Here’s a statement that will grab your attention straight off the bat: the posterior chain is the most influential muscle group in the body. Why? Well let’s ask the founding father, Coach Glassman:
“Powerful hip extension alone is necessary and nearly sufficient for elite athletic performance. That is, our experience has been that no one without the capacity for powerful hip extension enjoys great athletic prowess, and nearly everyone we’ve met with that capacity was a great athlete.”
Well wait a minute, Glassman is referring to hip extension—what’s that got to do with the posterior chain? Everything.
The reality is the muscles that make up the chain are directly responsible for producing hip extension.
- Multifidus (spine support)
- Erector Spinae (back and spinal extension)
- Gluteal Muscles (hip extensors, femoral rotation)
- Hamstring Muscles (hip extension, knee flexion)
- Gastrocnemius or Calf (plantar flexes ankle, knee flexion)
- External Obliques (back and spine support, in tandem with anterior core)
Now think about the multitude of exercises and movements, in and out of the box, that rely upon these muscles (not to mention hip extension in general). It’s safe to say that the health of your posterior chain not only affects your athletic prowess—but your ability to move. They contribute to jumping, pushing, pulling running and even something as simple as sitting down and standing up. It’s literally the prime mover of forward propulsion.
Unfortunately, ensuring that you have a strong posterior chain is tricky for a number of reasons. First, most people sit on their glutes (arses) all day, leading to quad dominance; in essence, their butt now becomes their feet. The glutes lose their primary role of hip stabilization and extension. Second, many people have placed too much focus on the muscles of the anterior chain (which include the abs and quads) either intentionally—as these are the ‘beach and mirror muscles’—or unintentionally through incorrect programming.
The reality is that the posterior and anterior chains are intimately linked, so there needs to be balance between the two. Let me explain. If too much attention is placed on strengthening the quads, then the glutes and hamstrings will not get any support. This is unfortunate, because the glutes and hams have far more fast-twitch muscle fibers than the quads, making them more powerful and explosive. However, the quadriceps are still important muscles, especially in the squat, as when they are contracted they cause knee extension (straightening of the legs) which rapidly switches your movement direction from downward back to upward.
But even though both chain groups need to be treated equally, sedentary lifestyles, sitting at the desk and lack of proper exercise lead to suboptimal muscular activation patterns within the posterior chain due to lower crossed syndrome (LCS).
In LCS, the hip flexors are overactive and reciprocally inhibit the glutes. Without the contribution of the gluteus maximus to hip extension, the hamstrings and lumbar erector spinae muscles are placed under greater stress and become synergistic dominant movers. This basically means that the main muscles that should be performing most of the work (the primary movers) take a break and the few other ‘helper’ or stabilizing muscles (the synergists) have to take over to fill the gap. When this happens, there is marked anterior tilt of the pelvis and an accentuated lordotic curve at the lumbar spine. Picture trying to stand straight but your butt sticks out behind you, your hip is tilter forward and your gut protrudes out in front of you. This is a recipe for acute and chronic lower back pain syndromes.
To compensate for the lack of complete hip extension caused by anterior pelvic tilt, there is increased lumbar extension.So when you bend over, pick something up or stand from a seated position, you are now at a mechanical disadvantage. Instead of activating muscles in the correct movement pattern (hams-glutes-contralateral erectors-ipsilateral erectors), you would compensate and skip right over the glutes. Proper hinging at the hips and pushing the hips forward simultaneously are critical to effective posterior-chain motor control. Every muscle group needs to be flexible and strong enough to do it’s job, otherwise there will be an over-reliance on others to shoulder the load. This can contribute to chronic tightness, fatigue, stiffness and spasm episodes—not to mention the risk of injury when you are moving weight.
So the name of the game then becomes mobility and stability. I hope I’ve outlined just how crucial the posterior chain is to simply being able to move well, perform athletic movements, and protect yourself from injury. Obviously, the chain should not be neglected, and fortunately many of the exercises we do in CrossFit (such as kettlebell swings and deadlifts) target the muscles in the chain to ensure that they are strong. However, it doesn’t hurt to have a nice list to fall back upon if you are looking for some new exercises…
Downward-facing dog. Downward-Facing Dog is a yoga pose that stretches the calves, hamstrings, glutes and muscles along the spine. To start, come on to all fours. Place your hands under your shoulders and your knees hip-distance apart. Curl your toes under. Lift your hips up and back, working to create a triangular shape with your body. Relax your head in between your arms. Hold this stretch for three to five breaths. Do not practice this pose if you have a shoulder or wrist injury.
Hip flexor (Samson) stretch. This is a great stretch to correct anterior pelvic tilt and enable greater range of motion in the hips. Begin in a lunge position with your torso upright. Be sure to have one knee directly below your hip and the other leg forward with your knee directly above your ankle. Then:
- From the starting position, draw in your abdominal muscles.
- Tighten your glutes while should case the hips to extend forward.
- Be sure that your front knee does not extend past your front foot.
- Hold a mild stretch for 20-30 seconds.
- Repeat 2-3 times with each leg.
Romanian deadlift (RDL). Stand with your feet hip-width apart and bend your knees slightly. Hold a barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width at thigh level with your palms facing your body. Bend at your hips to lower the weight, keeping your back straight. Drag the bar down the front of your legs and continue to push your hips back. Lower until the bar is at mid-shin height, or as far flexibility allows. Forcefully extend your hips to drive up to the starting position.
Foam roller bridge. This is a great exercise on the foam roller to develop a stronger posterior chain, whilst encouraging hip flexor mobility. Lying on your back, take your arms wide, and externally rotate the palms, facing up to the sky, shoulders relaxed. With the heels placed on the roller at hip width apart (hips knees and feet all in alignment).From this position, tilt your pelvis and pull your bellybutton down into the floor, ensuring you eliminate any space in the small of the spine. Keeping the roller still, start to drive up through the heels, keeping the knee alignment. Make sure your glutes are squeezed as you drive up, keeping the emphasis through the bottom and legs, rather than the lower back. Hold at the top point for 5 seconds, before returning down slowly, re laying the spine slowly to the floor.
Foam roller IT band stretch. Lay on your side, with the bottom leg placed onto a foam roller between the hip and the knee. The other leg can be crossed in front of you. Place as much of your weight as is tolerable onto your bottom leg—there is no need to keep your bottom leg in contact with the ground. Be sure to relax the muscles of the leg you are stretching. Roll your leg over the foam from your hip to your knee, pausing for 10-30 seconds at points of tension. Repeat with the opposite leg.
Glute ham raise. Begin by adjusting the GHD to fit your body. Place your feet against the footplate in between the rollers as you lie facedown. Your knees should be just behind the pad. Start from the bottom of the movement, where you position your body so that your chest is parallel to the floor with legs slightly bent. Keep your back arched as you begin the movement by flexing the knees. Drive your toes into the foot plate as you do so. Keep your upper body straight, and continue until your body is upright. Return to the starting position, keeping your descent under control.
Photo courtesy of isafmedia/CC by 2.0/Desaturated from original