The good morning is one of the oldest and most effective movements a strength athlete can perform. It’s also one of the most controversial. Here’s why.
The exact origin of any barbell exercise is pretty hard to track down, but the good morning has been around since at least the early 1900s — so it has over 100 years of proven history behind it. I think the most notable early application was in Bob Hoffman’s mail-order training courses. Hoffman (sometimes referred to as) the “patron saint” of Olympic weightlifting in America, and he recommended the good morning to strengthen the back as part of a full-body training program and he called it the “barbell bend-over”.
The thing to remember, though, is that until the invention of squat racks, you were limited in the good morning to the amount of weight you could move from the floor to your back — so in the early years, the good morning was performed pretty much exclusively as a light movement. Nevertheless, it still functioned as a remarkably effective exercise for strengthening the entire posterior chain: the lower back, hamstrings, and glutes.
I think it’s also fair to credit Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell for introducing the good morning as a heavy movement that can be used as a primary method of strength development. Simmons recommends frequent, heavy use of the good morning on max effort days — where the lifter works up to a 1-5 rep max — to help improve the squat and deadlift. Simmons works largely with equipped powerlifters, but plenty of high-level raw lifters train heavy good mornings successfully, too. Blaine Sumner, for example — a multiple-time IPF world champion — competes both raw and equipped, and his good mornings speak for themselves.
But more recently, the good morning has developed a bad rap as an unnecessarily risky movement. Critics against the good morning often argue that, when performed with heavy weights, it’s likely to cause crippling lower back issues. To be fair, the good morning does work the lower back really hard, and if you don’t perform the movement correctly, it can absolutely put the lumbar spine in a compromised position. The trick, then, is to perform them correctly!
Who Should Use Good Mornings
By now, it should be pretty darn clear that the good morning can be a complicated movement to perform, even though it’s also a fairly basic one. That’s because, especially for beginners, it can be really difficult to maintain a proper brace and tightness in the posterior chain while moving heavy weight. And, since failure in either area can easily result in a compromised position, I strongly recommend that beginner and intermediate lifters avoid training the good morning as a heavy movement.
That’s not to say that the good morning is a bad or ineffective movement. On the contrary, all lifters can benefit from its performance, and if you haven’t tried them, you should do so. But start light. My preference: use the stiff-legged variation with a straight bar, using anywhere between 45-135 pounds depending on your strength level, for 4-5 sets of 8-12 reps. Use perfect technique and a slow, controlled tempo, especially on the eccentric portion of the movement. You can easily fry your glutes and hamstrings this way, and you’ll probably see significant gains in your squat and deadlift as a result.
If you’re an advanced lifter, I do think it’s good to use the good morning as a primary strength movement. However, you still need to be smart about why you’re using them. In fact, you probably need to think a lot harder about how a heavy good morning is going to carry over to your squat and deadlift than would a beginner lifter, and really assess your strengths and weaknesses and act accordingly. For example, if you’re already very posterior-chain dominant, you’re probably okay training the good morning as a max-effort movement, for a few sets of low reps with heavy weight. That’s because your lower back is likely strong enough to do so — and, in fact, training any lighter is unlikely to do a whole lot for you, since you won’t be pushing the involved musculature to anywhere near its capacity.
On the other hand, if you’re more of a quad-dominant lifter, you need to train the good morning more conservatively — even if you’re an extremely strong quad-dominant lifter. That’s because your posterior chain is probably your weakest link, and while you could undoubtedly somehow use your quads, abs, and upper back to compensate for this, you won’t be reaping the full benefits of the movement by doing so. Instead, start out by shooting for somewhere in between the very light training I recommended for the beginner and the very heavy training used by a posterior-chain dominant person. Sets of 5-8 with roughly 50% of your best raw squat should at least give you a starting point.
There are two core skills that are absolutely necessary to be able to perform a proper good morning: the brace and the hip hinge. Now, these concepts are crucial to most movements you’re going to perform in the gym, and a sufficient explanation of either could easily take up several articles. Fortunately, both have been covered very extensively already.
If you’re not already familiar with them, here are the resources I recommend for bracing:
For the Hip Hinge
Once you’ve mastered those fundamentals, you’re ready to perform a good morning. You can check out the video below for a detailed explanation, but in case you’re in a rush, here are the highlights:
- Position the bar on your back as if you were performing a barbell squat. I recommend starting out with the same bar position (i.e., high or low bar) that you squat with, too.
- While maintaining your brace, and tightness in your glutes and hamstrings, hinge at the hip until your torso is parallel to the floor.
- Drive the bar back to the starting position by pushing your hips forward and keeping your lower back flat until your knees are locked.
This is the standard good morning, but there are plenty of variations you can use that are incredibly effective as well.
Good Morning Variations
First, you can perform the good morning without bending your knees. This variation is much more demanding and can also put the lower back in a disadvantageous position in terms of leverage, so it’s best to only train it with light weights. However, because it’s easier to put the hamstrings under a huge stretch with this variation, it can be a great way to target that muscle group a little more effectively.
You can also use a safety squat bar to perform the good morning. The safety bar shifts your center of gravity forward, again decreasing your leverage and making the exercise more demanding, but it’s also a lot easier to hold the bar in place on your back (as a straight bar can roll a bit, even if you’re staying tight). You’ll still be forced to use lighter weights, but not nearly so light as with the stiff-legged style, so it can be a good “middle ground,” especially for more intense training.
Warming-Up to the Good Morning
Hopefully this article has warmed you up to the idea of training the good morning intensely, because it’s a great movement with a ton of benefits for most lifters. Of course, there are always caveats. If you’re incorporating them into your routine for the first time, be very mindful of the total amount of work you’re doing that stresses the low back.
It’s easy to overload it with heavy good mornings in addition to squats and deadlifts. On the other hand, you can use lighter good mornings liberally, and incorporate variations like the stiff-legged deadlift to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings without completely frying yourself. Do you have tips for training the good morning? Share them below!
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.