Powerline: Training the posterior chain
A quick observation of many strength programs in action will immediately reveal an out-of-sight, out-of-mind misstep. While aggressively training the anterior musculature with an abundance of movements, the posterior compartments are either severely overlooked or completely ignored. The imbalances incurred with this approach can be the precursor to a host of soft tissue injuries.
The posterior chain refers to the general areas of lower back, glutes and hamstrings. However, we are looking at the broader scope of posterior strength training; therefore, we are including the upper torso in the discussion. That’s because there is a great deal of interdependency within the muscular network. For example, the neck extensors can have a dramatic effect on the functionality of entire spinal network.
Another example is the latissimus dorsi, which not only moves the arm, but also affects the trunk, spine and can assist in tilting the pelvis.
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A muscle can act as any of the following:
- Prime mover (agonist). A major contributor to a specific movement.
- Synergist. Works in conjunction with other muscles in movement.
- Antagonist. Creates the opposite action of the prime mover (agonist).
- Stabilizer. Closely related to a synergist, a stabilizer will contract with no significant contribution to a movement, but rather in the role of a fixator to maintain a certain posture/position.
A long list of exercises earmarks the posterior chain complexes, so by no means are the ones described here all-inclusive. We will look at a small group that should be staples in all programs. Obviously, alternatives can be executed at different angles and using varied equipment.
Regarding sets and reps for these exercises, coaches should implement a progressive overload plan and insert personal discretion. If used in conjunction with other movements (e.g., as in a “superset” or “piggyback” arrangement), they can be used in a 1:1 ratio with the major exercise, with six to eight reps executed on each set. If used singularly, two to three work sets each of eight to 12 reps will suffice.
The mid-range position (photo 1: click photo to enlarge) is a great complimentary movement to all the pressing exercises — flat bench, incline bench, overhead presses — that are performed with regularity. Using a flex band, stretch cord or similar apparatus, pull the handles to the head area with the arms abducted to 90 degrees and the hands/forearms slightly internally rotated (i.e., thumbs down). Hold the mid-range position for a full second before returning with tension to the start.
Face pulls work the biceps, middle fibers of the trapezius, rhomboid major and minor, and the rear deltoid. The latissimus dorsi, infraspinatus and teres minor are also players. These are vital structures in spinal, scapular and, to a degree, glenohumeral stabilization. You may also see this movement referred to as “transverse extension.”
We often piggy-back or super-set this exercise with our presses to be assured we are getting a one-to-one ratio in presses/pulls for symmetry and balance. Additionally, to emphasize the scapular area, we often instruct the athletes to retract the scapulae with straight arms before executing the face pull.
Using a utility bench (photo 2), spread the bench with your body so that your spine is neutral (no bowing). The down foot needs to have a relatively wide base to accomplish this position. The down hand should be near the top end of the bench, and the down knee near the rear. These two coaching points are vital to the neutral spine position.
Pull the dumbbell toward the torso with a tight, adducted arm position as high as possible without compromising back posture. The elbow should nearly rub against the ribs on the ascent and descent. Hold for one full second in the mid-range position, and then slowly return to the start.
Along with the bicep, the latissimus dorsi is the key target here, with other synergists also being engaged.
This should be a staple in all programs. Chin-ups (photo 3) are not only great bicep and latissimus dorsi movements, they are high on the list of the very best core stabilizing exercises. Additionally, several synergists such as the posterior deltoid, rhomboids, levator scapulae, and the middle and lower trapezius are called to action.
Starting from the fully stretched position, pull yourself upward on the concentric phase without swinging back and forth and keeping the legs slightly bent and tucked. Hold in the mid-range position with the chin either over or as close to the bar as possible for one second. Slowly lower to the staring position, taking at least three seconds to complete the eccentric phase. To heighten the workload and intensity level, perform five- to seven-second lowering phases on occasion.
Over time, and usually after eight to 10 perfect body weight chin-ups can be performed, weight vests can be added.
Romanian dead lift (RDL)
When properly performed, the RDL (photo 4) is one of the truly great exercises for the hamstrings, glutes and low back. It can be performed in a variety of single-leg and double-leg options, but here we examine the double-leg barbell version.
The barbell can be held with either an overhand or alternating grip, with the hands slightly wider than shoulder width. First, perform a traditional dead lift from the floor with the feet about shoulder width, maintaining a neutral spine with normal curvature of the lumbar region, keeping a “big chest” with the shoulders pulled back and scapulae retracted. Once upright, reset your spine position by pulling the shoulders back, expanding the chest and contracting your glutes. Start the movement by hinging your hips with slightly bent knees. Keep the bar tight tothe body as it’s lowered, and continue on this path until you feel like you can no longer maintain all of the body posture mechanics above. At this point, pause and then push through the heels and retrace back to the starting position.
The Nordic hamstring movement (photo 5) is both a great developer and indicator of hamstring strength. Starting from an erect kneeling position and maintaining a neutral spine, a partner will stabilize the legs by firmly holding the back of the ankles. Keeping the head, shoulders, hips and knees in a straight alignment, slowly push the hips forward and fight the pull of gravity as you lower to the floor. It’s important to place your hands in front, toward the bottom of the movement to catch yourself (as in a push-up position) and break the fall. The goal is to ease into that descent; do not free-fall into it.
From the floor, push back to the start, attempting to retrace with the same body position as on the descent. For beginners, it’s wise to perform “pulses” before attempting a full Nordic. On a pulse, descend to the 45-degree position shown, and pull back with the hamstring/glute complex without breaking form to the start. Over time, and as strength increases, athletes can increase the range of motion.
Developed by world-renowned physical therapist Gray Cook, MSPT, this is an outstanding body weight movement for the glute compartments. The premise here is to reduce lumbar extension and highlight glute activation.
Assume a supine position (photo 6), place a tennis ball just below your bottom rib, and pull the same-side knee inward to squeeze the thigh against the ball. Push-off the opposite down foot (either from a flat-foot position, or from the heel) and lift the hips as high as possible. Hold in that position for at least a second or two, then lower slowly until the low back region lightly touches the floor. Execute the next rep immediately, and perform the movement with both sides.
Consider this an extension of the Nordic movement, as the start is very similar. As you move forward, maintaining the same strict body posture of the Nordic, you will reach a point of straight legs and a parallel body position to the floor. Pause slightly, and slowly lower to the position shown (photo 7). Stretch momentarily at that juncture (it’s a great hamstring and low back stretch), and then retrace the movement back to the start without deviating from the flat back, shoulders retracted body posture. The hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae group and transversospinalis group all benefit from this movement.
Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine.