Good Mornings: Understanding a Great Exercise
Good mornings seem to be one of the most misunderstood of weight lifting movements. A common joke in commercial gyms is how often squats are turned into bastardized good mornings, but rarely (if ever) does anyone see a “good” good morning done. Even among the strength and conditioning community, they seem to be a rarely utilized lift. The only group that readily uses the good morning is the powerlifting community.
Good mornings have become popularized due to their inclusion in Louie's Westside methodology, where they figure in prominently as a supplemental lift to train both the deadlift and squat. I will readily say that I am not a competitive powerlifter, and while I do utilize a conjugate style training plan, I do not profess to know or train Westside. I feel only actual Westside athletes can claim to know true Westside methodology.
However, I do heavily use good mornings, and it is my belief that outside of the Big 3, it is one the most effective movements for training the musculature of the entire body, especially the posterior chain.
But what is a good morning?
The conventional definition is usually along the lines of a “hamstring movement and hip extension movement with the weight on the shoulders.” This definition is not wrong, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
A true good morning is a posteriorly top loaded hip hinge. The movement is akin to a barbell hip thrust or a kettlebell swing—the difference is just the loading vector and range of motion. A kettlebell swing, a barbell hip thrust, and a good morning are all hinge patterns, the only difference is the lever action in relation to where the load is placed.
The good morning is what is called a class three lever. The load is at one end, in this case resting on the upper back. The effort (or force) is coming from the musculature of the hips, with the bend (or fulcrum) of the movement bearing down from the pelvis, through the feet, and into the floor.
Here we have an excellent video of a sumo stance good morning:
Now, whether the feet are shoulder width or wider, the mechanics are the same.
- The hips extend backward with the glutes flaring and starting the movement.
- As the body hinges backward, the torso will lean forward. The entire spine is in a reinforced neutral position with a moderate arch in the lumbar. The core should be on “lock-down.” The chest is expanded with "big air belly" breathing in effect.
- As the hips reach their maximal point of extension, the glutes and hamstrings should be maximally recruited. Notice the upper back posture is still maintained and there is no collapse or loss of tension anywhere in the body.
- The gluteal muscles contract to bring the hips forward and return the body to a standing position. Again, there is no degradation of tension at any time.
Essentially in a good morning, the entire length of the body is acting as a lever arm—with the load being distributed throughout the entire posterior chain. That’s a lot of muscle worked, to say the least. This is an important concept to grasp. The good morning is not simply a “low back” movement. Done properly, the good morning works the entire length of the erector spinae:
- It loads the deep core muscles of the lower back.
- It trains proper hinging and requires proper firing of the gluteus maximus and glute-hamstring tie-in.
- It trains the lifter to keep his/her lumbar spine in a controlled posterior tilt as he/she extends his/her hips back and brings them forward.
- It requires the lifter to firmly ground him/herself into the floor and balance his/her weight from the mid-foot to the heel.
- It requires a lifter to “keep his chest up and get his shoulders back.”
- It necessitates using controlled belly breathing and “big air” in order to execute it properly and safely.
Essentially, the good morning does A LOT. The problem is that very few people truly know how to do it properly. It’s a lift that requires sound coaching and instruction, and even then, it’s not often an intuitive lift for one to grasp.
Below is an excellent good morning done properly:
Lets examine four key mechanical cues within the lift:
- Straight leg versus bent leg mechanics: The good morning is NOT meant to be done with straight legs. It is a controlled hip hinge. Their should be bend in the knees happening as the lifter pushes the hips back. A straight leg good morning places unnecessary stress on the lumber spine and does not adequately train the hinge pattern. I don’t think there is any good reason to do them. I look forward to the sensible arguments that will take place regarding this. Please remember that “well, the Russians did it this way” does not validate a point.
- Notice too the upper back/thoracic spine position: The lifter has kept his thoracic arched, his shoulder blades are packed, and we can see the muscles of the mid-back working to support the weight of the bar.
- This is also the same for the lumbar position: The lifter has kept his lumbar in a strong, but not excessive, arch. His lumbar is in a safe position and is not being subjected to unnecessary forces.
- The lifter is “flaring” the glutes, and you can clearly see that he has proper gluteal recruitment. This lifter will benefit from performing good mornings in his program.
So when can you do good mornings?
Before performing good mornings, I want my athletes to be able to properly perform a glute/hip hyperextension. I use the acronym GHH, an obvious play off GHR. I credit Bret Contreras for introducing me to the GHH back in 2010.
The GHH is performed on a 45-degree hyperextension, but with a significantly different technique than to what most are accustomed. In the GHH, there is a specific order of contraction that must take place. The pattern should be: hamstrings, glute-hamstring tie-in, gluteus maximus, and then the extension of the spinal erectors (taking the lumbar to a neutral position).
The back SHOULD NOT come up first. Why is this? For the same reason the hips are not supposed to pop up first while deadlifting. The hips popping up first are an indication that the lifter did not properly create tension and load the hamstrings or the glutes. His/her transfer of force has bypassed the hips and his/her low back is now handling the load. This is not ideal.
So in the GHH, hamstrings and glutes fire first, then the low back comes into play. If a lifter can properly do this and he/she understands this concept, then he/she is ready to perform the good morning.
What does the good morning benefit?
The good morning is a loaded hinge pattern, and I believe it has the most carryover to the deadlift, as pertaining to powerlifters. It reinforces total body tension, big air, and proper loading of the whole posterior chain. For lifters whose hips have a tendency to “pop” first and/or have problems maintaining tightness in the upper back, it is very beneficial.
From an athletic perspective, I like the good morning because it trains the entire length of the posterior chain. I also feel that it’s the most effective “posterior core” movement an athlete can do. The synergistic reinforcement of the lumbar and gluteal musculature is crucial for power development and movement mechanics, and the good morning is a fantastic movement for doing this.
Loading the Good Morning
I know that some lifters will load the good morning for maximal, low-rep loads and use them as a maximal effort movement. If your sport is powerlifting, by all means program them as you see fit. For the majority of athletes, however, I favor the good morning done for higher reps and as a secondary movement.
I prefer to start good mornings with approximately 0.5 x bodyweight, done in sets of 6 to 10 reps for 2 to 4 sets. From there, progression would be very gradual. I rarely will increase the load more than biweekly in the beginning of the program. Since it is a demanding movement, I generally program it on a dynamic or repetitive effort lower body day (after the working sets of the main exercise have been done). My rationale for this is simply that good mornings are always a hard exercise on the back and hips, and that programming them on a max effort day is more stress than I would like to put on my athletes. Again, if your sport is powerlifting, good mornings may be used as a max effort lift.
Alternatively, I will use good mornings as a primary compound movement with athletes who do not perform the barbell back squat. In this case, I may program it first and then follow it up with a front squat or a goblet squat. Again, the loading is not aggressive. There should be ZERO form breakdown with good mornings, and the athlete must be able to tolerate the load for all working sets.
I will say that these rules are not set in stone, but they do maximize the effectiveness and safety of the movement.
Good Morning Variations
elitefts™ features an extensive exercise index with many variations of good mornings. While each has its particular usages and benefits, some of the more popular ones include:
- Seated Good Mornings
- Suspended Good Mornings
- Yoke Bar Good Mornings
- Safety Squat Bar Good Mornings
- Zercher Good Mornings (this is my personal favorite. Shout out to Dan John for these)
- Banded Good Mornings
In closing, I hope you have gained a more thorough understanding of the benefits of the good morning and how to utilize it in your own training. The good morning is a versatile hip hinging movement with a multitude of benefits, not a half-assed low back squat without knee bend. The good morning is one of the most maximally effective lifts you can do for total muscular development, and now you have no excuse not to do it.