What most of us commonly refer to as the “backside of our body” actually has an anatomical name: the posterior chain.
While the posterior chain runs from your neck down to your ankles, the focus is often on the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
Strengthening these muscles helps reduce low back pain, improves posture, and boosts athletic performance.
Below, we get into the specifics of the posterior chain muscles, how to strengthen them, and exercises to improve mobility and flexibility in these powerhouse muscles.
The primary posterior chain muscles include:
- Gluteus: gluteus maximums, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus
- Hamstrings: semitendinosus, semimembranosus, biceps femoris
- Erector spinae: muscles along the spine
- Calves: gastrocnemius and soleus
The posterior chain also includes muscles in the upper body, such as the trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and rhomboids.
While strengthening this part of the chain is critical to a healthy backside, a lot of the emphasis is on the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and calves.
What does the posterior chain do for us?
According to a 2017 review, having a strong posterior chain:
- increases power in explosive movements
- boosts athletic performance
- prevents injuries
- counteracts unexpected forces on muscles
- helps maintains posture
The upper body posterior chain muscles help pull and extend the arms and trunk. Each of the posterior chain muscles functions independently, but they also work synergistically as a kinetic chain.
The posterior chain plays a critical role in supporting you during daily activities. Unfortunately, sitting “turns off” the posterior chain muscles. This often leads to muscle imbalances, weakness, and tight hip flexors, which can wreak havoc on your lower back.
The good news? Regularly targeting the posterior chain during a full body or lower body workout can help counteract these imbalances and decrease the risk of injury to your lower back.
Strengthening the posterior chain requires contracting and lengthening the muscles together, or in a chain-like manner, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
The following exercises are compound movements that use two or more of the posterior chain muscles to perform the move.
Kettlebell swings are best known for building explosive hip strength while targeting the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. It also requires a strong core and upper body strength.
How to do a kettlebell swing
- Set a kettlebell on the floor. Stand over it with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bring your shoulders back and down, and engage the core muscles.
- Press your hips back and bend your knees as you tip your torso forward to pick up the kettlebell.
- Grasp the kettlebell with both hands and make sure your shoulders are back.
- Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings to extend the hips, and swing the kettlebell out in front of your body — at chest height.
- Reverse the move and swing through your legs to repeat.
The Romanian deadlift is a compound exercise that involves multiple joints. This move is known for specifically targeting the hamstrings and glutes, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).
How to do a Romanian deadlift
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Use an overhand grip to hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in each hand, or use both hands to grasp a barbell. Grip should be shoulder-width.
- Pull your shoulders back and down, and keep your back flat.
- Push your hips back and gradually bend your knees to lower the weight toward your feet. You should feel a stretch in the hamstrings. Keep the kettlebells, dumbbells, or bar close to your legs.
- Reverse the move by pressing the hips forward and returning to the starting position while keeping the weight close to the body.
Back squats place a greater emphasis on the posterior chain muscles than the front squat. While both recruit all the lower body muscles, the back squat relies more on the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, with secondary recruitment from the quads and calves.
How to do a back squat
- Stand in a squat rack with the bar behind you. Feet should be shoulder-width apart, and toes pointed slightly out.
- Step back until the bar is resting on your traps (back of neck). Grab the bar with a wide overhand grip.
- Step forward, so the bar is off the hinges. Keep your chest up and begin to squat. Drop down until your thighs reach parallel and pause.
- Push through your foot and stand up to the returning position.
The pullup targets the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, rear shoulders, and erector spinae — all upper body posterior chain muscles.
How to do a pullup
- Stand underneath a pullup bar.
- Reach up and grab the bar with an overhand grip that is a little more than shoulder-width. Your arms will be fully extended.
- Pull your shoulders down and toward each other while you pull your body upward toward the bar.
- Pause at the top and reverse the move to the starting position.
Pullups require a lot of upper body strength and are challenging for those new to the exercise. Check out these assisted pullup options that can help you build strength and prepare you for a classic pullup.
Strengthening the posterior chain muscles is just one piece of this kinetic puzzle. For optimal functioning, you also need to perform exercises that stretch these muscle groups.
Here are three moves to help increase flexibility in the glutes, hamstrings, calves, and upper body muscles.
Seated figure-four stretch
The seated figure-four stretch stretches the glutes and surrounding muscles. It also gets you off the floor and into a chair — a place most of us spend a lot of time. Since you’re in a chair, this is an exercise you can do while at work, school, or watching television.
How to do a seated figure-four stretch
- Sit tall in a sturdy chair that won’t slip. Your feet should be hip-width apart.
- Lift your right ankle and place it on the left leg, above your knee.
- Place your hands on the left shin and lean forward until you feel a stretch in the right glute.
- Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Return the right foot to the floor and repeat with the left leg.
Standing hamstring stretch
The standing hamstring stretch targets the hamstrings and, to a lesser degree, the calves and glutes.
How to do a standing hamstring stretch
- Stand tall with your feet together and arms by your sides. Step forward with your right foot and flex it toward you.
- Engage the core muscles and bend at the waist, reaching your hands toward the right toes. Stop when you feel a stretch. You can place your hands on the upper part of your right thigh.
- Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Slowly return to the starting position and repeat with the left leg.
Alternately, you can do this stretch with your feet together to stretch both legs at the same time.
Downward-Facing Dog is a yoga pose that targets the hamstrings, glutes, shoulders, and calves. It also provides a stretch for the arms and quads.
How to do a Downward-Facing Dog
- Get on your hands and knees with hands under wrists and knees under hips. Hands should be shoulder-width apart and feet hip-distance apart.
- Tighten your abdominal muscles, press your weight into the hands, and tuck your toes while lifting your knees.
- Bring your tailbone toward the ceiling while lengthening the spine. Your arms will be fully extended and head in line with upper arms.
- Press your heels toward the mat and hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed.
The posterior chain muscles live on the backside of your body and include the glutes, hamstrings, calves, erector spinae, lats, and rear shoulder muscles.
Incorporating posterior chain strength and flexibility exercises into your overall routine is critical for athletic performance, good back health, and proper posture.
If you have any questions about how to perform these moves, consider working with a certified personal trainer or physical therapist.