If you’re looking to build strength and power while preventing injuries, then making sure to put some focus on training your posterior chain is an absolute must. If you’re currently scratching your head wondering what precisely the posterior chain is, then you need this article…
Essentially, your posterior chain is the group of muscles, tendons and ligaments across the posterior – back – of the body. These include the calves, the hamstrings, buttocks (gluteus maximus), lower back (erector spinae), traps (trapezius posterior), posterior deltoids and others. Put simply, it means the back of the legs and the back itself.
Why Train the Posterior Chain?
The posterior chain is an easy area to forget in your training programs. Partly that’s because it’s at the back, which means it doesn’t have the exciting aesthetic appeal of the abs or the biceps. Partly it’s because the moves that you use to train it – such as deadlifts and squats – require a lot of weight, a lot of equipment and a lot of technique. These are scary ‘strongman’ lifts and many of us just don’t want to go there.
But while training the posterior chain might not be fun, it’s absolutely crucial that you don’t neglect it.
In many ways, your posterior chain is the most influential group of muscles when it comes to strength and power. Their job is to stabilise you when you have a front load or when you have any pressure directly downwards. When you carry a heavy box or bag of shopping, it’s your posterior chain that prevents you from falling forward. And when you try to lift something heavy off the ground, it’s what drives you upwards and pulls that object in towards your body. In short, if you train this area you will become far more powerful athletically and particularly when it comes to the Olympic lifts.
Neglecting to train these muscles on the other hand will leave you with a dangerous weak point in your body which can easily lead to serious lower back pain or injury over time. Especially now that most of us spend so much time sitting in the office, training these areas are crucial to ensure good posture and to prevent nagging back pains.
Oh and for women reading this, training the posterior chain is one of the best ways to build a great looking rear. So there’s that…
Correct Training for the Posterior Chain
As you get more advanced with your muscle and strength training, you will hopefully realise that different muscle groups need to be trained in different ways.
This is particularly true for the posterior chain which has a range of specific requirements.
For starters, the best way to train these muscles is with compound movements. The job of these muscle groups is to help stabilise the body against heavy loads and they can’t do that alone. They were designed to be used together – more so than perhaps any number of muscles – so it pays to think of them as one ‘set’ of muscle.
The other thing to realise is that these muscles respond well to high volume. Despite the fact that many Olympic lifts revolve around lifting the heaviest weights possible, this is not actually how these muscles were intended to be used. The erector spinae are the muscles that support the lower back and are made up of the spinalis, longissimus and iliocostalis. Their job is to help you stand upright and not collapse forward, and what this means is that they are working all day. For as long as you’re awake – even when you’re sitting down – the erector spinae are at work. As such, these have more of the slow-twitch muscle fibres (the endurance type) than any other muscles in your body. To train these muscles for endurance you need to use high volume and avoid explosive movements that could lead to injury.
Exercises for the Posterior Chain
The best exercises for the posterior chain as mentioned are the Olympic lifts or ‘compound exercises’ which include squats, deadlifts, clean and press etc.
Each of these will use a number of posterior muscle groups in combination and will trigger a great growth response as a result. Focus on using manageable weights for higher repetitions and you will build powerful and stable muscles in this region that protect you against injury and increase your maximum strength.
The problem with these moves as mentioned, is that they are difficult for beginners and require a lot of set-up. It’s no wonder that the lower back often gets neglected.
One possible solution to this problem though is to use kettlebells. Kettlebells are beginner friendly exercise tools that are essentially heavy iron balls attached to a handle. These can then be swung and lifted in a variety of manners including some methods that are ideal for targeting the posterior chain in a high volume manner. One of the most famous and most effective kettlebell exercises for instance is the kettlebell swing. This involves holding the handle with two hands then swinging it between your legs and up in front of you with your arms straight. It’s the hips that are used to drive the motion and create a ‘pendulum’ like momentum, and this incorporates a lot of the posterior chain.
Another great option with kettlebells is the ‘front squat’. Here you hold the kettlebell to your chest and then squat. Because the weight is in-front of you instead of behind you, it will incorporate most of the posterior chain. Deadlifts are also possible with the kettlebell, making this an ideal tool for getting started with compound powerlifting moves.
Finally, don’t be afraid to use some isolation exercises as well for targeting specific muscles. These can include good mornings, hamstring curls, calf raises, shrugs and other moves. Just make sure that you are giving every group of muscles in the posterior chain equal attention and to avoid placing too much strain directly on any of the individual muscles.