Why The Posterior Chain?
It might sound obvious to you but your body actually has two sides to it. Yes that’s right, two sides! Who would have thought, right? That is the front (anterior) and, wait for it, the back (posterior). I know that’s simple to work out. Well, if you ask me it should be anyways. The problem is, I don’t think it’s obvious enough! The reason is pretty simple: a lot people in the gym (particularly those who train just to look good) still haven’t grasped the fact that there is actually a lot more to weightlifting then simply training your chest, biceps, anterior shoulders and quads (anterior chain).
Granted, there are some people who really do train their posterior chain to maximum effort. But sadly, these weightlifters are few and far between. I haven’t seen many of them myself. The reality is, there are not enough people who truly understand the awesome benefits of a strong, well-developed posterior chain. Although I keep saying this, but I feel it’s important to keep mentioning it nonetheless: weightlifting gains are always about achieving an optimal balance. Here, this is more important than ever. Even if you have great anterior chain development, it’s eventually going to be dragged down by a lagging and lazy posterior chain. It’s your job as a great weightlifter to develop both as equally as possible.
So What Is The Posterior Chain?
When you see the term: posterior chain, it’s just a fancy way of meaning your glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors. That’s it, nothing else to it! It really is just a nice collective term for those muscle groups at the back of your body. If you look at the muscle groups, I bet you could guess why the posterior chain is neglected by too many weightlifters. How many people honestly work their glutes and hamstrings as much as their chest/biceps/quads? The answer is, hardly no one! Hamstrings and glutes just aren’t given the attention they really deserve.
What I frequently see in the gym is two things: If it is a non-leg day, most people usually go straight for the pump work. That means lots of different exercises for the chest and biceps (maybe some shoulder/back work if your lucky). On the flip side, if people do decide to train their legs (that usually is a miracle!), it mainly is nothing but quad work. Occasionally, they might throw in some hamstring machine curls just to spice things up. The fact is if you fall into these two categories then your posterior chain is quickly going to suffer the consequences. For you, that means reduced performance, less gains and a higher chance of injury. It’s time to set that straight!
“Posterior chain, it’s just a fancy way of meaning your glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors”.
The posterior chain plays an extremely important role in your performance in and out of the gym. Strong hamstrings, glutes and a lower back generally mean healthier knees, more stable hips and an injury resistant lower back. Most people can go their whole life without ever working these muscle groups to any real significance (riding a bike or running doesn’t really count) and be struck with so many mobility problems. Now, I don’t have a PhD in exercise science nor am I a qualified physiotherapist, but I can tell you for certain, I bet half of the knee and lower back complaints that people have could be solved by actually developing a strong posterior chain.
Given that many people are spending longer days behind a computer, it’s not a surprise that a combination of little movement and sub-optimal training can lead to a rusty old posterior chain. Now, I am not saying that a strong posterior chain will solve all problems. But, given how many people never prioritize their posterior chain development, how many people suffer from lower back and knee problems as well as lead sedentary lifestyles, you can quickly begin to see why an underdeveloped of posterior chain might just be the catalyst in all this. Whether you are younger, older, an athlete or a recreational lifter, it really does not matter. It is never too late for you to start building up those bulletproof hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors. If you want to try to avoid all those potential expensive bills with the physiotherapist, then start now developing your posterior chain.
Posterior Chain Development And Performance
If I am honest with you, if you don’t work your posterior chain effectively, you will find it very difficult to make optimal gains in the gym. It’s just that simple. Your posterior chain plays a vital role in almost everything you do in the gym. If it’s not performing optimally, you will not perform well. In fact, when you look at many exercises, posterior chain strength will tend to be the deciding factor in the ultimate performance outcome. Heck even on the bench press, a poor posterior chain is likely to let you down!
It probably doesn’t seem obvious to you. I mean after all, you perform the bench press to build your chest and not the back of your body. Why would I care then about my posterior chain? The reason is pretty simple. A strong back and well developed glutes will help you to transmit more optimally the force production capabilities from your body to the bar itself. This allows ultimately for a stronger push of the bar. Strong glutes for a strong bench, who would have guessed, right?
“If you don’t work your posterior chain effectively, you will find it very difficult to make optimal gains in the gym”.
By focusing on increasing the strength and proper functioning of your glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors, your lifting performance will rocket upwards. I am being dead serious. Everything has literally catapulted up since I started spending more attention on my posterior chain development. The stronger my glutes, hamstrings and lower back become, the more performance I can squeeze out every training session. It’s great! If you are finding it hard to overload on certain exercises (e.g. squat, conventional deadlift, even bench) then its time to start giving your posterior chain a little more attention.
When you consider the function of the posterior chain muscles it becomes quickly obvious why you would see performance gains in your training. The hamstrings play an important role in knee flexion and hip extension; the glutes play a fundamental role in hip extension and the spinal erectors in back extension. If you consider the mechanics of a lot of these exercises for instance squats and deadlifts, you will find there is a lot of hip and back extension taking place. It will be this optimal hip and back extension that will allow you to handle more weight and complete the movement. It’s no brainer then, if you want more performance during these movements, you need a stronger posterior chain.
- Conventional deadlift: top figure represents the role of the glutes and hamstrings in hip extension (“A”) with “B” representing anterior chain quads (knee extension)
- Back squats: bottom figure represents the role of the gluten and hamstrings in hip extension (“C”) with “D” representing the anterior chain quads (knee extension)
- “BE” represents back extension (by spinal erectors)
- “HE” represents hip extension (by glutes and hamstrings)
- In most people, “B” and “D” (knee extension) is more developed (stronger quads) than “A” and “C” (hip extension – glutes and hamstrings).
- Underdeveloped glutes, hamstrings and spinal erectors can really reduce your performance on both the deadlift and squat exercises.
There are lots of exercises you can do improve your posterior chain. But, there are so many it would just end up making this article too long! Therefore, I will go through my top three exercises I do to develop my posterior chain to new highs. The first is the Romanian deadlift (RDL). A great exercise, but sadly underutilized by many weightlifters. Granted, I see a few female weightlifters doing the RDL but the guys, almost never. Yes guys, it’s also good for you to work your glutes and hamstrings. Stop laughing at people for working their glutes and start joining them.
It’s not only reserved for female weightlifters. In my opinion, the RDL is probably the single best compound exercise you can do to load your hamstrings and glutes. If I could pick one exercise, it would be the RDL. I always perform the barbell version (rather than with dumbbells) because it’s easier to keep the barbell closer to your body during the movement. People have a tendency to let dumbbells drift to far forward, which moves the force from your hamstrings and glutes to your lower back (not the intention!). Then it just becomes an ugly, not so good stiff-legged deadlift. With the RDL, the intention is to keep your back straight, knees slightly bent and push your hips back (hip-hinge) as you let the bar sink (not all the way to the ground). You then bring the bar back up (keeping it as close to your body as possible) to full back extension. This allows you to really load the hamstrings and glutes with the weight. If you ask me, this exercise really makes your legs shake.
- “A” represents the starting position of a RDL (bar in mid air) with hips, back and knees fully extended
- “DM” represents direction of bar movement
- “B” represents the pushing back of your hips as you lower the bar (keeping it close to your body ). This will load the glutes and hamstrings (“D”)
- Work on keeping your back straight throughout the exercise, don’t let your back just drop (“E”). Focus on pushing your hips back.
The next exercise I love to do is the sumo-deadlift. Although some do this in place of a conventional deadlift (depending on your leverages), it’s just great for overall posterior chain development. Even if you prefer the conventional version to the sumo, I still recommend you have sumo in your program anyways. It will only offer you further benefits.
Typically, the sumo has a nice addition over the RDL in that sumo really pounds your hips hard. With the sumo, the fact that you are rotating and opening up your hips and pushing your knees outwards (aka spreading the floor) means that not only your hamstrings are working hard, but there is an awful lot of glute action in there as well (also great for your inner thigh and quad development). Since your back in the sumo adopts a more vertical position, most of the load is transferred from your back to your hips and hamstrings. Great for those who already suffer from lower back problems. But, if you also want to build up those spinal erectors, I would include more than just the sumo in your routine.
- Top figure represents the starting position, with hips open and pushing knees out. Back is straight and in a more vertical position than in a conventional deadlift.
- “DM” is the direction of bar movement.
- “HO” means hips open which will cause increased glute and hamstring involvement in extension
- “HBE” represents hip and back extension
- Sumo deadlifts are great for increased glute and hamstring activation
The third exercise I also include is the stiff-legged deadlift (SLD). Now, some of you might be thinking: what is the point in a SLD if I also do the RDL? Surely they offer the exact same benefits and the movement pattern is pretty much the same? The main difference between the SLD and RDL is the influence and role of your back (particularly lower) in the movement. For a strong posterior chain, not only do you need well developed glutes and hamstrings, but also spinal erectors. Since spinal erectors are heavily involved in back extension and the lock out position in deadlifts (and squats to a degree), without strong spinal erectors, being able to finish any of these movements is going to be a struggle. This means, half a movement, half the benefits. But, you don’t want only half the benefits; you want all the performance benefits!
While both the SLD and RDL are great for building up your hamstring and glute strength (no problem here), subtle differences in the two movements make SLD also awesome as a spinal erector builder. In the SLD, the hips start high, knees slightly bent (to load the hamstrings) and core tight. Even though you are now going to use your back more this should still remain straight (your working the muscles not the spine!). With the weight starting on the floor (rather than in mid air with the RDL) you will utilize your hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors to move the weight into the air. Trust me, you can really feel it! With less backward movement of the hips and the weight starting from the ground, your spinal rectors get a lot more involved in the movement.
- The top figure represents the starting position of a SLD. Hips start high (“A”) with knees slightly bent to load the glutes and hamstrings (“B”). Back is kept straight, but now that the weight is being lifted from the ground and there is less backward motion of the hips, the spinal erectors (“C”) play a much greater role in getting the weight up.
- “DM” represents the direction of bar movement
- “D” represents the final end position of the movement with hips, back and knees in full extension
Don’t Overlook Posterior Chain Development
If you want more performance in the gym, better mobility and less knee/lower back problems, then a strong posterior chain should be first on your to do list. Although there are many exercises you can do, I like to alternate between RDL, SLD and sumo deadlifts. Trust me, since doing these regularly, not only have I had amazing development in my glutes, hamstrings and lower back, but my overall performance in the gym has gone up. Not only that, I very rarely now suffer from lower back or knee pain. Everything feels healthy, stable and strong. If you are looking for ultimate posterior chain development then I definitely recommend you make RDL, SLD and sumo deadlifts a frequent addition to your training program. You won’t be disappointed! The only thing you can expect is more performance in and out of the gym.
If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below.Do you now your posterior chain as much as your anterior? What sorts of exercises do you use? Let me know!