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
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.
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).
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.
The pullup targets the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, rear shoulders, and erector spinae — all upper body posterior chain muscles.
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.
Standing hamstring stretch
The standing hamstring stretch targets the hamstrings and, to a lesser degree, the calves and glutes.
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.
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.