If you’ve spent much time at the gym — or taken an online fitness class at home — you’ve probably heard an instructor talk about the “posterior chain” as if it were the blueprint for the Death Star.
It really can’t be an oversold on the importance of this supergroup of muscles, which are involved in most human movements.
But few exercisers truly understand what it is, why it’s important, and how to strengthen it.
Let’s change that, shall we?
What is the posterior chain?
The posterior chain refers to all the muscles that make up the back of your body, extending from your heels to the base of your skull, explains St. Louis-based strength coach Courtney Thomas, CSCS.
While there are many smaller muscles that you’ve probably never heard of, the major posterior chain muscles should be familiar.
You can consider your butt muscles the powerhouse of your body.
They make up the single-largest muscle group in the human body and are primarily involved in hip extension (pushing your hips forward) and abduction (lifting your legs out to the side).
They help stabilize your pelvis and control side-to-side motion.
Connecting your knees and hips, this large muscle group on the back of your thighs helps bend your knees and extend your hips.
Consisting of two muscles—the gastrocnemius and soleus—the calf muscle connects the ankle and knee and controls plantar flexion (think: pointing your toes).
The largest muscle in your upper body, the latissimus dorsi is your “wing” and extends from your pelvis and spine to your humerus (upper arm bone).
They are crucial for posture and the most pulling motions.
Running along the length of your spine, the erector spinae help extend (arch) your back. They also work to stabilize your spine, promote healthy posture, and reduce the risk of spinal injuries.
Back to the top
It’s a catch-all term for rhomboids, scapular muscles, trapezius, and more. They are vital for shoulder function and postural alignment and often work in conjunction with the lats.
Why is the posterior chain important?
There are few movements in life that don’t involve at least one muscle in the posterior chain.
When it’s not busy extending your hips when you jump or pulling your arms back when you row (two major moves involving people’s posterior chain), it supports your chest, stabilizes your spine when you stand, and keeps you grounded. . Curl a ball when you sit in a chair, explains Janet Hamilton, CSCS, an exercise physiologist at Running Strong in Atlanta.
And as the word “chain” indicates, they are all connected.
“Muscles act as team members,” she says. “Almost every muscle in the human body crosses more than one joint, so there is interaction between multiple muscles at each joint.”
It forms an interconnected chain of muscles that continuously work together to create different movement patterns.
Interestingly, the movement patterns activated by the posterior chain — maintaining balance — work in opposition to the anterior chain, or muscles in the front of the body.
However, in today’s desk-bound culture, the posterior chain muscles are often not strong enough to hold their own against the anterior ones, pulling the spine forward, causing upper and lower back pain, and even limiting shoulder mobility.
“Neglecting the back of the body can set us up for imbalances and debilitating weakness in important muscles and muscle groups,” says Thomas.
What exercises should you do for the posterior chain?
With dedicated posterior chain workouts and exercises important to overall health, Thomas recommends that you do at least two upper-body pull (posterior) exercises for every upper-body pushing (anterior) exercise.
While most lower-body exercises work both the posterior and anterior chains of the body, throwing in some extra glute and hamstring work with posterior chain exercises like hip thrusts and deadlifts can help you give the lower links of your posterior chain the love they deserve.
Squats work both the posterior chain and the anterior chain to a high degree.
Arguably the most comprehensive posterior chain exercise of all time, the deadlift movement pattern trains the hamstrings and glutes to an incredibly high degree. They’ll help strengthen your shoulders, upper back and core (which stretches around your torso).
3. Hip extension
Hip extension-based exercises like hip thrusts are the best posterior chain exercises when you want to really emphasize your hips to build glute size, shape and strength.
From the same Squat, lunge variations will work both the back and front of your body. However, stepping back, putting your weight on the heels of your flat feet, and even leaning forward slightly can lead to strain on your posterior chain.
All stretching exercises focus on the back muscles. However, change exactly how you pull.
Horizontal pulling exercises such as bent-over rows, resistance-band rows and reverse flyes emphasize the mid to upper back.
Meanwhile, vertical pulling exercises like chin-ups and pull-ups put more stress on the lats.