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June 09, 2021 10 min read

When it comes down to having a powerful body, a large part of it comes down to having a powerful posterior chain.

Your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back (literally) do all of the heavy lifting, along with the jumping, bending, and running.

A strong posterior chain means a strong body. Also known as back extensions, hyperextensions are a must-have if you’re looking for a strong and healthy posterior chain. They help you avoid injury and also have great carry-over benefits to other, heavier lifts.

Female Hip and Leg Muscles Posterior View 3D Rendering on Black Background

Muscles Worked by Hyperextensions

There are three main muscle groups that are worked by hyperextensions, these are the gluteus maximus, the hamstrings, and the lower back muscles (erector spinae).

The gluteus maximus—the glutes—is the key to a big bank. Already the largest muscle in the body, you can make them even larger by implementing exercises such as hyperextensions into your workout routine.

Attached to your hip and pelvis, their primary role (other than turning heads at the beach) is for hip extension. This means increasing your vertical, helping you run faster, and being useful in almost all day-to-day movements that use the lower body.

The next big muscle in this exercise is the hamstrings. These guys have two different functions: one is knee flexion and the other is hip extension. Developing the hamstrings is a great idea if you’re looking to avoid injuries.

Not only are hamstring injuries painful, taking long to heal, but a strong hamstring can help to stabilize your knees. This further protects you from injury and long-term aches and back pain.

Hyperextensions also do wonders for the lower back, specifically the erector spinae. These muscles are found deep in your back, running up the sides of it. These are used for the extension of your spine and back during the exercise. They’re extremely important for improving posture and preventing injuries by keeping your lower back stable and strong.

Finally, we have the abdominals and other various stabilizing muscles. As the name would suggest, these are necessary for stabilization. Maintaining strict form and stability will also lead to greater gains in the long term, since you won’t be expending energy into shifting around or wobbling.

The Benefits of Hyperextensions

The greatest benefit of hyperextensions is that they strengthen the posterior chain, and in turn, help to prevent injuries from occurring in an injury-prone area. A weak lower back is often the breaking point for a lot of people.

It’s often said to not round the lower back when you’re doing a lift, usually due to a lack of core strength, too much weight, tight hamstrings, or poor form. A strong lower back can help you through these areas.

Also, hyperextensions greatly develop the hip hinge movement. We already touched on this above, but this movement is essential for so many things. If you’re an athlete, then chances are a more powerful hip hinge will improve your game—whatever the sport.

How to Hyperextend

For this, you will need a hyperextension machine. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so also check out the manufacturer’s instructions before trying something new. You’ll want to set it up so your feet are anchored and your torso is at about a 45-degree angle to your legs, perpendicular.

The angle can differ depending on what you’re trying to focus on in terms of muscle activation. For example, your legs may be placed lower than your waist for a partial hyperextension.

Situate yourself firmly in the machine, with legs anchored in the pads. You want the edge of the bench to still allow you to hinge fully at the torso, so set yourself up to allow this. Begin in the hinged position with your arms crossed at your chest. Engage your core and initiate the movement by activating your glutes.

Continue upwards, feeling the tension in your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, and extend until your body is in a straight line. Pause at the top of the movement before slowly lowering yourself back down into the starting position.

Ensure that you’re not letting momentum do the work, since that could lead to injury and also prevent you from maximizing your gains. Also pay special attention to the glutes, since they’re the stars of the show. There are actually two variations of the hyperextension which focus on either glutes or the hamstrings. The forms differ slightly, but most people opt for glute-focused back extensions.

The Glute Variation

While the two forms don’t differ too much, they do have some important specifics. If you’re looking to emphasize the glutes, slightly round your upper back and tuck your chin towards your chest. You can also hold onto a dumbbell or kettlebell if you want to add some extra volume.

Rounding your back and tucking in your chin will allow you to focus more on the glutes when you’re extending your back up. While you’re going into the top position, it’s important to feel your glutes activating and working. If you’re having difficulty with this, try pausing at the top of the exercise and trying to better get a sense of how to engage them.

And if you feel that one of your glutes isn’t engaging as well as the other, it’s probably time to do some unilateral exercises. This means training either side independently, allowing you to fix any muscular development discrepancies that may exist between your right and left sides. Not only is this good for aesthetics, but it’s also good for your progress and injury prevention.

The Hamstring Variation

This variation more closely resembles the first one we looked at, but with a few key elements that we should be focusing on instead. Once again, you can hold a weight instead of just crossing your arms if you want to introduce some extra volume.

This time instead of rounding your back in towards itself, you want to push your chest out while maintaining a straight spine.Try to pull back your shoulders to help with this and don’t let your chin go in towards your chest. On the way down to the bottom of the movement, try to go as low as you can—this is the best way to give yourself a good hamstring stretch.

Once you get to the bottom, pause for a count and focus on engaging and contracting your hamstrings. However, how far you can go and the benefit you get from this will largely depend on your starting flexibility.

You also don’t want to overdo it and end up injuring your hamstrings, however. Do this consistently and with good form, and your flexibility will also increase in time.

Warming Up for Success

While the back extension can already be considered a warm-up for some heavier lifts that utilize the lower back (such as the deadlift), it’s also a good idea to warm up for these if you’re making hyperextensions a focal point of your workout.

An exercise like the superman is not only a good way to warm up for back extensions, but it can also introduce a lot of variety into your lower back exercises. Other exercises (or holds) include the front plank and bird dogs, all of which engage the smaller stabilizing muscles necessary for larger lifts.

And of course, doing some cardio is great for getting your blood pumping through your body, helping oxygen and nutrients reach your muscles.

Sports young woman doing Reverse Hyperextension in the gym

What About Reverse Hyperextensions?

One exercise that often goes hand in hand (and is often confused with) hyperextensions, is the reverse hyperextension. Reverse hyperextensions made their entrance into the lifting scene through powerlifting circles about twenty years ago.

However, they’re popular in a variety of groups—including those training for strength, conditioning, and bodybuilding. And in fact, they were created as a response (or critique) to regular hyperextensions (also called back extensions).

Although reverse hypers mechanically look very similar to conventional hypers, they add some needed variety into posterior chain exercises. This is because they require your feet to move while the rest of your body stays still, unlike regular hyperextensions where your feet are stationary.

The form of reverse hypers allows for less stress to be placed on the lower back while reaping many of the same benefits. This is also part of the reason why it became popularized in bodybuilding circles, where lower back injuries are common. But how do they measure up when it comes to overall benefits?

One study done in 2019 looked at the differences between these two exercises. It found that back extensions resulted in greater muscle activation in the erector spinae and glutes, and resulted in a greater range of motion of the lower spine.

On the other hand, reverse hyperextensions had a greater range of motion at the hip. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this one study is far from being conclusive and it also noted some issues with form. Furthermore, reverse hyperextensions are better for your lower back when it comes to avoiding injury.

Whether you choose the back extensions or the reverse hyperextension will largely depend on what your goals are, your starting fitness level, and if you have any prior injuries that you have to work around. Nevertheless, both options are a great way to give your posterior chain some extra attention.

How to Reverse Hyperextend

Like with regular hyperextensions, remember to warm up beforehand and get your blood pumping through your muscles. You’ll also need a reverse hyperextension machine, but there are alternatives as well in case you don’t have one. This includes just using a regular bench or even using a stability ball.

However, machines vary as well. Some may have pads and levers with a rack for plates, and others might use machine plates with ankle cuffs or some other attachments. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using a machine you’re not familiar with.

To begin, lie down on the machine with your stomach on the machine’s bench. Although your upper body and stomach should be in contact, your hips should not be touching the bench: this is necessary for them to move freely throughout the exercise. Allow your legs to hang down once you get yourself situated.

Holding the handles, get your body into the correct position. You want to brace your abs and other stabilizing muscles so that you don’t move around during the exercise. Initiate the movement by lifting your legs.

You want to feel the contracting muscles in your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back—this is important for cultivating the mind-muscle connection. Keeping the legs straight, bring them up until they’re about parallel with the ground.

Once you get to the top of this movement, pause for a count and maintain tension in your muscles. Then, slowly reverse the motion until you get back into the starting position. As with the regular back extension, you can’t let momentum take the lead.

Not only can this lead to injury, but you’ll also be taking away from the gains you could be making. For the reverse hyperextension, cheating usually happens when people try to kick their legs up rather than letting the muscles do the work in a controlled manner.

How to Program

Whether you choose hyperextensions or reverse hyperextensions will somewhat depend on your training goals and your starting fitness level. The same can be said when you’re trying to figure out how to program the exercises into your training routine.

If you’re a newbie, then you don’t necessarily have to worry about this too much. But if you’re training for a specific goal, then it’s best to design figure out your rep scheme around that.

For example, strength training requires lower volume but higher intensity. To reps and sets, this translates as fewer reps with higher weights. When looking at hyperextensions, 4 to 6 sets of 3 to 5 reps is ideal-- resting a few minutes in between each set.

Muscle growth, or hypertrophy, will require the opposite. Higher volume of 6 to 12 reps per set using moderate weights. Your rest periods should also be shorter than with strength training.

The other end of the scale is endurance training. This speaks to muscular endurance rather than cardiovascular, and it ramps up the rep count to 12 to 20 while lowering the weights to light to moderate. This will ensure that your muscles are gassed out and lead to long-term endurance gains in this area.

How to Progress

The simplest way of progressing is just upping the amount of weight you’re using. However, this can be difficult if you’re doing a bodyweight variation, or you want to stick to lower weights. The exercise can be made more difficult by also changing the tempo.

Maximizing the time under tension of your muscles will lead to more gains and it will improve your form. Not only will this lead to a greater range of motion, but it will also help you prevent injury and ensure that you’re getting the most out of hyperextensions.

Including hyperextensions in a superset or circuit will not only make your gym sessions more efficient, but this strategy can squeeze out some extra gains as well. 

Variations

If you don’t have a hyperextension bench available to you, this exercise can be done just easily with some other common pieces of equipment. For example, simply lying flat on your stomach on top of a regular flat bench can give you the same results.

The main difference will be in the angle and in the fact you won’t have anywhere to hook your legs under for stability—the effectiveness of this might depend on the person. A simple equipment-less version is possible as well by just lying on the floor and extending your upper back.

Just make sure to hold this position for longer, since you won’t be getting as much out of the exercise. And for reverse hyperextensions, using a stability ball can offer an added element of difficulty as you try to maintain stability.

Extending Better Health

Hyperextensions done with proper form and consistently are able to turbocharge your lower back and back health. They can help you prevent common injuries, safeguard your back during old age, and help you with other common lifts in the gym. Whether you opt for hyperextensions or reverse hyperextension, you’re sure to garner benefits from it.

However, proper exercise is only a small part of maintaining a healthy body. While hyperextensions might put you on the right path for a nice posterior, it’s going to take commitment and hard work outside of the gym as well.

Eating healthy with high-quality carbs, proteins, and fats is the best way to ensure that you’re not leaving any gains on the table. Combine the right exercise with the right diet, and you’ve almost got a recipe for success.

The last factor, and maybe the most important one, is rest. Overtraining is a common issue and not paying attention to your sleep schedule will kneecap your gains—regardless of how hard you work. Hyperextensions are important for a body that’s healthy and good-looking, but they’re a small piece of the puzzle.