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An Exercise to be Avoided | Glute Ham Developer Situps


I first discovered the GHD sit-up exercise when my business partner forwarded me some images of it being performed; he knew that I might not be able to believe my eyes and thought it would be funny to send it to me. Initially, I thought it was some kind of crafted humor that you might see in a mass email.

Clicking on the link in the email brought me to a web article of the GHD exercise where the tone was serious and the exercise was being promoted. Oh my. Immediately I wanted to know a little bit about how this exercise was founded, who was doing it, and how long it has been around.

After doing a little research, I learned that GHD sit-ups are re-emerging into the fitness industry from an organization called CrossFit. GHD situps (formerly known as the roman chair situp) are now gaining popularity in gyms even outside of the CrossFit organization. When such an exercise like this starts to go viral in the strength and conditioning world, I take the time and energy to dissect it and explain the benefits and or drawbacks to my clients. In the particular case of the GHD sit-up exercise, I hardly have any benefits to add from my dissection.

Below are the hard facts as to why glute ham developer (GHD) sit-ups are not safe for the majority of people.

1. If you blow out a disc in this position, it would be particularly nasty. You would need to have someone move you out of that position, which could cause more damage.

2. Dangerous shear forces are exerted on all five the lumbar discs when rising up from the bottom of the exercise. The hip flexors (medically known as the illiacus, psoas, rectus femoris and sartorious) are the prime movers in the exercise. Within the hip flexor group, the psoas is a muscle that connects directly into transverse process T-12 and through all lumbar segments. Additionally, the psoas inserts into the lateral aspects of all lumbar discs. Too much force going through this muscle can cause some serious back problems.

3. Since most people are weak in the abdominal muscles in comparison to the hip flexors, this exercise is likely to further promote a strength imbalance. The abdominals do have to work extremely hard to stabilize the movement so they will get worked, but not in the degree that the psoas muscles need to work.

4. There is a high risk of tearing an abdominal muscle. Due to the extreme difficulty of the exercise, it is hard to “build up to it”. As stated in point #3, the abdominal muscles are heavily taxed as they must counter forces going through muscles crossing the hip joint. The problem is, most people cannot properly stabilize a movement like this with their abdominal muscles. If you do not have a finely tuned, properly functioning abdominal wall- the risk for abdominal strain skyrockets. Most abdominal type exercises are not even close to being as risky as the GHD exercise regarding risk of abdominal muscle tearing or strain.

5. There is a high risk of cramping the quadratus lumborum (QL), a muscle that arises from the pelvis and inserts into 12th rib. When under enough load in spinal flexion, the QL is activated, but it has a poor mechanical advantage, often resulting in a muscle strain. As seen in most health clubs, the seated abdominal crunch machine can be quite the culprit for QL strains. However, abdominal crunch machines (which I despise as well) are much safer than GHD sit-ups due to the legs being fixed in a flexed position. …Which brings me to point #6.

6. Due to the higher rate of speed in full spine flexion at the top of the range of motion, a posterior lumbar disc bulge is much more likely to happen due to the legs being locked. When you lock the knees, the hamstring and leg muscles pull down on the pelvis so that it cannot rotate forward like it normally would. One of the most common ways to injure your back is to have your legs locked in extension when reaching over a piece of furniture to open a window. This exercise is somewhat analogous to lifting a window while locking the legs.

7.  There is a risk of severe hip flexor muscle strain, especially in those people who may have weak hip flexors. The hip flexor in this exercise is the prime mover, moving over 70% of the total body weight. This brings me to point #8.

8. About 70% of the total body weight is being lifted, due to the apex point being located directly under the middle to upper femur, creating an aggressive lever on the hip, low back and sacral area. Creating a heavy and long lever in the hip/back area and add in a little speed and you have yourself a nice little chiropractic basket.

9. When rising up to the top of the position, the knee has a tremendous amount of extension forces going through it, subjecting it to both hyper-extension and shear.

10. There is a high risk of tearing the hamstring muscle due to the legs being locked and the speed of the movement at the top range of motion.

There are many different exercises out there which strengthen the trunk and hip flexors. The risk versus reward just doesn’t add up well with the GHD sit-up exercise. Come to think of it, the only reward will be a financial one for an orthopedic surgeon when he has to operate on the GHD sit-up victim.

In the strength and conditioning arena, GHD sit-ups is not the first, and will not be the last exercise that blatantly needs to be policed.

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RE: Nigel 
1. Yes -- I would disagree with including the GHD exercise in any conditioning program. There is no good reason why an athlete would want to do this exercise (unless they are a crossfit games competitor). Also, as a strength and conditioning coach, I always have to look at risks vs. benefits. The risk is too high in the GHD. Even if the athlete is a gymnast, participation in their sport is the bulk of their strength and conditioning program. If they have a weakness in a particular movement, it is up to the gymnastics coach and or strength coach to determine how to address it.  
2. Since I don't know what it is you are trying to accomplish, I cannot recommend an alternative.  
Nigel -- What is it you are trying to improve?
Posted @ Monday, October 15, 2012 4:03 PM by Adin Smith
If you are looking to improve your dead lift -- One thing you might want to look at is the use of acute training variables in the dead lift pattern. For example, rest pause training, changing the tempo, rest periods, volume and other variables.  
One thing you could try to stimulate muscle strength is to perform about 5 sets of rest-pause training on those dead lifts. For example, perform the deadlift with a 6RM, rest 10 seconds and then see how many more repetitions you can get until you reach 15 reps.  
What you are doing is essentially picking a weight you can only do 6 reps of, but will complete 15 reps of that weight no matter what. It's just that you are allowed 10 seconds of rest after muscle failure so you can continue in spurts.  
This is a highly advanced form of training so you may have wait 5 days until you'll want to attempt a leg work-out of that magnitude again.
Posted @ Tuesday, October 16, 2012 11:10 PM by Adin Smith
What would you recommend as safe alternative to isolate and work the abdominal muscles? What would you recommend as a safe alternative to back extensions on the GHD to work hamstrings,glutes and lower back?
Posted @ Sunday, November 04, 2012 1:47 PM by Mike
I agree with most of your assessment and warnings about this movement for general deconditioned personal training clients. 
However, I think you drop the ball on explaining how to do this movement safely and effectively. 
I use the GHD for sit ups pretty frequently with my personal training clients who can handle them. However, we focus on doing them right... 
When targeting the abs, making sure the movement is primarily spinal flexion. I cue the athlete to roll the spine up, starting with the chin (neck) and trying to shorten the distance between the ASIS and ribs with a "crunch" movement. 
I also never recommend this movement to be performed rapidly/explosively; given the fragility of the lumber spine in flexed positions. Should be smooth and squeezed. 
Lastly, when moving out towards a horizontal position with the torso (hips exetendeded), I cue "glute lock" or full hip extension, with tight glutes, attempting posterior pelvic tilt. This prevents the hyper extensions issues you mentioned. 
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Posted @ Monday, November 05, 2012 10:30 AM by Matt
RE: "What would you recommend as safe alternative to isolate and work the abdominal muscles? What would you recommend as a safe alternative to back extensions on the GHD to work hamstrings,glutes and lower back?"  
Program design is very individualized, so I never want to blindly recommend. In general I don't believe in isolating the abdominal muscles. When there are specific muscle imbalances in the abdominals and or pain is involved, it would make sense in a rehabilitation scenario. Squats, dead-lifts, cleans and exercises of the like are the best abdominal exercises one can do. Exercises like can help with core stability and are great 'isolated' abdominal exercises. Back extensions on the GHD are perfectly safe and effective so log as the person doing them has been pre-qualified by a strength and conditioning professional.
Posted @ Monday, November 05, 2012 4:12 PM by Adin Smith
I love using a roman chair to do GHDs, oblique work and lower back work. That said, your post is spot on. I think too many people go from 0 to 60 in the gym seeking quick results not realizing that strengthening your body is a process. I've seen some nasty strains with people going aggressively after GHDs without having the core strength to do so. It can put your out of commission for a long time which is completely counter to the goal of working out to improve fitness. Great post!
Posted @ Tuesday, July 16, 2013 8:10 AM by Tyler Wells
This is a dangerous exercise. 
Spinal flexion causes compression of the spinal discs resulting in herniation. Instead of this disaster decline sit-ups with the spine in neutral position will work the abs. The spine should always be kept in a neutral position and the legs should never be in a locked position, the combination of both simultaneously will result in severe lower back trauma period! 
For lower back; the nautilus lower back extension is the only machine designed to effectively work the lumbar area due to the correct bio-mechanical applications, the lower back is the only area involved in the movement, the knees are in the correct position as being lower than the hips; the hips and knees are not under any strain whatsoever.
Posted @ Sunday, July 28, 2013 1:33 PM by Laura
Never knew the GHD sit tp could be so dangerous. However, some suggests that it's an explosive movement and should not be done slowly. But by looking at this video, it sure does seem to put a lot of strain on your spine which can't be good in the long run!
Posted @ Saturday, February 21, 2015 11:31 PM by Mike Asara
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