You may be wondering what exactly is the posterior chain? Anatomically speaking, posterior means back, so it includes all of the muscles from your upper back down to your hamstrings and glutes. It is the most important region of the body to train as an athlete to build power and explosiveness. In this article, I provide the best exercises to build it, period.
As an athlete, you are constantly using the muscles of your posterior chain. Whether you’re jumping, sprinting or throwing a pitch off the mound, you are using this set of muscles. When strength coaches talk about power, there is one movement that tops them all, and that movement is hip extension. The more powerful your hips, the higher and further you can jump. If that alone doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.
Check out the best exercises below and watch the video above to see a visual demo of each exercise.
Back, front, goblet, rear-foot elevated or any other variation of the Squat trains the posterior chain. The Squat is one of the best-known exercises to build an athlete’s back side, and for good reason. Not many exercises hit the glutes as hard as the Squat. For a detailed breakdown, head to this article to learn everything you need to know about the Squat.
The second of the Big 3 barbell exercises is the Deadlift. There are many variations: conventional, sumo, Romanian, single-leg and snatch grip. The idea is simple: Lift a load of weight off the ground until you are standing straight up with it. It’s simple yet incredibly effective for building strong hip extension and a strong upper back. For a detailed breakdown, check out this article and watch the video above.
Whereas the Squat and Deadlift are the pure strength and mass builders of the posterior chain, the Clean is the fast power builder. Take a bar off ground or from the hang position just above the knees to a front rack position, with the bar resting on your shoulders with the elbows up, pointing straight ahead. Check out the video to see more.
4. Glute-Ham Raise
This exercise is underused by athletes and general gym goers. It requires a special piece of equipment called a Glute-Ham Device or GHD. The exercise hits your glutes and hamstrings hard! When you do it properly, you should be able to do only 2 to 4 strict reps with average strength. Once you get stronger, you can work up to 10-plus reps. Set up with your feet hooked in and press your feet against the plate. With your knees bent at 90 degrees and pressed against the pad you should be completely upright. Slowly lower yourself and let your legs straighten, keeping your back flat until your torso is at about 45 degrees. Return to the top by firing your glutes and hamstrings. Try not to overextend your back.
5. Back Extension
For this exercise, you can use a GHD (above) or a specialty piece of equipment made for back extensions. This exercise trains the erectors (the muscles that run parallel to the spine from the pelvis to the skull), glutes, and hamstrings. These are best trained in high-rep sets with body weight or a lighter weight held in the hands. Jump on the GHD or back extension and hook your feet in. With your legs straight, lower yourself slowly about 45 degrees, then return to the top, making sure not to overextend your back at the top.
6. Good Mornings
Essentially, the Good Morning is a weighted hip hinge. Whether you perform it with a bar on your back or a band hooked around the base of your neck, push your hips back, keep your back straight and hinge at the hip. Once you’re parallel with the floor, explode back up to the top, firing your hips forward as you squeeze your glutes. This trains the glutes, hamstrings and erectors. See a pattern yet?
7. Kettlebell Swing
Swings are another way to build explosive hips. Set up in a shoulder-width stance with a bell between your heels. Hinge at the hip until you can reach back for the bell, then explosively shoot your hips forward until they reach full extension. The bell shouldn’t go any higher than your sternum. Let momentum carry you through another hinge, and then BOOM! pop your hips forward again and repeat.
8. Barbell Glute Bridge
Sit on the floor with your back against a bench that is pushed up against a wall or rack so it doesn’t slide. Keep your legs flat on the ground straight out in front of you. Roll a loaded barbell over your legs and rest it on your hips. Use a bar pad or wrap a towel around the bar to prevent nasty bruises and sore hips the next day. Bring your feet toward your butt, drive your heels into the ground, then push your hips into the air, squeeze your glutes and make a table with your hips. Slowly return to the floor and repeat.
Strict Pull-Ups build the lats and upper back like no other exercise. Palms facing out, start with your arms fully extended and pull yourself up vertically until your chin gets above the bar. Slowly lower to the bottom and repeat. Remember, just because you can kip and get an extra 10-15 “Pull-Ups” doesn’t mean you should.
10. Pendlay Row
Start with the bar resting on the floor in a conventional deadlift position. Instead of deadlifting the bar, row it to your chest keeping your elbows tucked to your sides and body held strong in the deadlift position. Return the bar to the ground, let it rest and repeat. No bouncing the bar off the ground.
11. Face Pull
There are a few ways to do this one. You can use suspension straps, a band or a cable machine for resistance. Whatever you use, set up so you can pull your hands up to your eyes while keeping your elbows up. Squeeze your upper back tight and release slowly.
12. Band Pull Apart
A Band Pull Apart is one of the simplest yet most effective exercises to build the upper back, targeting the rear delts and rhomboids. Grab a band in a double-overhand grip about shoulder-width apart. Raise your arms so they point straight out ahead of you. Keeping your arms at the same height, pull apart on the band and squeeze your upper back hard. Slowly return to the starting position.
13. Seated Band Row
Hook a thick band around a pole on a rig or squat rack, take a seat on the ground, spread your feet wide and dig your heels into the ground. Grab the band and pull your hands to your chest with your elbows tucked to your sides. Squeeze for two seconds at the chest and release slowly.
14. One-Arm Dumbbell Row
This traditional bodybuilding movement does a wonderful job of building the upper back and making all the pulling muscles strong. Grab one dumbbell, set your feet hip-width apart and place one hand on a bench. With the dumbbell in the other hand, row the weight up to your chest, keeping your elbow in tight. Pinch your shoulder blades together hard and lower the weight under control.
That’s all you need to build a strong posterior chain and improve your athletic performance!