Standing tall with your head held high not only makes you feel more confident but can also help prevent back and neck pain. But unfortunately, when we sit for long periods (i.e. at your desk job), the abdominal, glute, and neck muscles become stretched and weak, while the upper back and chest muscles become tight, which can lead to rounded shoulders and a feeling of constantly being slightly hunched over.
The good news is, properly stacking your posterior chain can prevent and combat these effects. So, what exactly is the posterior chain, and how do you "stack" it for better posture and a stronger core? To find out, we spoke to Amy Schultz, PT, DPT, CSCS, strength and conditioning coach for the Fit Body App, plus Dr. Joscelyn Shumate Bourne, who is a board-certified clinical specialist in sports and orthopedics physical therapy.
What Is the Posterior Chain?
Posterior refers to the backside of the body. The posterior chain, therefore, is the group of muscles on the backside of the body— back, glutes, hamstrings, calves,” explains Shultz. “The body is all connected—hence the 'chain' terminology."
These muscle groups contain several muscles. “For your upper body, we'd target middle and lower trapezius muscles, rotator cuff muscles," says Bourne. "For the core, we'd target the erector spinae muscles that run along the entire spine. Lastly, in the lower body, we'd target your glute muscles, hamstring muscles, and calf muscles."
Explosive power primarily comes from these back-of-body muscles, but most people neglect to train them effectively. Since we see the muscles on the front of the body more—the abs, the quads, the chest—we tend to focus on them more. While this is a natural training tendency, be careful as it can result in injury if it leads to muscular imbalance—especially combined with poor posture and a lot of time spent sitting.
The Benefits of a Strong Posterior Chain
A strong posterior core comes with a ton of benefits for your body, health, and life. With more strength and stability through the back body, the better you’ll function performing everyday tasks, and the less likely you’ll be to have back or neck pain. Shultz and Shumate specify the following benefits from having a strong posterior chain:
- You'll Likely Lift Heavier and Feel Stronger: Stronger posterior chain muscles allow for moving heavier weight.
- Helps Support the Core Muscles: The spine and surrounding muscles support your core.
- Deters Lower Back Pain: Keeping your glutes and hamstrings strong helps protect your back from various loads, whether that is going for a deadlifting PR, lifting your baby out of the crib, or picking up items off the floor.
- Wards Off Knee and Ankle Pain: Strong glutes and hamstrings mean a supported lower chain (knees and ankles).
- Improves Posture: Reduces the forward head, rounded shoulders, flexed hip posture we assume for an extended period each day.
- Improves the Health of your Shoulders: Reduces the discomfort felt in the front of your shoulders. Rounded shoulders create less space for the critical structures like your rotator cuff tendons at their attachment sites.
- Boosts Balance: The muscles of the hips help create a stable base during single-leg support activities, whether that is performing your last rep of pistol squats or standing on your tippy-toes of one leg to reach the very top of the kitchen cabinets.
- Increases Explosiveness: Gluteus maximus muscles are the powerhouse and arguably one of the largest muscles in the human body. This muscle drives the hips into extension, creating the power necessary to jump higher, run faster, and complete cutting motions.
- Reduces Injury Risks: Strong posterior chain lower extremity muscles have been linked to reduced knee and ankle injuries. Participating in activities that require sprinting and cutting movements, previous knee or ankle injury, and being of the female sex, can place you at an increased risk for injuring the knee and ankle joints. Not only can having strong glutes, hamstrings, and calves improve movement resilience, but they can also improve performance.
- Improves Metabolism: Muscle mass can largely influence your resting metabolic rate, which is the number of calories required for muscles to simply exist. With the posterior chain housing some of the largest muscles in the human body, it is a great place to help ignite an increase in metabolism.
How to Strengthen Your Posterior Chain
The best way to strengthen your posterior chain is to perform a variety of compound exercises. “These are exercises that use multiple joints and include deadlift variations, clean variations, snatch variations, and bridge variations,” says Shultz. You can perform these movements single or double leg, with single-leg movements adding an extra challenge for your core muscles. Adding in isolation exercises using one muscle group or joint can address small muscle weaknesses and imbalances. These include calf raises, hamstring curls, and leg extensions.
- Stand holding a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells facing a bench. Keep your core braced.
- Lift your right leg and step onto the bench, push through your heels and bring your body to a standing position.
- Slowly lower yourself with control back to the starting position and switch legs.
- Sit on a bench with your legs in front of you and knees bent, a barbell across your hips.
- Raise your hips toward the ceiling moving the bar up and keeping tension in the glutes.
- Pause at the top to feel the contraction in your glutes before slowly lowering yourself to the starting position.
- Stand a few inches away, facing a barbell on the floor.
- With your feet shoulder-width apart, hinge your hips down with a straight back and grip the bar overhand at about shoulder width.
- Keep your arms fully extended while you push through your feet and stand up with the barbell.
- Keep the barbell as close to your shins as possible while you rise and maintain a straight back.
- At the starting position, contract your hamstrings and glutes while rotating your shoulders slightly back and down, feeling a stretch.
- Slowly lower the barbell back to the floor in the same motion.
- Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your shoulders back.
- Step forward with a long stride with your right leg.
- Bend both of your knees, lowering your hips until your left knee is almost touching the ground, and your right knee forms a 90-degree angle.
- Straighten your legs to return to the starting position.
- Position your body under a barbell that is racked safely on a squat rack at the same height as your upper chest.
- Bend your knees slightly, so the bar rests high on the back of your shoulders.
- Hold the bar wider than your shoulders where comfortable.
- Straighten your legs to lift the barbell from the rack and take a step backward.
- Position your legs shoulder with apart.
- Ginger hips backward as if you're going to sit down and bend your knees.
- Keep lowering your body until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor while still maintaining an upright back.
- Push through your heels to straighten your knees and hips until you're standing.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and place the balls of your feet and toes on a step that is about 3 inches high.
- Raise your heels as high as you can by pushing through the balls of your feet and extending your ankles.
- Contract your calves at the top of the movement for a count of one before returning to the starting position.
With all of these benefits, it’s clear that showing the back (posterior) of your body a little love pays off. You’ll feel better and stronger and be less likely to slouch or develop an injury. Add in some compound movements to your workout routine for better functioning and posture every day.
National Academy of Sports Medicine. Correcting Upper Crossed Syndrome.