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By Kim Goss
Published: Winter 1997

Former national-caliber weightlifter Don Reed says that when his training colleague Tommy Suggs attended the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Suggs saw that the Russian coaches had a unique way of assessing the competition.  "When a Russian coach would greet a lifter from another country, he would always put his free hand on the lifter's back and quickly touch the athlete's spinal erectors and traps, checking muscle density and tone."  Indeed, Reed says that the most impressive aspect of an elite Russian lifter was the muscular development of his lower back, and that the popular Olympic champion and world record holder David Rigert "had erectors that looked like semi-submerged truck tires!"

Russian athletes emphasize developing the glutes and hamstrings with squats, power cleans, and specialized exercises such as the glute-ham raise.  Just how important are these muscles?  Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin has designed workout programs for over 400 olympians, and he says that approximately 40 percent of the power for sprinting and jumping comes from the glutes and 25 percent from the hamstrings.  "It's imperative that all athletes concentrate on strengthening these muscles with assistance exercises such as the glute-ham raise," says Poliquin.

The glute-ham raise enables an athlete to work the entire length of the spine and both the knee and hip extension functions of the hamstrings.  This is not possible with the back extension benches found in most gyms.  Says Poliquin, "The design of the glute-ham developer allows an athlete to strengthen the erectors especially in the middle portion, which, in most sports, is exposed to high forces."

Another plus for the glute-ham-raise is that it is one of the most important exercises for preventing back and knee injuries, especially the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).  "The spine is exposed to great compressive forces in many sports,"  says Poliquin.  "I've found that athletes who are weak in the hamstrings, glutes and lower back not only are more likely to injure the lower back, but also are especially prone to tearing the ACL.  Because the glue-ham exercise increases muscle mass and strength in the back, glutes and hamstrings, those athletes who include this exercise in their programs are better able to withstand the compressive loads on the spine and those forces that occur with sports such as football and alpine skiing," says Poliquin.

BFS President Greg Shepard says that proof of the value of such exercises is evidenced in the reduction of injuries reported by those who attend BFS clinics, which teach a number of assistance exercises like the straight-leg deadlift and glute-ham raise. "After one year, schools that have sponsored a BFS clinic average a 50 percent decrease in injuires," says Shepard.

Paul Chek, one of the world's foremost experts on strength training exercises for the spine, says that the glute-ham exercise is superior to the back extension for rehabilitation.  Chek says that because it works both functions of the hamstrings, the glute-ham exercise is a more functional exercise than the seated back extension machine (and is considerably less expensive).  Further, Chek says the glute-ham raise places minimal compressive forces on the spine, forces that can exacerbate lower-back pain.

BFS and the Glute-Ham Raise

Core lifts like the power clean and the squat form the basis of a BFS workout, and descriptions of proper performance of these movements can be found in BFS books and courses, as well as demonstrated hands-on at its clinics.  While the power clean and squat are essential lifts, a poorly conditioned back can be a weak link that reduces an athletes ability to transfer force from the legs in both these lifts.  The result is the athlete will be forced to use lighter weights.  This also places potentially harmful stresses on the ligaments and disks of the back.  Although an exercise such as the glute-ham raise doesn't create the same stress on the muscles as a power clean or a squat, the additional work helps correct these weak links that may be preventing an athlete from achieving Upper Limit goals.

Dr. Mel Siff, a noted exercise scientist from South Africa, had an opportunity to train with the late Serge Reding back in 1971.  This Belgian behemoth was the first man to snatch 400 pounds and was considered the greatest rival of the most famous weightlifter of all time, Vasily Alexeyev.  Siff saw Reding squat, all the way down, without wraps, 880 pounds for 5 reps and perform repeated jumps a foot off the ground while holding 286 pounds in his hands!  "When Serge Reding stayed with our family, he shared an enormous amount of material with me," recalls Siff.  "He stressed that 'core' exercises (such as the squat and power clean) were of little value if even one minor muscle group is weak and lets you down in competition."

From Pommel Horse to Car Seat

To be continued....

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