There are a few exercises common to strength athletes that require some caution, especially in the context of recovering from back injury. In today’s blog I want to briefly go over the following exercises so that you may better understand their use.
- Hip Extension “Reverse Hyper” Machine
- Back Extension Machine or Roman Chair
Hip Extension “Reverse Hyper” Machine
The hip extension or “reverse hyper” machine was originally created by famed powerlifting coach Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell. As the legs are raised and lowered, many people are taught to simultaneously move their back through flexion and extension. When performed like this, the swinging action is created through contraction of the hamstrings and glutes (extending the hips) as well as the erectors of the low back (extending the lumbar spine).
While this exercise can be excellent for training hip extension strength, the muscular contraction that takes place at the low back (when you allow it to move in this manner) creates extreme posterior shearing forces on the spine. This means for some people (such as someone who is “extension intolerant”), this exercise may actually trigger back pain.
However, I don’t think we can jump to the conclusion that this exercise is inherently dangerous for everyone or should be avoided in all cases of back pain. Instead we just need to have a better understanding of how and when this exercise should be used.
For example, in an effort to strengthen his posterior chain and rehab from back injury, world champion powerlifter Blaine Sumner modified the technique of this exercise into a more “spine friendly” variation. By propping himself up on the machine’s platform and supporting his upper body through the elbows (instead of laying flat on his stomach), Blaine found that he could limit low back movement and instead solely move about the hips.
As you support yourself on the platform, grab the handles and squeeze as hard as you can to create tension from your hands to your shoulders. Your pelvis should be resting on the edge of the platform and back in a neutral position. Next, brace your core and stiffen your entire torso so that you can focus the motion solely about the hips. When you raise and lower the legs with your torso buttressed against the platform, it allows you to strengthen the hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) while minimizing harmful forces on the low back.
This exercise can be performed by extending both legs at the same time or with just one. The single leg version may potentially reduce load on the low back to an even greater degree making it an even more “spine friendly” variation.
For those who do not have access to a specialized machine like the hip extension “reverse hyper,” a kettlebell swing is a great late-stage rehabilitation exercise for many that emphasizes and trains dynamic hip extension in a similar cyclical motion. Not only does a kettlebell swing train the posterior chain but it does so in a manner that enhances full body coordination. Every “link” in our body’s kinetic “chain” (from the stable foot grabbing the ground, to the powerful hips working in sync with an unwavering spine) must work in harmony to produce a quality swinging pattern.
To perform the kettlebell swing, assume a good athletic stance (toes relatively straight forward with feet around shoulder width). If you can, take your shoes off and grip the ground with your toes. This will allow you to create tremendous stability and limit unwanted rocking forward onto the toes or backward onto the heels.
With the bell resting slightly in front of your toes, hinge your hips (butt backwards and chest forward) and lower yourself to the weight as if setting up for a deadlift. Your shoulders should be slightly higher than your hips, and you should be looking straight forward (not down at the kettlebell). Brace your core in a neutral spinal position. Next, drive your feet hard into the ground and lock your arms to pre-tension the entire body before any movement occurs (this is the same step-by-step process that should occur before any barbell lift form the floor).
Draw in a big breath before you then pull the kettlebell back between your legs (like a center hiking a football to the quarterback). As this happens you should feel your posterior chain muscles of your glutes and hamstrings tighten like a rubber band being stretched. Next, drive your hips forward in a powerful explosive manner (releasing the tension of the pre-stretched “rubber band”). Release your breath powerfully as the bell is violently swings forward, similar to a boxer throwing a quick jab.
Do not think about lifting the weight with your arms, but instead the force production for the entire motion should occur at the hips. If done correctly the kettlebell will almost float forward to chest height. Make sure your core remains braced the entire movement. If you relax your core, or attempt to lift the weight with your back and arms you will eventually feel tension in your low back.
As the weight beings to descend back to the ground, fill your lungs again with air. Keep your arms locked out as you then hinge from your hips and allow the weight to swing between your legs. If you bend your knees too much at this time the motion will turn into a squat (this is not what we want). If done properly, you will feel the tension rise in your posterior chain muscles as the “rubber band” is again pulled back and ready for another release of violent energy for the next swing.
Begin by swinging the weight to shoulder height, and eventually you may work towards a higher swing to eye level if you prefer (there’s no right or wrong as long as the motion is performed about the hips and the arms are only an extension of this motion). To read more on using kettlebells in your training, I highly recommend checking out the work of Pavel Tsatsouline. Here is a quick YouTube video of Pavel demonstrating a proper kettle bell swing.
Back Extension Machine or Roman Chair
The back extension exercise from a roman chair machine is used to strengthen the erector muscles of the back. The use of this machine dates back decades and is fairly popular in barbell sports like weightlifting. I remember seeing videos of famed Soviet weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev using the roman chair machine as a staple of his training en route to setting over 80 world records in the 1970’s (fast forward to this next video to 1:21).
A similar machine to the roman chair is the GHD or “glute ham developer.” While the name of the machine gives the impression that it it’s use focuses solely on the posterior chain, it’s use is still very similar to that of the roman chair except that the individual is positioned horizontal to the ground rather than at an angle.
Caution must be taken with using both of these machines, especially when it comes to returning from back pain. Performing a back extension exercise places such a high demand on the spinal erectors with little co-contraction involvement from the rest of the core muscles.1,2 Just like the hip extension “reverse hyper” machine, this action could trigger back pain in some individuals.
Contrary to the exercise name “back extension,” I recommend performing it in a very hip centric manner. Start by adjusting the machine so that the top of your pelvis is positioned slightly past the pad. This will allow you to maintain your back in a stable neutral position (through isometric contraction) during the entire motion while your hamstrings/glutes work dynamically to lower and raise your trunk. If the pad is positioned too far forward, it will cause your back to round on the lowering portion of this movement and then extend on the ascent.
But why is it so important to limit any back movement during this exercise?
Research has shown that those who develop back pain often have altered muscle recruitment patterns during movements that require the trunk to flex and extend.3 When a healthy individual stands back up after bending over to touch their toes (extending from a flexed position) the movement is largely accomplished about the hips.7 However, those who currently have back pain often move with a “top down” or “spine dominant” strategy (meaning they over rely on their low back compared to those without pain when performing a trunk extension movement).4,5 It would therefore be unwise for someone with low back pain to perform an exercise that has them extend the spine from a flexed position, as doing so under load will only strengthen the current problematic movement pattern. By limiting any motion from the low back during this exercise, we can hope to break this cycle and retrain the body to move in a more “hip dominant” manner.
If you do not have access to a roman chair or GHD machine, an RDL or “Romanian deadlift” is a great exercise that can provide a similar training stimulus. Start in a standing position with a barbell or kettlebell held in front of you at waist level. Grab the ground with your feet and brace your core to create tremendous tension throughout your body. Your knees should be slightly bent. Begin the movement by hinging at the hips back as you lower the barbell towards the ground. Only lower as far as possible without losing the locked arch position of your back. Once you reach the lowest position of the movement, return to standing by only moving about the hips. Do not allow the back to move whatsoever during the entire motion.
Exercises are only “tools in our tool box.” if you are designing a program for rehab or performance, we need to choose the best “tool” to help us accomplish our individual goals. While the muscles of our low back do need to be be strong (especially for those attempting to return to heavy strength training), I caution against any exercise that attempts to load the spine and then move it. I hope you now have a better understanding of the hip extension “reverse hyper” and back extension exercises.
Until next time,
- Clark BC, Manini TM, Mayer JM, et al. Electromyographic activity of the lumbar and hip extensors during dynamic trunk extension exercise. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2002;83:1547-1552
- Callaghan JP, Gunning JL, McGill SM. The relationship between lumbar spine load and muscle activity during extensor exercises. Phys Ther. 1998;78(1):8-18
- Nelson-Wong E, Alex B, Csepe D, Lancaster, Callaghan JP. Altered muscle recruitment during extension from trunk flexion in low back pain developers.
- Mcclure PW, Esola M, Schreier R, Siegler S. Kinematic analysis of lumbar and hip motion while rising from a forward, flexed position in patients with and without a history of low back pain. Spine. 1997;22:552-558
- Esola MA, Mcclure PW, Fitzgerald GK, Siegler S. Analysis of lumbar spine and hip motion during forward bending in subjects with and without a history of low back pain. Spine. 1996;21:71-78