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As a personal trainer, you’re used to creating workouts designed to build strength. Some may help develop a stronger upper body, while others boost lower body strength. But what about creating a workout focused solely on the posterior chain?
Learn about the posterior chain and benefits of increasing its strength. We also share how to tell if muscular strength is lacking in this group of muscles. Next, we dive into the nine posterior chain exercises that provide the best results, along with how to create a workout that targets this area of the body.
If you need a refresher, the posterior chain refers to muscles on the backside of the body. They help the body perform numerous physical movements. You use the posterior chain when you walk, climb stairs, bend over to pick something up, and much more.
The posterior muscles are often separated based on their location. Upper body posterior chain muscles include:
back of the neck – splenius capitis, splenius cervicis
middle and upper back – lats, traps, rhomboids, levator scapulae, erector spinae
shoulder – delts
arms – triceps, supinator, abductor and extensor pollicis longus, extensor pollicis brevis, extensor indicis
Lower body posterior chain muscles are:
lower back - erector spinae, obliques
gluteal muscles – gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus
hamstring – biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus
calf – gastrocnemius, soleus
The posterior chain muscles are opposite of those in the anterior chain or the body’s front side. Anterior chain muscles include the pecs, biceps, hip flexors, front abs, and quads.
Let's dig a little deeper into some of the most popular posterior chain muscles.
The back consists of different muscles including the erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and trapezius. There also are smaller muscle groups such as the internal and external obliques, levator scapulae, and serratus muscles.
These upper body posterior chain muscles play a role in posture and spine health. The main responsibility for the back is pulling and extending the arms and trunk. If your client lacks strength in these muscles, they will experience back issues including pain, fatigue, discomfort, weakness, and rounded back. This can lead to other imbalances or injuries in the body.
The erector spinae muscles support the vertebrae around the spine. Strong spinae muscles help improve posture and core strength. Deadlifts and hyperextensions are effective exercises to help strengthen spinal erectors and support the lumbar spine. Deadlifts and hyperextensions require flexion and extension muscle actions needed to activate these muscles.
The lats are the largest back muscle in the upper body. They are well known for giving the "v-taper" look or wing aspect to a physique. They are located under the armpit area and extend along the ribs.
Lat pulldowns and pull-ups are exercises that strengthen the lats. These exercises involve pulling the body and arms in a vertical position. This supports the primary role of extension that the lats are responsible for.
The rhomboids are in the upper back. They are responsible for squeezing the shoulder blades together. Barbell rows or dumbbell rows bring the scapula together making them effective rhomboid exercises.
The trapezius muscle also known as the "traps" is in the middle of the upper back. It consists of three parts: lower, middle, and upper. This muscle group plays a role in head and neck movement through muscle actions like elevating, depressing, rotating, and retracting the scapula. Shrugs and reverse flys are two exercises that target the traps best.
The muscle group on the backside of the body located below the trunk is the legs. The legs consist of the calves, quads, hip flexors, hamstrings, and glutes.
These muscles support the entire body. The legs are the foundation of the entire kinetic chain. It is important to address gluteal muscles including the gluteus medius. To optimally target the posterior chain in the body you want to focus on exercise that has minimal bending at the knee.
Exercise that involves knee flexion interrupts the hip hinge movement. The hip hinge movement involves flexion and extension through the hip joint. During this exercise movement, the spine remains in a neutral position and there is only a slight bend in the knees.
The hip hinge movement pattern places more stress on the calves, hamstrings, and glutes. By doing this it helps take stress off the anterior chain muscles like the quads and hip flexors.
For example, if a client starts to bend at the knee during a Romanian deadlift, they will end up putting more of the load on the quads instead of keeping it on the hamstrings.
The glute muscles include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. The main muscle movements for the gluteal muscles are extension and lateral rotation of the hip.
If the glutes are not strong, active clients can encounter back issues due to a lack of spine support. If the hip is lacking proper support, the back can undergo unnecessary stress.
To build strength in these muscles have your clients focus on exercises like the glute bridge and glute-ham raise. These exercises can even help clients who have an anterior pelvic tilt.
Be sure to address all the muscles within the glutes because each one is responsible for different muscle actions. To target the gluteus maximus, have clients focus on exercises that involve extension of the hip like barbell hip thrusts.
To target the gluteus medius and minimus focus on lateral rotation of the hip and abduction of the hip. Performing glute exercises like clamshells, monster walks, or side-lying leg raises use hip abduction.
The hamstrings are located under the glutes. They are a posterior muscle on the top portion of the legs, opposite of the quads. This muscle group extends from the hips all the way to the knee.
If a client's trunk is fixed, the hamstrings help produce hip extension. They also help flex the knee. Kettlebell swings are a great example of a hip hinge exercise that targets the hamstrings. This is due to minimal bending at the knee and full extension of the hips.
The glute-ham exercise and straight-leg deadlifts also are great exercises to stimulate the hamstrings. Target these muscles through a workout that involves reps through hip extension and keeping each leg straight. Keeping each leg straight while bending at the hips allows for optimal hamstring contraction.
The calf muscle includes the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius is responsible for plantar flexion around the ankle and flexing the leg at the knee. The soleus is responsible for plantar flexion but is stimulated more when the knee is bent.
To target the calves with knee flexion, have clients perform seated calf raises. Standing calf raises is the most popular exercise to build calf strength and size. Running, biking, and stabilization exercises also help build calf strength.
Because the calves help bend the leg or produce knee flexion, they help in compound movements like squats. Compound movements are multi-joint movements that help provide greater results in a shorter period.
Strengthening the posterior chain is important for several reasons. One is that it supports a healthy posture.
Poor posture is associated with pain in the lower back. Low back pain affects 80% of people at some point in their lives. In many cases, its cause is improper spinal alignment. Other factors that increase the risk of lower back pain are:
having a job that requires a lot of bending or heaving lifting
living a sedentary life
If the posterior chain is weak, you can experience pain in other areas of the body too. You might have pain in the shoulder area due to hunching forward, for instance. Slouching can even contribute to pain in the hips.
Building muscle in the posterior chain also aids in injury protection and recovery. As an example, research suggests that posterior chain exercises can reduce injury risk when doing CrossFit.
For sports players, posterior chain strength impacts athletic performance. A 2019 study in the journal Sports looked at knee position and posterior chain strength in soccer players. It found that when the player’s knee was flexed 30 degrees, posterior chain activation was increased. This increased activation helps boost performance.
Everyone could benefit from posterior chain work. Posterior chain exercises are good for seniors, people who are pregnant, runners, and more. But they may be even more important for clients with existing muscle weaknesses.
How do you know if the posterior chain is weak? Here are a few signs:
Pain or discomfort in the low back or hips
A rounded back or shoulders that are hunched forward
Repeated lower body injuries
Limited fitness progress, such as being unable to increase run speed or lift heavier weights
All posterior chain exercises work these muscles to some degree. But if you’re looking for the best exercises for providing positive results, there are nine to include in your exercise program.
Kettlebell swing. This exercise targets the upper back, spinal erectors, glute muscles, and hamstrings. To do it, stand with the feet shoulder-width apart. Squat to pick up the kettlebell, then drive the hips forward to propel the weight up. While pushing the hips forward, the arms stay straight. Once the weight is chin level, lower it with control until it swings back between the legs. Do the hip extension or push movement again to swing the kettlebell back up.
Row. The row works muscles in the middle and upper back, including those around the shoulder blade area. This movement involves keeping the upper body stationary while pulling a bar or weight. The row exercise can be performed while seated or standing. A bent-over row is an example of the latter.
Pull-up. The pull-up exercise targets muscles in the upper back, shoulder area, and arms. Starting position is to stand under the bar with the hands slightly wider than the shoulders, using an overhand grip. Pull the body up, until the chin is just above the bar. Then, lower back down.
Deadlift. If you want to build strength in the hamstring and glute muscles, the deadlift delivers. This exercise also works the back and hips. To do a deadlift, start with a hip hinge and place your hands on the bar around shoulder-width apart. Hold the bar while returning to a standing position. Reverse these steps to lower the weight back down.
Hip thrust. Glute and hamstring muscles also get a good workout with this posterior chain exercise. A bodyweight hip thrust involves sitting with your knees bent and back next to a weight bench. Lean back so the upper back is resting on the bench seat. Then, thrust the hips toward the ceiling, squeezing the glutes at the same time. Once the back is parallel to the floor, lower the hips and glutes back to the starting position. Once posterior strength is improved, transition to a barbell hip thrust for greater resistance.
Glute bridge. This move is similar to the hip thrust. However, instead of resting the upper back on a weight bench, you lie with your back on the floor. Do a hip extension movement and lift the hips. There should be a straight line from the knees to the shoulders. Hold for a count of one or two, then lower the hips back to the floor.
Squat. The squat is a good exercise for building strength in the hips, hamstring muscles, and calves. It also works the obliques. To start, place the feet hip-width apart. Lower the body as if you are going to sit on an imaginary chair, raising the arms out front to help with balance. More advanced exercisers can do weighted squats to increase resistance.
Hamstring curls. This hamstring exercise also works the glutes. It can be performed on a hamstring curl machine. Alternatively, you can hold a weight between the feet while lying on the stomach. Then, bend the knees to lift the weight up. Just be careful if doing the exercise this way. You don’t want to drop the weight, potentially causing an injury.
Calf raises. The lowest of the posterior chain muscles, calf raises help in running and jumping movements. They’re simple enough to do as you stand with the feet shoulder-width apart, then lift the heels off the floor. Hold for a count of one before lowering the heel back down. Hold weights in your hands to increase the intensity of this exercise.
When creating a posterior chain workout, you can include some or all of these exercises. If you split them up, separating them based on whether they work the upper or lower body is one option. Or you could include exercises that work both areas, providing a full poster chain workout that can be completed a couple of times per week.
We’ve also created a ready-made 30-minute posterior chain workout that you can use if you don’t want to develop your own. This workout includes a warm-up, posterior chain exercises, and a cool down.
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ISSA's Strength and Conditioning course bridges the gap between science and application by giving students the "how" of helping athletes achieve any sport-related goal. With this course, not only will you learn the exercise science behind strength and conditioning, but exactly how to create the perfect training program for any athlete. Further, it offers one of the only accredited exams in the strength and conditioning space, making you a hot commodity to any employer.
Low back pain: Causes, diagnosis & treatments. Cleveland Clinic. (2021, January 18). Retrieved October 20, 2022, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/7936-lower-back-pain
Hardeman, A., Serrano, J., & Serrano, B. (n.d.). The importance of the posterior chain in Crossfit programming - jmhsci.org. British Journal of Medical & Health Sciences (BJMHS) . Retrieved October 20, 2022, from http://www.jmhsci.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/BJMHS450193.pdf
Read, P. J., Turner, A. N., Clarke, R., Applebee, S., & Hughes, J. (2019). Knee angle affects posterior chain muscle activation during an isometric test used in soccer players. Sports, 7(1), 13. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7010013