If you’re a regular gymgoer, you probably spend some time getting your glutes in good shape (and checking them out in the mirror to track your progress). But while the glutes are an important player in the back-body, they’re just one part of a team of muscles that are collectively known as the posterior chain.
Essential for day-to-day movement as well as athletic performance, the posterior chain often goes overlooked. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. Unfortunately, though, neglecting this muscle group can have some serious and painful consequences. Namely, lower back aches and pains.
Ahead, certified strength and conditioning specialists explain exactly what the posterior chain muscles are, how a strong posterior chain can prevent lower back pain, and the best exercises for keeping it strong.
What Is The Posterior Chain, Exactly?
Put simply, the posterior chain is the backside of the body. The term is used to encompass the muscles that run from your neck all down the way down to the bottom of your feet, says Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., C.I.S.S.N., head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. Its inverse is called the anterior chain, which encompasses the muscles that run along the front side of the body.
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Technically, the posterior chain is made up of big muscles like the hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae group, and lats, as well as smaller assisting muscles such as the multifidus, external obliques, soleus, traps, and rear deltoid muscles. However, trainers often use the phrase “posterior chain” to refer to the main movers in our legs and lower back.
The Benefits Of A Strong Posterior Chain
Having a strong posterior chain offers many of the same health benefits as strengthening other muscles in the body. (These include a faster metabolism, stronger bones, better balance, and improved mental well-being.) However, having a strong posterior chain offers a number of other benefits specific to that muscle group, per experts.
For starters, a prerequisite amount of posterior chain strength is essential for keeping us upright and standing, says Daniel. “The primary job of the posterior chain is to help the body get into extension,” he says. That’s code for having an open front-body. With a weak posterior chain, you’ll slump forward like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Meanwhile, “when the posterior chain is optimally strong, you’ll be able to maintain an upright poster when you stand, walk, or run, without fearing of falling flat,” he says. Might not sound like a big deal to most right now, but it’s a necessity for maintaining independence later in life.
A strong posterior chain is also essential for protecting your spine, Harcoff adds. When adequately developed, these muscles help your spine maintain a safe position whenever you bend forward, back, or side to side. If these muscles are too weak, your risk of a back and lower back injury skyrockets, he says. Indeed, research published in the American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Journal in 2017 notes that the inclusion of posterior chain exercises can successfully reduce lower back pain in people of all ages, abilities, and occupations.
Injury prevention aside, a strong posterior chain is also essential for excelling in any sport that involves your lower body. Harcoff explains: The hamstrings and glutes, when well-trained, can power and propel your body to move faster and more explosively.
So, Yes, You Should Be Doing Posterior Chain Strength Work
Whoever you are, if you’re reading this, odds are your quality of life would improve with the addition of posterior chain strengthening exercises.
“The muscles in our body adapt to the positions that they are placed in for long periods of time,” explains Harcoff. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that people spend an average of 6.5 hours a day sitting. Why that’s a problem: When you sit, the muscles in the posterior chain are essentially allowed to “turn off” because you’re not using them, explains certified strength and conditioning specialist Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., owner of Beyond Fitness Online. Long term, this can cause weaknesses in and loss of control of the posterior chain muscles. And one of the potential consequences of that? Lower back pain.
While you can’t undo all the damage done to a posterior chain through a sedentary lifestyle, incorporating posterior strength work into your routine can help reduce the severity of back aches and pains that associated with an inactive or weak posterior chain, according to Daniels. Plus, of course, “posterior chain exercises will also have carryover benefits to your sport and fitness endeavors,” he notes.
The Best Posterior Chain Exercises
Ready to start incorporating some posterior chain-strengthening exercises into your routine so you can experience some lower back relief? Ahead, Daniels and Harcoff share the top three exercises for improving muscle strength and endurance in your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, and ultimately protecting your lower back.
1. Glute Bridge
The glute bridge does to your glutes and hamstrings what politics do to your extended family: fires them up. A great option for beginners and advanced athletes alike, this basic movement can be done with bodyweight alone or with weight, when you’re pain-free enough to graduate to a harder variation. “It’s a fantastic way to start rehabilitating those posterior chain muscles,” Daniels says.
To give it a try, start by lying on your back. Bend your knees and plant your feet flat on the floor. Press your lower back into the floor by tilting your pelvic floor up and thinking about nailing your belly button to the ground. Then, keeping your arms down by your sides, press your feet into the ground and thrust your hips up to the ceiling, squeezing your glutes at the top. Pause with your glutes and hamstrings engaged before returning to the start position.
Start with three sets of ten reps, resting as needed between sets. When you master the foundational version of the movement and are pain-free, progress to single-leg bridges, or weighted glute bridges or hip thrusters,” Daniels says.
2. Romanian Deadlift
Of the many deadlift variations out there, Harcoff recommends the Romanian deadlift for people experiencing lower back pain.
This deadlift variation may look exactly like the standard deadlift, but during the Romanian deadlift, every rep starts in a standing position with the weight at thigh height (rather than on the floor). “You lower the weighted implement as low as you can until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, then return to standing,” he explains. (Most people can lower the weight to about mid-calf height.)
Because you are not lowering the weight all the way to the floor, the Romanian deadlift forces you to maintain tension in your muscles throughout the entire repetition, explains Harcoff. This has two main benefits. First, it decreases the risk of turning off your core midway through the movement, which decreases the risk of additional back pain, he says. Second, “It increases time under tension, which means that your body has to call on an even greater portion of the muscle fibers in your back-body,” he adds. In other words, the Romanian deadlift won’t worsen existing pains and also prevents future ones.
If you have access to one, Harcoff recommends using an unweighted barbell as you learn the movement pattern. When you can successfully and without pain complete four sets of eight to 12 reps, with two minutes of rest in between, you’re ready to add weight. You can also do the exercise with a kettlebell or set of dumbbells, which will require additional core stabilization work, he notes.
3. Good Morning
The good morning commonly makes appearances in the warm-up routines of powerlifters and CrossFit athletes about to embark on a deadlift workout. But unfortunately, it’s forgotten about by the rest of the population. “A hip hinge exercise that involves shifting your hips back while keeping your core tight, the good morning stimulates all the muscles in the posterior chain, even when it’s unweighted,” Harcoff says.
Master the movement with a PVC pipe or broomstick before graduating to a barbell. Start standing with your feet hip-width distance apart and the pipe resting across the top of your back with your hands positioned outside your shoulders. Bend your knees slightly and brace your midline. From there, shift your hips back while maintaining a flat back. Continue hinging back until your torso is parallel to the ground, or until you feel a pull in the back of your legs, whichever comes first. Drive through feet and thrust hips forward to return to standing.
When you’re injured, stick to doing this movement with a PVC pipe. Even unweighted, the good morning will help strengthen the muscles in the posterior chain, which will gradually reduce the pain. If you’re pain-free, you can do the movement with a barbell and load on the weight. Or, stick to doing unweighted good mornings as part of your warm-up routine to properly activate your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back before deadlifting, squatting, running, or pressing.