Do Good Mornings to Bulletproof Your Back and Hamstrings
This powerlifting staple will build muscle, reinforce core strength, and protect against common injuries.
Everyone knows about the powerlifting Big 3: squat, bench, deadlift. But if you train in the kind of gym with a rule against dropping weights and a dedicated mirror selfie station, you'll probably be less familiar with the myriad assistance exercises athletes use to put up hundreds of kilos on the platform, and do it without needing to be carried off in a stretcher.
Nobody builds a world class squat or deadlift, or a well rounded physique, without direct lower back and hamstring work -- and I don't mean 50 rep back raises on a bosu ball. In order to build a thick, strong, injury proof posterior chain you need to load up a barbell and get to work.
The Good Morning
Funny name aside, the good morning is a staple exercise for advanced lifters. They're commonly treated as a back exercise, but in reality they work your entire posterior chain, with particular emphasis on the hamstrings and spinal erectors (Vigotsky et al, 2015). By strengthening these areas you'll remove them as limiting factors in your squat and deadlift, boosting the weight you can handle, and ward off muscle tears and bulging disks – something even novice lifters should keep in mind, especially the more geriatric among us.
Good mornings are also a solid choice for hypertrophy. 1959 Mr Universe winner Bruce Randall made it a mainstay in his training, regularly doing sets of 3-5 with over 250kg across his back, and even working up to 310kg for a single.
Bruce Randall. Credit: drdarden.com
One reason the good morning is so effective for packing on muscle may be that it loads the hamstrings isometrically rather than dynamically (Schellenberg et al, 2017) meaning more time under tension than in a traditional hamstring curl, and crucially, much greater mechanical tension (i.e. weight) on the muscles thanks to the heavier loads that can be handled.
How to do it
To perform a standard good morning:
- Grab an olympic barbell.
- Pick a weight you can handle for 10-12 reps. Any heavier and you risk interfering with recovery on the main lifts; any lighter and you're doing cardio. This rep range is also what's generally recommended for hypertrophy.
- Begin with the bar resting on your upper back supported by your hands, like you're performing a squat.
- While bracing the core and keeping your spine in a neutral or slightly arched position and your chest up, hinge at the hips and lean forward, allowing the knees to bend slightly and the hips to shoot backwards to maintain balance.
- Once your torso is as bent over as it can be while maintaining a neutral spine – for most this will be about 30 degrees – engage the hamstrings, glutes, and back to drive the hips forward and return to the starting position.
This standard version works, but it's far from perfect. Guys who squat a lot will know that any extra time with your arms stretched back supporting the bar in squat position is something to avoid, since it puts the rotator cuffs under a lot of strain, potentially leading to impingement. Those with existing shoulder tightness or injuries should be especially careful, and often find the position impossible to maintain.
Additionally, the lever arm – the distance between the load (bar) and the fulcrum (hips) – can become worryingly long as the torso lowers, especially for taller lifters. This can put unnecessary shearing forces on the spine, leading to strain and injury – exactly what we're trying to avoid.
A better way
One solution, which Randall himself opted for, is to use a cambered bar or safety bar. These not only put the shoulders in a more relaxed position, but also shift the load forward and down slightly, reducing the length of the lever arm, thus minimising shearing forces on the spine.
If your gym doesn't have these specialty bars and you don't fancy spending hundreds of pounds on one, the Barbell Strap is a great alternative. The strap attaches to any Olympic barbell, and mimics cambered and safety bars by allowing you to place the load in front of the body, and adjust the height.
This position has the added advantage of allowing the arms to stay in a much lower position than with the specialty bars, letting you engage the lats fully for added core and spine stability – ultimately meaning you can work with more weight.
Strength, size, and stability
The good morning should feature in any intermediate to advanced lifter's arsenal, whether your goal is strength, hypertrophy, or injury prevention. Do it with either a specialty bar or a Barbell Strap to save your shoulders and back, so you can keep moving towards your goals session after session.
Schellenberg, F., Taylor, W. and Lorenzetti, S. (2017). Towards evidence based strength training: a comparison of muscle forces during deadlifts, goodmornings and split squats. BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation, 9(1).Vigotsky, A., Harper, E., Ryan, D. and Contreras, B. (2015). Effects of load on good morning kinematics and EMG activity. PeerJ, 3, p.e708.