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Unconventional Lower Body Training

BY JASON BROWN, AUTHOR OF LOWER BODY TRAINING

MAY 2022

In my book Lower Body Training there are a lot of conventional exercises you’ve likely seen before. Exercise variations like split squats, back raises, pull-throughs, and squat variations. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a fair amount of lower-intensive exercises you likely haven’t tried before. Exercises like glute-ham raise variations & sled drag variations are cornerstone exercises in my programming but are certainly less common in personal training circles. In this article, I’ll be discussing programming the less common variations. Furthermore, these variations are highly under-utilized, but the good news is that the learning curve isn’t too steep where you or your clients’ will need to reinvent their movement to perform these variations, but the good news is that many of these variations will likely improve motor patterns.

The Glute Ham Raise (GHR)

What if I told you the single most important exercise for building the hamstrings is one you’re most likely not doing? Or even if you are performing this exercise you may be performing incorrectly as so many do. One caveat to the GHR is that the bodyweight version is a high-demand strength exercise and one I’ve seen strong guys unable to perform (comparable to the nordic leg curl), however, I’m going to provide with you multiple scaling options that will allow you to build motor control and strength in which the bodyweight version (or even the loaded version) will become available. Furthermore, the GHR is a fantastic exercise, but certainly, one that is NOT for everyone - as always use your best discretion when programming any exercise variation.

The GHR is one of the single most butchered exercises I see people performing, but it’s arguably one of the most beneficial for great hamstrings development. Oftentimes though the critical error is how people set up these pieces of equipment with regards to how close or far away they set the backplate.

Once the correct setting is established this usually provides a window of information in terms of how weak your hamstrings are – oftentimes people are unable to perform a true GHR without some form of compensation ie. or excessive lumbar extension.

Don’t worry though there are a few scaling options to make this exercise more feasible and align better with your current strength levels.

Hamstrings Anatomy

You don’t need to be an expert in anatomy to know that the hamstrings are composed of high concentrations of fast-twitch muscle fibers or to know that the hamstrings are involved with hip extension, but this will make more sense when we get into GHR programming and give you more ‘why’ behind the movement.

Back in the early 2000s as a young coach, I remember reading a Poliquin article where he talked about NOT going higher than 8-10 reps on lying leg curls. This makes a lot more sense now than it did back then as this aligns better with the fast-twitch fiber composition of the hamstrings group.

In terms of what you need to know, think about it like this: the hamstrings respond very well to lower rep schemes and heavier loading which is why an exercise like an RDL works so well for hamstrings development with regards to loading capacity and trainability. The GHR is comparable although the level of motor control is higher (this is NOT an exercise for someone that hasn’t mastered the hip-hinge pattern via an RDL first.)

So, if you or your clients have mastered the hip-hinge and GHRs are not a regular part of your training these next few options will be where you should start.

Glute Ham Raise Set-up & Demo
 

Scaling Options From Easiest To Hardest

Box Assisted Glute Ham Raises

Using a plyo box of 30” situated in front of the GHR you’ll use the box to push off of to provide assistance during the concentric (raising) phase of the GHR. Perform 3-4 x 5-7 reps resting 90s between sets.

Band Assisted Glute Ham Raises

Using a mini-band for assistance set the band up attached to the back plate. Perform set 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps resting 90s between sets. Use a band thickness that aligns with your current strength levels.


Bodyweight Glute Ham Raises

Once you’ve graduated from using band assistance you’ll be able to start attempting bodyweight sets of GHRs, but instead of going in headlong in terms of volume, we’ll start out using cluster sets to ease your way into the exercise and to eliminate excessive DOMs. Perform 3 sets of 3.2.1 cluster sets. Rest 10s between each set ie. perform a set of 3 then rest 10s, perform a set of 2 then rest 10s, perform a set of 1 then rest 2:00.


Loaded Glute Ham Raises

Once you’ve mastered bodyweight GHRs and sets of 8 are relatively easy it’s time to add additional resistance – a 10-20# medball works well as does a weighted vest. Perform 4-5 sets of 5-7 reps resting 2:00 between sets.

Furthermore, every so often it’s okay to throw in some higher rep work ie. 3 sets of max reps will full recovery between sets. but higher sets composed of lower repetitions will be the most prudent way to get you to where you want to go.

 

Glute Ham Raise Programming

I've experimented with GHR programming quite a bit and what I've found works best for myself is one heavy day & one light day, but that's likely not a viable option for most people and a better option for someone that can perform AT LEAST 20 strict BW GHRs.

  • Beginners: Use one of the scaling options (box or band-assisted) & perform 3 x 8-10 with 90s between sets, 1x per week.
  • Intermediate: Bodyweight Glute Ham Raises: 3-4 x 8-10 with 90s rest between sets, 1x per week.
  • Advanced: Loaded Glute Ham Raises: 4 x 6-8 with 90s rest 1x per week & 3 x 10-15 with 90s rest, 1x per week

Use this as a guide - nothing more, nothing less and customize it to the individual. Most people will be best served to perform GHRs 1x per week using the appropriate scaling option to match their needs - simple & effective!

Sled Drag Variations

The sled is arguably one of the most effective tools to simultaneously build both strength & conditioning. Unlike the GHR, there is almost zero learning curve when it comes to performing the sled and most people are limited by simply having access to a sled or a space to pull it, but the good news is that you can invest in a sled and grab one for less than $120. Not only are you investing in your fitness, but this training tool can help facilitate recovery and improve your longevity.

The first thing to consider when programming sled work is the goal. If your goal is to build conditioning you’ll want to work for longer sets, with lighter loads, with shorter rest periods (if any.) On the other hand, if you want to use the sled for strength purposes, you’ll want to increase loading, drop the distance, and increase rest intervals. Before we get into the actual programming let's talk about the advantages and benefits of using the sled.

Sled Drag Benefits:

  • Effectively improve conditioning for all three energy systems
  • Improve the strength of lagging muscle groups, in particular, the posterior region of the body such as the glutes, and hamstrings.
  • Programming versatility in the sense the sled could be used on both a strength emphasis training day OR a conditioning emphasis training day - both high & lower threshold conditioning (I don’t know many other modalities that can make that claim!)
  • Low skill requisite. In essence, anyone that can walk can perform a sled drag which makes it a perfect tool for individuals that are newer to training.

How To Perform A Sled Drag



Sled Drag Programming

Strength Programming Guidelines

Exercise

Sets

Distance

Rest Interval

Loading

Forward Sled Drag

6-10

40-60 yards

60-90s

Heavy

Backwards Sled Drag

6-10

20-40 yards

60-90s

Heavy

Lateral Sled Drag

4-6

20-40 yards each side

60-90s

Moderate

Sled Pull Throughs

6-10

20-40 yards

60-90s

Moderate


Conditioning Sled Programming

Exercise

Sets

Distance

Rest Interval

Loading

Forward Sled Drag

2-4

100-200 yards

2:00

Moderate

Backwards Sled Drag

2-4

50-100 yards

2:00

Moderate

Lateral Sled Drag

2-4

50 yards each side

2:00

Moderate

Sled Pull Throughs

2-4

100 yards

2:00

Moderate


Recovery Conditioning Sled Programming

Exercise

Sets

Distance

Rest Interval

Loading

Forward Sled Drag

1

Up to 1 mile

As needed

Light

Backwards Sled Drag

1

Up to 400 meters

As needed

Light

Lateral Sled Drag

1

Up to 400 meters

As needed

Light

Sled Pull Throughs

1

Up to 400 meters

As needed

Light

 

Closing

Oftentimes the best exercises are the ones you’re not using and it’s common-place to find many fitness professionals simply unaware of the benefits of something like the sled drag, but as previously mentioned these ‘tools’ should find their way into the appropriate persons program. For instance, the GHR is certainly a better fit for someone more advanced, with years of serious training experience under their belt, and already a decent level of strength whereas the sled drag can benefit anyone from a novice to advanced individual. As always, make sure you know ‘why’ any exercise is your program.

For more exercises and workouts, check out Lower Body Training