Teaching perfect spinal alignment in hip flexion-hip extension tasks is absolutely critical for performance of the kinematic chain with important implications for both performance and injury prevention. This 3 step process uses a constraints based approach to get complete beginners to maintain perfect spinal alignment for hip hinging, usually in 10mins or less.
With a bit of practice and development of your coaching eye to check for faults this is an effective routine for coaching a complex motor task very quickly. From here we can develop strength in a range of hip extension tasks with highly efficient mechanics that maximise energy transfer and minimise unwanted distress to the spine.
Below is a summary chart of an array of Hinge variations across various posterior chain exercise categories an sub-categories organised by movement complexity. You’ll notice in my system there’s only 2 ways to teach Hinging postures well. One is using Kneeling Hinges which, once mastered can be used to teach other exercise types. The other is using simple bridging variations in the Thrust sub-category.
This post focusses on what I call the Corrective phase of training. Establishing, or re-establishing good mechanics where bad habits may have crept in over time or after injury. The goal in any progressive ladder is to get athletes to perfectly perform derivatives which allow for heavy loading on the musculoskeletal system. The process described here is effective for teaching perfect spinal alignment for various deadlift and nordic derivatives. Thrusting derivatives are easier to teach using Bridging Corrective exercises which are not covered in this article.
How to test skill in the hinge
Every good coaching intervention requires a test-retest. Your test-retest process to assess progress is a Bodyweight Standing Hip Hinge. This drill (not an ‘exercise’) has low positive constraints therefore tests the fruits of your skill development work by mimicking the amount of positive reinforcement your athlete will have for quality coordination in the world of sport (i.e., not a lot). If they execute this movement perfectly then it is safe to assume they are ready to progress into Foundations Theme of the system [read more about the SSOS Themes here].
My process is laid out in a particular order to layer a single principle at a time. I’ve experimented with order but this is the most effective in my experience. It works >95% of the time I’d say. This series of progressions form the initial stem of skill development to coach 3 out of the 4 Hinge variations (Nordics, Deadlift Variations and Glue-Ham Variations).
- Establish a counterbalancing of the hip with a Kneeling Hip Hinge.
Don’t worry if spinal alignment is poor, the goal here is simply for your athlete to understand the need to counterbalance the weight of the shoulders going forwards with the hips going backward. This is a foundational layer of all deadlifting and best taught first in my experience.
The kneeling hip hinge is a drill. It’s purpose is purely to teach motor control and differentiate between that and an exercise that can be used to develop strength. Once an athlete has mastered a drill move on. Exercises can be used to strengthen with progressive overload and can feature in strength programmes.
2. Layer on top a ‘neutral’ spinal posture and constant lumbo-pelvic relationship with a Kneeling Good Morning.
(**PLEASE READ** go easy on the weight on your athlete’s back. No-one wants to lose balance and face-plant with a bar on their back- start with ~10kg bar and build, the goal is simply to be heavy enough to provide a positive constraint on the lumbar spine, but not so heavy someone gets in trouble if they lose balance**).
The goal is definitely not to do a lot of work in kneeling, as soon as your athlete has nailed perfect spinal alignment here, get them into standing. No-one plays sport on their knees, it’s a means to an end and like kneeling hip hinges simply a drill to teach motor control.
3. Achieve the same lumbo-pelvic relationship during a hip hinge & test the counterbalancing aspect of the movement with a Standing Good Morning.
You can get away with not counterbalancing at the hips once you are on your feet with a Good Morning, hence the necessity for kneeling work that has led up to this point. Weight should remain through the mid-foot, big toes stay in contact with the floor. Spine remains heavily constrained into a good position by the weight of the bar on shoulders.
Aim for ~20-40kg for adults here, ironically a little more weight provides a stronger positive constraint on the lumbar spine and achieves better results than a bar that’s too light. A 5kg training bar for example will not be heavy enough to evoke the intrinsic response of the athlete to protect the spine by stiffening in a strong lumbar neutral position.
The Good Morning is traditionally a hamstring/ posterior chain exercise but I tend to use it more as a trunk exercise as it creates a pretty intense demand on maintaining spinal stiffness in a hinging movement.
4. Now TEST with a Bodyweight Standing Hinge.
Once the bar-on-back is removed the positive constraint on the lumbar spine has dissappeared so this unloaded drill is a skill-progression, but clearly not a load progression from the Good Morning. Hence we’re just going to use it as a test of how robust that skill is, not as an exercise in a session. I often use this as a warm up for beginners if they’ve done this series for a few weeks to test if we can move on from the Corrective Series to Romanian Deadlift Variations or whether we need to revisit the regressions.
Coaching this process:
What appears to be a very simple exercise is actually a really complex stabilisation strategy that for many years I often spent months trying to teach athletes with various corrective exercise methods. Often those methods were off-feet and proved very time consuming and inefficient at teaching good posture in hinge movements. One such example of this was trying to teach lumbar-pelvic control with dead bug progressions but this bears very little resemblance to any sort of coordination in standing.
Most of the time this progression this Good Morning progression can take 5-10mins to go from complete novice to a very competent hip hinge. Often the athlete has no idea what shape their spine is in and it doesn’t overly matter as long as experiencing this position. What’s critical is that we now introduce load to deepen the motor learning experience and strengthen muscles in desirable coordination patterns. Don’t dwell on drills, always finish with decent loading whenever possible.
If your athlete still can’t do a Body weight Standing Hip Hinge then don’t progress to the more complex Hinge variations in the Fundamentals phase as the the movement will only get worse. I’d tend to keep plugging away between Kneeling and Standing Good Mornings and coach from there.
If you really need some hamstring load in that day, go to hamstring curls so as to avoid confusing the matter!
If your athlete can do a BW Standing Hip Hinge you’ve got a few options. If we revisit the Hip Hinge Ladder we’re now in a position to introduce more intense Hinge variations and we have a few options. I prefer to have a solid foundation of stiff-legged deadlifting and nordic work before introducing Deadlift variations with knee flexion-extension (e.g., sumo/ conventional deadlift or Hex-Bar), hence why they appear further down the Hinge Ladder.
A few options as a coach:
- Regress back down the ladder to Good Mornings and get some good strength work and practice done (e.g., 3 sets of 10 or 3 sets of progressively heavier loading 10/8/6). You have a few variants you could use in a training block at Level 3 under the Good Mornings sub-category (see the overview Hinge Ladder).
- If Good Mornings are mastered, you could stretch the skill by introducing simple Romanian/ Stiff-Legged Deadlift variations but in doing so you will compromise load until technique is stabilised. A simple trade-off, you decide what you want in that session.
- Assuming Kneeling Hip Hinges are mastered, try some Nordic Hip Hinges. Now the heels are anchored we can produce a lot more tension though the hamstrings which further challenges lumbo-pelvic control as the lumbar erectors often try to assist hip extension under heavy load by over-extending the lumbar spine so watch out for that!
This method for teaching perfect spinal alignment during hinging motions will work about 95% of the time. Once you’ve mastered it you can take a complete novice and teach them what is a complex coordination strategy in <10mins. In doing so you’ll do your athlete/ client a huge service in their training and create a vital foundation for all sorts of loaded hinge variations.
If you found this useful, you might also want to read a couple of accompanying blog posts that fell out of the scope of this particular post:
- Coaching Language for teaching the Perfect Hip Hinge. This is a deeper dive on the coaching cues that are on the Exercise Cards above.
- True Hip Extension: There is an additional piece to the perfect Hip Hinging jigsaw but probably deserves a post of it’s own and that is how to coach what I call True Hip Extension. You can find that here.
If you’ve had a go at this and have any questions by all means leave a comment below.