In recent years there has been a considerable amount of interest in exercises that work the posterior chain muscles, especially the glutes, but also the hamstrings and lower back. Many fitness experts are recommending exotic exercises, some requiring specialized equipment. These exercises certainly work, but there is one class of exercise that is considered by old school Iron Game athletes as the gold standard for these muscles: good mornings.
If you’ve passed the half-century mark in age as an Iron Game athlete, you will recall that the standing good morning was a popular exercise for weightlifters in the 70s and 80s. Russian weightlifters were especially fond of the exercise because their style of pulling the weights off the floor required tremendous lower back strength. In recent years weightlifters, especially in the US, have dropped the exercise in favor of the Romanian deadlift.
In powerlifter, however, the good morning has experienced a rise in popularity thanks to the success of Louie Simmons and his Westside Barbell Club. Simmons believes that the good morning has excellent carryover to the deadlift. Simmons says that deadlifting can be too stressful on the nervous system if performed too often. As such, his “Conjugate Method” of training has him rotating exercises that mimic the motion of the deadlift, rather than simply performing deadlifts year-round.
Although not commonly used by bodybuilders, 1959 Mr. Universe Bruce Randall performed a variation of this exercise with as much as 685 pounds! Although coaches have many different opinions about how much weight to use on the exercise, popular strength coach and writer Bill Starr said that the good morning should generally be used with about 50 percent of your best squat. However, consider that powerlifters often perform good mornings with bands and chains, increasing the resistance at the top portion of the exercise, where you are stronger.
From a biomechanical perspective, the good morning is considered a class 3 lever such that the barbell is the load, the spine is the lever arm, and the hips are the fulcrum. A fishing rod and a broom are examples of class 3 levers. In contrast to the deadlift, which begins from a position of disadvantageous (weaker) leverage, the good morning begins from a position of advantageous (stronger) leverage.
Whereas the deadlift begins with a concentric contraction such that the muscles shorten, the good morning begins with an eccentric contraction such that the muscles lengthen. Some powerlifters prefer to make the lift more sport specific to the deadlift by performing good mornings in a power rack with the safety rods placed so that the lift begins from a position of disadvantageous leverage. This variation is more difficult to master as you have to be careful not to jerk the weight at the start.
An Olympic barbell is commonly used for the good morning, but many lifters prefer using a safety squat bar or a yoke bar. One advantage of these two types of bars is that they are often more comfortable, especially for those with shoulder injuries or upper body mobility restrictions.
One of the concerns about the good morning is that it could easily injure the lower back. The key to safely performing this exercise is to keep your knees slightly bent and to pivot from the hips – in fact, the lift could best be described as a “hip hinge” exercise. Also, do not round your lower back to increase your range of motion. That is the conventional technique of the good morning, but there are many more variations. Let’s look at a few.
One interesting variation of the good morning involves having you jump upward at the finish of the movement. It is popular among weightlifters as it simulates the finish of the pull, and could be valuable for athletes who want to increase their vertical jump. This variation requires considerable skill, as you must be able to absorb the stress of the landing by flexing the knees and ankles. As such, this variation should be considered an advanced exercise that requires coaching.
Another unique good morning variation has you bending as far forward as possible, even to the point of slightly rounding your lower back at the finish. It is used with relatively light weights and is considered more of a dynamic stretch. Andrew “Bud” Charniga, Jr. wrote about this variation in an article published in the NSCA Journal in 1986.
“In many athletic activities, such as Olympic weightlifting, the back is held straight during the fundamental exercises – snatching, jerking, cleaning, etc. Consequently, the erector spinae muscles are, for the most part, working isometrically, and are in a shortened state,” says Charniga. “A possible cause of low back pain resulting from a large volume/intensity of the aforementioned activities is that the erector muscles seldom are exercised dynamically or stretched at the same intensity with which they are normally utilized.”
Charniga says performing a good morning exercise with a relatively light weight throughout a full range of motion, such that the back is allowed to round slightly in the stretch position, serves as a therapeutic exercise for weightlifters. Before attempting such an exercise, you should seek out a weightlifting or strength coach who has experience coaching this movement.
There are many other variations of good mornings, such as performing the exercise while seated or by holding the bar in the crook of the elbows. These are advanced exercises that require proper instruction to perform properly.
Should the good morning be performed for high reps or low reps? The answer appears to be “Both!” The erector spinae contains both fast-twitch and a slow-twitch muscles, which means that for complete development you should perform workouts that emphasize both high reps with relatively light weights (accumulation phase) and low reps with relatively heavy weights (intensification phase). From the standpoint of back pain management, some back pain specialists believe that it’s best to focus on working the slow-twitch muscles with higher reps.
The good morning exercise, and its many variations, can be a valuable addition to just about any physical fitness or athletic fitness training program. It’s an old school exercise that, although forgotten by many, can help you achieve your goals.