This article was originally written for MYPROTEIN.
What is the Posterior Chain?
The posterior chain consists of the series of muscles on the back side of the body, including the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. It is made up of some of the biggest and most powerful muscles in our anatomy. A well-developed posterior chain is not only vital for strength and explosiveness, it’s important for overall health and well-being.
Why Is It Important?
For athletes, the posterior chain is the driving force behind nearly all key movements.
Strong hamstrings and glutes propel the body forward when running to catch a pass, jumping to grab a rebound, and pushing off the mound to throw a pitch. In combat sports, a solid posterior enables competitors to both shoots for takedowns and prevent them. Powerlifters and weightlifters rely on accessory posterior chain exercises to bring up their numbers in the key lifts.
For regular gym-goers, placing an emphasis on posterior chain training is crucial because it is typically neglected in bodybuilding-style training splits.
The Average Joe is notorious for habitually overtraining the “mirror muscles” (chest, biceps, abs, quads) and leaving the scraps for the posterior. Even on the dreaded leg day, most people prioritize quad-dominant exercises such as squats and leg presses over more hamstring and glute-dominant movements. This pattern creates a major muscle imbalance which not only leads to an irregular physique, it leaves people more vulnerable to injury.
For the average person, training the posterior chain can help alleviate the effects of a lifetime of bad habits.
The typical “desk jockey” sits for an average of almost 10 hours per day. Between typing on a computer, commuting, and watching TV, the majority of people’s lives are now spent sitting. Sitting for an extended period of time tightens and shortens hip flexors and causes inactive glutes, ultimately leading to lower back pain. Tight hips are also often the cause for bad posture and poor mobility. Posterior chain exercises can drastically reduce these issues by activating the glutes and opening up the hips.
As you can see, a well-developed posterior chain is extremely important for everyone. Here are three key exercises to build your backside to improve athleticism, strength, and posture.
When it comes to posterior chain exercises (or all exercises really), the deadlift is king.
No other movement is more functional and more all-encompassing than the deadlift. From shoulders and traps to lower back and core to hamstrings and glutes, deadlifting strengthens nearly every muscle in the body. World class powerlifters and the average-Joe at the gym alike can benefit from picking objects off of the ground with proper technique.
Best of all, deadlifting will never get boring. There are dozens of variations of this essential exercise to satisfy lifters of any age, gender, or experience level. Here are just a few options:
Conventional Deadlift (feet hip-width, hands outside of the feet)
Sumo Deadlift (feet outside of shoulders, hands inside of the feet)
Snatch Grip Deadlift (feet hip-width, hands extra-wide)
Trap Bar Deadlift
Rack Pulls (shorter range of motion)
Deficit Deadlift (longer range of motion)
Romanian/Stiff Legged/Straight Leg Deadlift (hamstring and glute emphasis)
When deadlifting for maximal strength using heavyweight, stick to a low rep range (1-5 reps) and perform this exercise first on training day. If using one of the variations as an accessory exercise, use a moderate weight and a rep range of 6-15 reps.
2. Glute-Ham Raise
Warning! This exercise is TOUGH. But it doesn’t get much better than the glute-ham raise (GHR) for direct posterior chain development.
The GHR specifically targets the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and calves and is used by strength and conditioning coaches far and wide as a key accessory exercise. In addition to making athletes stronger and faster, this movement helps prevent injuries such as ACL tears and hamstring strains. Glute-ham raises also allow you to train the posterior chain without putting a heavy load on the spine (contrary to squats and deadlifts), so this is a great option for people with back issues.
The GHR is a staple of many speciality gyms but is often not available in the average commercial gym. Here are a couple of ways to simulate the movement if you don’t have access to a GHR:
Kneel backwards on a lat pulldown machine (facing away from the pulley) with the back of your ankles pinned below the knee pads. Lower yourself as slowly as possible until you reach the ground (or until you break form) and then push yourself back up to the starting position.
On a mat or padded surface, have a training partner hold the back of your ankles so that they can’t lift off of the floor. Lower yourself as slowly as possible until you reach the ground (or until you break form) and then push yourself back up to the starting position.
For beginners, start with bodyweight only or even use bands for assistance. Once you can comfortably do 10+ reps with good form, challenge yourself by wearing a weighted vest (or holding a plate) or doing super slow and controlled eccentric reps.
3. Hip Thrust
The glutes are the largest and most powerful muscle in the human body, and nothing lights them up quite like the hip thrust.
Hip thrusts activate the glutes at a much higher level than squats or deadlifts. Regularly incorporating this exercise into your training regime will not only improve the appearance of your backside, it will increase your acceleration and speed.
Hip thrusts can be done with bodyweight alone or with equipment such as:
Hip thrusts are extremely versatile and can be performed at low (3-5 reps) to very high (20+ reps) rep ranges. I particularly recommend using isometric holds on this exercise- that is, holding a “squeeze” for 2-5 seconds at the top of each rep. Feel the burn!
Take Home Message
The posterior chain is an extremely powerful group of muscles. Training it properly will improve athleticism, strength, and posture, and give you a more well-rounded physique. Incorporate these three exercises into your workout routine today to start feeling stronger and healthier!