Improve Your Mobility and Strengthen Your Back and Legs With the Good Morning Exercise

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The good morning exercise strengthens your posterior chain, or the muscles on the back of your body.
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Your strength, mobility and alignment can all benefit from saying "good morning." Err, doing the good morning exercise, that is.

"The good morning exercise gives you full-body benefits, like helping you learn how to stabilize your spine in a neutral position and building your hamstrings," says Aaron Leventhal, CPT, owner of Fit Studios in Minneapolis.

  • What is a good morning? This exercise gets its name from the way you might sit up in the morning in bed with your legs extended. Alternately, it looks like taking a bow with a flat back. A good morning, also sometimes called a back raise, involves hinging forward at the hips and keeping your hands up at your shoulders, often holding a barbell along the base of the neck.
  • What muscles does the good morning exercise work? The long, stabilizing muscles — called erector spinae — along your spine, as well as your hamstrings and gluteus maximus.
  • Who can do good mornings? All fitness levels, even beginners.

How to Do Good Mornings

Although this exercise is often done with a barbell and weight plates, Leventhal suggests starting with just the bar or no weight at all. If your gym has a dowel — a long, wooden stick that is about the size of a barbell but lighter — that's also a good choice for beginners. A broom handle works, too!

Practice proper good morning form using just your body weight and work up to using a barbell.
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Step 1: Stand Comfortably

  • Keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend your knees very slightly. Some people like to keep their knees locked out during a good morning, but Leventhal prefers softening the knees to increase mobility.

Step 2: Position the Bar

  • Hold your barbell at the top of your shoulders, behind your neck.
  • Make sure the bar isn't actually on your neck or in a position where it can roll forward onto your neck.

Step 3: Hinge Forward

  • Engage your core muscles.
  • Exhale as you bend at the hips, pressing your hips back rather than simply leaning forward.
  • Keep your spine and neck in alignment. Your head should stay in a neutral position.
  • Continue bending with your hips pressing back until your hamstring muscles begin to limit your movement; if you feel like you would need to round your back or bend your knees to go deeper, then that's a good stopping point.

Step 4: Lift Back Up

  • Inhale and reverse the movement to return to standing.
  • Stand firm in your feet and engage your hamstrings.
  • Squeeze your glutes as you stand.

How Many Good Mornings Should You Do?

Start with as much weight as you can lift for 12 to 15 reps with good form (even if that's just your body weight), Leventhal says. Add another set of 12 to 15 reps on your next session, and then one more set on your third session.

Once you can complete 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps with your starting weight, add about 5 to 10 pounds and aim for 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps. Keep adding weight gradually, but always focus on your form.

Try doing good mornings before one of your tougher workouts. "One of the best aspects of the good morning exercise is that it's great as a warm-up move," Leventhal says. "You're getting your hamstrings, back and core ready for a more intense workout."

If you're warming up with good mornings, start with just your body weight and do one set of 12 to 15 reps. To incorporate good mornings into a leg-day routine, try for 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps with either your body weight or a barbell.

The Benefits of Good Mornings

As you're bending, you'll feel a nice hamstring stretch, since those are the primary movers in this exercise. Your glutes, core and hip stabilizers also kick in to keep you upright and balanced. Having all these major muscle groups working together can:

Common Good Morning Mistakes to Avoid

Although the good morning exercise is a simple combination — hinge down, hold, stand up — there are several ways it can be done improperly, Leventhal says. Watch out for the following form problems.

Looking Up

This is the biggest issue Leventhal sees. As people hinge forward, they tend to look up rather than down, and this takes the spine out of neutral alignment because the neck is bent. When that happens, the spine becomes unstable; there's a tendency to arch the back and "pop" the ribs forward. Pretend you're holding a tomato under your chin to keep your head in the right spot, Leventhal says.

Squatting

Keeping your knees slightly bent can add some "slack into the system," which is good for functional movement, Leventhal says. After all, you'd never keep your knees locked out to bend down and pick something up, so mimicking a bend in a natural way is helpful, he says. But too much bend and it becomes a squat, which takes the movement out of your hamstrings and into your quads.

Hinging Too Far Forward

Pay attention to when your hamstrings tell you to stop. That might be early in the forward bend, and that could be frustrating — which is what leads many people to keep going, despite hamstring and hip tightness. If a stretch starts to feel like a strain, you're flirting with injury, Leventhal warns.

Are Good Mornings Dangerous?

Only if you're not paying attention to your form or adding too much weight too quickly. However, if you have chronic lower-back pain and good mornings feel like they're exacerbating that, switch to an alternative for strengthening your hamstrings like a stiff-leg deadlift and start with minimal or no weight.

Good Morning Modifications to Try

Body-Weight Good Morning

If a barbell's too heavy and you don't have access to a dowel or broom handle, you can easily do a good morning exercise anywhere with nothing more than your own body weight.

  1. Place your fingertips on the back of your head and lift your arms with your elbows flared out.
  2. Stand tall, press down into your feet, and hinge your hips back while keeping your spine straight.
  3. With a slight bend in your knees to engage your hamstrings, bend forward until you feel like you're just about to arch your back.
  4. Slowly come back up with your hands still on your head and squeeze your glutes at the top.

Seated Good Morning

If you have very tight hamstrings or are recovering from a knee injury, you can make the exercise much more about your core and back muscles by doing the move while sitting on a bench, sturdy chair or box.

  1. Sit on a bench with your knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Hold a barbell or dowel at the top of your shoulders behind your neck.
  3. Hinge forward slowly, keeping your head and neck in line with your spine.
  4. Pause at the bottom of the movement where you start to feel tightness in your hips, then slowly lift back up.

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