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The Posterior Chain: Clinical Importance & Exercises

The posterior chain describes the muscles of the posterior (i.e., back) lower torso and extremities (i.e., arms and legs). These are large, long-chain muscles that are supportive for the posterior aspect of the body, and provide much of the “powerhouse” movements to keep you upright. However, the exact effect of the posterior chain on pain and performance is still somewhat unclear in the literature and clinicians often debate its importance. However, there are numerous exercises that aim to strengthen and mobilise the posterior chain that we will discuss here in this blog.

posterior chain

What is the posterior chain?

The posterior chain (pictured in blue above) refers to the large, long-chain “powerhouse” muscles of the posterior part of the torso and extremities. It describes a group of functionally similar muscles that overall aim to keep you upright and stable. Prominent muscles of the posterior chain include the erector spinae muscles, latissismus dorsi, glutues maximi, hamstrings and calf muscles. Several of these muscles cross multiple joints in the body, functionally linking various joints and whole body parts, which is where the concept of “chain” comes from.

The exact origins and concept of the posterior chain is somewhat unclear, but it is commonly thought that author and anatomist, Thomas Myers, first coined the term, describing the concept in his popular 1990’s book, Anatomy Trains. Myers also taught human fascial anatomy at the Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colorado, USA. In his books, Myers predominately discusses fascia, the band of connective tissue around and connecting muscles, and how it helps movement and power production. Fascia is a controversial topic and clinicians often debate its importance and function.

Why is the posterior chain clinically important?

The muscles of the posterior chain are “powerhouse” muscles, in that they are large and often strong movers of the spine and extremities. They are functionally linked to support the body and facilitate dynamic movement including those in running, jumping, lifting and sudden changes in direction. The idea is that if these muscles are more primed, that is they have considerable power and can initiate movement quicker and more efficiently, the person is able to produce more strength and speed, and therefore has improved physical performance and endurance. The posterior chain is also important for knee, hip and spine stability, and if strong, it is thought to decreased the likelihood of sporting and general injury.

Can a ‘weak’ posterior chain cause back and neck pain?

The spine and its surrounding musculature, tendons and ligaments comprise a robust structure that is incredibly strong, flexible and supportive. However, proper conditioning and mobility is required to help maintain optimal performance of the spine; this includes strengthening, flexibility and aerobic conditioning.

There are studies in the literature examining the effect of underperforming or underactive muscles on back and neck pain. However, the current research is somewhat limited and of low-medium-quality. Studies on low back stabilisation exercises and isometric gluteal exercises in patients with back pain found that the effect of exercises on reducing back was greater when compared to low back stabilisation alone. This suggests isometric gluteal exercises might help to reduced low back.

It’s also impossible to entirely train muscles in isolation. Studies on muscle activation with limb and spinal movements have consistently shown that various muscles of the posterior chain are ‘switched on’ with a simple raise of the arm or leg. Muscles work synergistically and can be switched on either agonistically (i.e. muscle that moves the body part directly) or antagonistically (i.e., muscle moves in opposition). Furthermore, a study on relative muscle activity of the hamstring group and selected surrounding musculature found that exercises focusing on glut-ham raises and deadlifts maximised hamstring performance. In other words, exercising gluteal muscles can actually improve hamstring performance. The posterior chain is in a constant state of making minor adjustments to maintain proper balance, load distribution and equilibrium.

What are the best posterior chain exercises?

The posterior chain can be trained in numerous ways and it depends on what goal you want to achieve and your physical capacity. Some of the various exercises for the posterior chain include:

Muscle endurance training.

  1. Strengthening and conditioning training. Examples include barbell hip thrust, clam progressions, crab walks, deadlift or trap-bar deadlift, glute-ham raises and good morning or Romanian deadlift.
  2. Rehabilitation of an injured tissues. A progressive program in which graded and controlled load is applied to tissue: beginning with isometrics, slow-heavy resistance, tissue energy absorption and release. Examples include: calf raises and dips, scaption progression, clams progression, specific directional mobility training and plank variations.
  3. Compound exercises. These include exercises where you move one body part at a time, such as bench press variations (barbell and dumbbell and flat, incline, and decline), overhead press, deadlift, pull-ups, cable pulldown, row and squat variations.
  4. Dynamic and pylometric training. These include lunges with a twist, knee to chest, high kicks, T-push ups, jump squats and lunges, pylo lateral lunge, lateral triple jumps, pylometric push up to squat and tuck jumps.

If you are considering to train your posterior chain it might be wise to consult a musculoskeletal and exercise specialist who can pick up on abnormalities and faulty movement patterns as to avoid potential injury. The key point is that a gradual and appropriate loading strategy involving strengthening and endurance training is indicated as to avoid injury. At S3C, our clinicians are highly trained to diagnose and conservatively manage an array of musculoskeletal disorders and provide tailored, graded and progressive exercise regimes.

More information

Please visit our blog page and website for more information on the neck, back and extremities:

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Chris Knee

Chris is an experienced and qualified chiropractor, sports chiropractor, McKenzie Credentialed practitioner, nutritionist and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is finishing of his Doctor of Physiotherapy at Macquarie University.

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