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The Secret To Athletic Performance: A Strong Posterior Chain

Posterior chain exercises: Woman showing back muscles

One of the most effective ways to improve athletic performance is to train to build a strong posterior chain. Your posterior chain is a key influencing factor to improve most of the athletic disciplines such as sprinting, jumping, pulling, pushing, squatting, or simply standing up. Hence, this is highly relevant regardless of if you train for strength, hypertrophy, cardio, or explosiveness.

In this article I will discuss what the posterior chain is, why it’s important, how you can improve posterior chain mobility, and most importantly how to strengthen it. 

What Is the Posterior Chain?

Put quite simply the posterior chain includes all the muscles that are on the backside of the body. The opposite is the anterior chain. If you are standing in front of a mirror and looking into it, all you can see is the anterior chain. All the muscles and muscle groups that you don't see on the backside of the body make up the posterior chain. That includes muscles like the trapezius, deltoids, spinal erectors, shoulder blades, lats, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

The posterior chain includes some of the biggest muscles we have in our bodies. It is also often referred to as the "the powerhouse of the body." We call it a chain because the muscles of the upper back, lower back, and legs work together synergistically via intermuscular coordination. The more those muscles are developed and the better they work together as one whole, the better athletic performance we can achieve. Later in this article I will go over some of the most effective exercises to improve your posterior chain. 

Unfortunately, due to our modern lifestyle (i.e., sitting a lot, especially in front of a computer where we tend to lean forward) we put a lot of pressure on our anterior chain. This leads to an imbalance between the muscles on our frontside versus backside of the body. This can lead to bad posture, pain, and higher risk of injury. In order to stay healthy, injury-free, and improve athletic performance, I recommend to explicitly work on strengthening your posterior chain.

Why Is a Strong Posterior Chain So Important?

Whether your focus is bodybuilding, strength training, Olympic lifting, CrossFit, or running, having a strong posterior chain that is balanced with your anterior chain is vital. Not only will it improve your performance in all these sports, it will also reduce your risk of injury. Neglecting to strengthen your posterior chain may result in issues including lower body, knee, or back pain, just to name a few. 

Another great benefit of a stronger posterior chain is that it improves your posture. Too many of us spend too much time in front of a computer in a bad sitting position for hours. This can lead to a tight chest, shoulder immobility, and constant slouching. Training your posterior chain can counteract this tendency.

It is also a fact that generally the benefits of resistance and strength training also include an increase in resting metabolic rate. Because of the increase in muscle mass your body starts to burn more calories while not exercising, which reduces body fat and improves body composition. Because your posterior chain includes some of the biggest muscles in your body like the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, or lats, it's also a very effective method to improve metabolism and "get bigger."

How To Mobilize Your Posterior Chain

Posterior chain exercises: Back muscles of a man and showing off the spine

The posterior chain covers your whole body. In order to get all the benefits from a strong posterior chain and stay injury-free, I recommend to also work on your mobility and flexibility. Ideally you choose exercises or stretches that involve as many body parts and joints as possible and leverage the full range of motion. Many yoga routines are particularly applicable for this. 

You can do these routines as standalone once or twice per week as part of recovery. Alternatively (or in addition) they are particularly effective before a workout as an activation for the various muscles that you are about to train. For that you could also make use of my world's greatest full-body dynamic stretch routine.

7 Exercises for a Posterior Chain Workout

In this section I go over some of the best posterior chain exercises. I recommend finding a way to include some or all of these into your training program and follow the typical principles to achieve better health and fitness (including consistency and progressive overload).

Deadlifts

Deadlifts are often called "the king of all exercises" because they work so many muscle groups with one move. Specifically, they train pretty much all of your posterior chain muscles

To execute a standard deadlift stand upright in front of a barbell with feet hip-width apart and your mid-foot under the bar. Then bend over and grab the bar with the narrowest grip possible with your hands just outside of your legs. Next, bend your knees until your shins touch the bar without moving it. Straighten your lower back. Pull your shoulders back (i.e., lift your chest up). Your whole back must form a straight line. Don't curl your back, otherwise you risk injury. 

Take a deep breath, then stand up tall in a controlled way by a hip hinge, which is also referred to as the triple-extension of ankles, knees, and hips. After this lock-out position, return the weight down carefully by moving hips back and bending the knees. Depending on what you are training for you may only want to focus on the concentric part of the move and simply drop the bar at the top. 

There are many variations of deadlifts like the sumo deadlift or the Romanian deadlift (RDL) each with their own pros and cons.

Back Squats

The back squat is another all-time classic compound movement that involves a lot of different muscle groups. As opposed to deadlifts, back squats emphasize the lower body slightly more and also incorporate muscles of the anterior chain such as the quadriceps specifically. 

To execute a back squat you ideally have a barbell available sitting on a squat rack. "Dive under the bar" so that the bar comfortably rests on your shoulders. There is a lot of ongoing discussion about placing the bar higher or lower on your back but that's a topic for another article in its own right. Grab the bar with your hands spread evenly on both sides. Take the bar off the rack.

Then walk back two steps so that the rack is not in your way while squatting down. Place your feet in about shoulder width position with toes slightly pointing out. Tighten your whole core, take a deep breath and hold it. Then squat down by moving your hips back and bending your knees with the weight on your heels. You need to squat down to a depth where your shins and thighs form an angle that is less than 90 degrees. At the bottom position push up to stand up while exhaling.   

Kettlebell Swings

A kettlebell swing looks easy but it is not straightforward to get the movement pattern right. It's an excellent exercise for power and explosiveness that mainly comes from the hip hinge and thus stimulates your posterior chain really well. 

To do a kettlebell swing right, stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Grab the handle of the kettlebell with both hands. Keeping your core engaged, back straight, shoulders rolled back and down, and your hamstrings fired. Now start to swing the kettlebell back between your legs. When you reach your end of motion, squeeze your glutes and hamstrings as hard as you can, sending the kettlebell forward through an explosive hip hinge movement. The kettlebell "flies" between your legs all the way up until eye-level. It then swings back down and you repeat the movement.  

For more details about the benefits of training with kettlebells check out my article about 5 kettlebell exercises to progress your balance, strength, and cardio.

Lunges

Lunges are a posterior chain building exercise that can be executed very easily. Start by standing upright with your feet hip-width apart. Then step forward with your left leg into a lunge position. Make sure your right knee gently touches the floor for full range of motion. Then step back with your left leg into your starting position by pushing through your left heel. Then repeat the same movement pattern with your right leg. 

Lunges are great because you can do them anywhere and you don't necessarily need any equipment. You can simply execute with your own bodyweight. In order to scale the exercise and make it more difficult you can lunge more forward. To make it heavier you can carry dumbbells, kettlebells, a bottle of water, or books in your hands or a rucksack on your back. 

Glute Bridges

Woman doing yoga and Glute Bridge exercise

Glute bridges address most of your back muscles but this exercise specifically concentrates on your gluteus maximus muscle. You start this exercise by lying on the floor on your back. Your feet are flat on the floor, your knees bent and up, your arms by your side. Then you thrust your hips up towards the ceiling. Push through your heels and at the top position, squeeze your glutes. Hold for two seconds, then lower down slowly and with control.

Glute bridges can be used standalone but are also a great warm up exercise for anything that involves a hip hinge like deadlifts and kettlebell swings. It is not too easy to scale glute bridges. You could potentially elevate your feet by placing them on a bench. 

The other possibility is to leverage hip thrusts which is a slightly different exercise but targets similar muscles. With a hip thrust you place your upper body on a bench. Feet are flat on the floor and knees bent. Typically you execute a hip thrust with a (maybe loaded) barbell that is resting in your lap. Then you thrust your hips up towards the ceiling similar as with the glute bridge. Rest for two seconds then lower it down. Since hip thrusts can be loaded and overloaded is it better suited for building strength and mass. 

Pullups

Next to deadlifts, pullups are probably one of the best and most effective exercises ever invented. They are one of my all-time favorites. They are also easy to do and all you need is a bar or some sort of horizontal pole to hold on to. 

Hang on to the bar with an overhand grip (i.e., your palms facing forward) with hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Start from a dead-hang position. Then pull yourself up until your chin is just over the bar. After that lower yourself down again in a slow and controlled manner. 

If you are completely new to pull-ups or if you want to improve faster, I can recommend the Armstrong Pullup program. To scale them up, just do more or add weight via a vest or belt with weights around your waist.

Bent Over Rows

Bent over rows focus slightly more the upper body of the posterior chain. To do a bent over row, grab a barbell (or dumbbells) and stand upright with feet shoulder width apart. Lean forward from your waist so that your torso is about 15 degrees up from horizontal. Pull the bar to your lower chest. Then move the bar slowly down again by extending your arms.

To avoid back pain make sure your back is super straight while lifting by engaging all your core and pulling the shoulder blades together.  

Strengthen Your Posterior Chain To Improve Athletic Performance

The posterior chain is the (often underestimated) powerhouse of our bodies that significantly influences our athletic performance. Training for a strong posterior chain will not only make us run faster, jump higher, lift heavier, or push and pull more, it will also reduce the risk of injury and generally improve our posture in everyday life activities. 

No surprise that I strongly recommend including exercises that improve the posterior chain like deadlifting, squatting, pullups, or kettlebell swings into your workout routine

If you want to enjoy a ready-made exercise program customized for your goals and also balanced with other aspects of fitness like cardio, nutrition, and recovery, then sign up for the free trial of my Build Bullet-Proof Health program. If you also want to enjoy personal one-on-one consulting and progress review, go for the premium option.

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