressing the gluteus maximus too.
The semitendinosus & short head of the biceps femoris are preferentially and solely activated on knee flexion respectively, while addressing other muscles like the sartorius.
Enter the underrated hyperextension. The name is a misnomer, perhaps because the forward bend seemed undescriptive. You don’t need extension beyond 0° at the lumbar spine or hips to perform this exercise well.
It works the glutes & hamstrings while including the lower back/erector spinae.
It does require equipment beyond free weights. You need a 45° machine or a Roman Chair setup for ease of use.
Creatively, you can place a barbell on a rack then fix your heels where the wall meets the floor. It can even be done with a yoga/Swiss ball or a flat bench, though probably limiting hip movement too greatly while being impractical to load.
I use the decline bench on my power tower, which distributes bodyweight across the quads, near a wall to then fix my ankles.
However you manage it, the benefits of the hyperextension are significant!
Table of Contents
- Overloads the midrange.
- Knees stay fixed.
- Avoids upper body involvement.
- Feels less cumbersome.
- Can be performed one-legged.
Overloads the midrange.
While accessible, the resistance on both will feel heaviest as the hamstrings reach their greatest length. This utmost passive & active tension can lead to muscle strains or even tears.
A 45°-oriented machine or flatter, relative to the floor, overloads roughly the midpoint of hip extension, a stable position.
Shortened exercises are safer than lengthened exercises, especially those that feel hardest at a stretched endpoint. Passive insufficiency will also limit your performance on these movements and may not allow for complete adaptation.
Know too that soreness is a symptom of stretch adaptation; it’s not a sign you worked the muscle significantly better!
Knees stay fixed.
To work the multi-joint heads of the hamstrings, your knees must stay anchored to fully engage these muscles.
On heavy stiffs or good mornings, you may bend the knees as the reps become more challenging. This involves the quads but reduces hamstrings activation.
The hamstrings need pure hip extension to develop best, or at least a countercurrent movement that’s not often available except on a glute-ham raise.
Avoids upper body involvement.
The stiff-legged dead-lift, or the Romanian dead-lift with less range of motion, is a uniquely comprehensive exercise. It works not just hip & lower back extension but shoulder extension & scapular retraction like on a row.
However efficient, this demanding exercise disrupts a split routine. Having something intense for both the lower & upper body makes it tougher to recover locally during the week.
The hyperextension, as a pure lower body exercise, causes no issues here.
Feels less cumbersome.
Hyperextensions are straightforward.
Pin your heels/ankles while distributing your weight across the front thighs, with open space at the hip crease.
Bend forward at the hips & lower back, reaching about 90° at the hips relative to your torso. At the top, keep your torso aligned with your legs. Don’t jerk your neck.
Nothing else needs to be said!
On the other hand, good mornings can have the barbell slide down your back. A stiff-legged dead-lift requires coordination of the whole posterior chain. You need to be cautious not to go too deep on both.
Can be performed one-legged.
Many treat the hyperextension differently, using only bodyweight for high reps. They wonder then why it fails to build mass.
Any exercise with enough resistance, ideally for a moderate rep range of 6-12 or at least done near failure, will build muscle.
You can perform the hyperextension safely with a single leg at a time, maximizing resistance without a partner to assist and without concern for balance.
While this can overload the lower back, with both sides working for each leg, you can just rest between alternating sets as needed.
You can also modify the leverage, by placing a weight plate behind your head, to further maximize the weight.
Hyperextensions for Safe & Effective Bodybuilding
In his Zane Bodybuilding Manual, Frank recommends supersetting hyperextensions with leg curls, not stiffs or good mornings, to get full hamstrings.
Vince suggested hyperextensions on either all upper or all lower body days, though primarily for the lower back, which he felt needed more work like the forearms.
Dorian Yates regularly used hyperextensions with a barbell.
Hip & lumbar extension serve as antagonist motions to hip & lumbar flexion, so try supersetting them with weighted sit-ups or leg raises for a terrific feeling!
A reverse hyperextension focuses on hip extension, so this open-chain version involves the lower back less, hence not a perfect analogue.
Whatever you decide, be practical and get your head out of what everyone else is doing.
What are your goals? How can you best achieve them? Convention says you must do the old-school barbell lifts, but do they suit you?
Development possible through hip & lower back extension will surely come, safely & effectively, if you embrace hyperextensions as the productive exercise they are!