To achieve maximum strength levels, you must be well-rounded in your training.
Many athletes are quick to train the “beach muscles”—biceps, triceps, pecs, etc.—but often neglect to train the body parts that truly make them strong.
I’m referring to the posterior chain, which is comprised of several muscle groups located on the backside of your body. These muscle groups include the hamstrings, calves, glutes, spinal erectors, traps and rear delts.
In most modern individuals, these muscle groups are sorely neglected.
A confluence of factors have made many Americans anterior dominant, meaning they use the muscles on the front of their body (e.g., the quads and pecs) more frequently than the ones on the back (e.g., the hamstrings and trapezius). This is due to a couple key factors.
One is that our modern lives often force us into a position where our neck’s craned forward, our shoulders are rolled up toward our ears, our lower back’s rounded, and our hands are out in front of us. This tightens the muscles on the front of your body (e.g., the hip flexors and chest) and lengthens the muscles on the back of your body (e.g., the upper back) over time.
Your “mirror muscles” are all located on the front of your body, so you’re also much more likely to train them. Then there’s the fact many of the world’s most popular exercises are of the “pressing” variety, such as the Push-Up, the Bench Press, and the Leg Press. What you have then is a recipe for overtrained and overused muscles on the front of the body and weak, neglected muscles on the back of the body. Considering your glutes are the most powerful muscle group in your body, and the hamstrings aren’t far behind, it’s a disastrous condition for optimal human functioning.
But how do we go about bringing your posterior chain up to snuff?
How to Train Your Posterior Chain
There are many ways to train the posterior chain. Odds are, you’re already utilizing at least a couple exercises that are strengthening your posterior chain. The question is how effective, how often, and how smart are you training?
The posterior chain can be trained every day. The key is to train it in a way that limits overtraining and allows you to adequately recover before your next training session.
This can be achieved by varying sets, reps and intensities, and potentially performing upper posterior chain movements in one workout and lower posterior chain movements in another.
When it comes to exercise selection, there are hundreds of exercise variations that will allow you to build a stronger backside. Here are a few of my staples:
- Hinge (Deadlifts)
- Back Extensions/Hyper Extensions
- Hamstring Curls
- Glute Bridges
- Hip Thrusts
- Face Pulls
- Pull Aparts
- Glute Ham Raises
- All Variations of Sled Pulls/Drags
The exercises listed are my “bread and butter” for posterior training, but they aren’t the only variations you can use. You can scale and adjust based on your training level and how your body responds to different variations.
Before you attempt to hit a new personal best on Deadlift, it’s important to realize where you are with your training and which variation of these exercises will best service you as an athlete.
Before deadlifting, it’s important to nail down the proper hip hinge. Before grabbing a barbell or trap bar, grab a training band and wrap it around a pole. Keep your chest lifted high and push your hips back keeping a flat back. Explosively push your hips forward returning you to an upright position. This exercise is called the Banded Pull-Through and will be an excellent tool in teaching the hinge pattern:
Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps to set yourself up for success when deadlifting. This exercise can also be used as a precursor for Good Mornings and RDLs.
Back Extensions and Hyper Extensions are fairly common exercises which come in many shapes and sizes.
Before you hop on a Reverse Hyper or Back Extension machine, find a Swiss ball. This is the large, inflated ball you often see people performing Crunches or other ab movements on top of.
Start by lying face down with your midsection supported on the ball. Grab a pole or something steady to help keep your balance, and pull your legs toward the ceiling. Your body will be one straight line at the top portion of the movement. This is one possible setup:
You can adjust this exercise by starting with bent knees and progress it by extending your knees. I usually keep the sets low (about 2-3) but perform high reps in the 20-30 range. Once you feel you’ve mastered this move, you’re ready to move to an actual Reverse Hyper or Back Extension Machine.
The Hamstring Curl is a versatile exercise with many ways to perform it. The standard variation, lying face down on a machine and curling the loaded weight toward your legs, is by far the most popular. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best or most effective.
Try wrapping a band around a pole and then again around your ankles. Lie in the same downward position and curl the weight to your legs. After you’ve mastered this, bring back the Swiss ball and lie with your back on the ground. Rest your ankles on the ball and curl the ball to you, squeezing your glutes through the top portion of the movement:
Once you’ve nailed both of those variations, you’ll be ready to tackle moves like the Glute Ham Raise and even the Nordic Hamstring Curl!
If you don’t have access to the GHR machine, simply tuck your feet under a support and slowly lower your torso to the ground in a controlled fashion. If you can find a partner to hold your feet, that works, too. With control, lower yourself as far down as possible, push off the ground if needed, and then allow your hamstrings to pull your body back to the start position:
When going manual with the Nordic Curls and GHRs, I train 3-5 sets of 6-10 reps.
Hip Thrusts and Glute Bridges are similar movements but target the glutes and hamstrings in different ways.
To perform a Glute Bridge, lie with your back on the ground, knees bent at 45 degrees and your heels planted firmly into the ground. Drive your hips up and contract your glutes hard at the top:
To make the movement more difficult, add a dumbbell or band for resistance, or try performing the same movement as a single-leg move!
Hip Thrusts require the same setup, but this time, you’ll rest your back on a bench. This will allow a greater range of motion for your hips. With your back supported and your heels driven into the ground, drive your hips forward and squeeze at the top. Adding dumbbells, barbells and bands will help you progress this movement:
To focus on your upper back, the Face Pull and Pull Apart are two of my favorite movements. To begin the Face Pull, start with a band attached to a high pole or other form of support (you can also use a rope handle on a cable pulley machine). With a gradual lean, keep your elbows high and pull the band toward your face. Squeeze your upper back and slowly return to the starting position. This can be progressed by adding a cable or a rope for heavier weight!
Like the Face Pull, the Band Pull-Apart will target your upper back. Begin with the same band and extend your arms above your head. Pull your arms away from each other as far as possible remembering to squeeze your upper back along the way.
I recommend training both of these movements in the 50-100 rep range in the least amount of sets as possible.
Sled Pulls are a great way to train your posterior chain while allowing your body sufficient time to recover. The progression/regression is simple. Change the rope attachment length and add/subtract weight as needed. Doing this will help you build work capacity to handle heavier weights for longer distance. I like to begin athletes with 25-45 pounds for 5 trips of 20 yards. I will gradually add weight or distance and vary the intensities depending on athletes needs.
Just as a team is only as strong as its weakest position, your body is only as strong as its weakest link! Choose 1-2 of these posterior chain exercises to complete per day. Train the exercise with greater resistance for low reps one day and then alternate lower weight for high reps the next. Rotate the exercises each day so your body is able to recover for your next training session!
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