The Posterior Chain – Muscles of Power and Performance
So what exactly is the posterior chain and why is it so important?
The posterior chain refers to a group of muscles that run down the back of the body. The primary muscles involved in this chain include the glutes, hamstrings, the lower back and also the calves to a certain extent. Sitting on your backside for the most part of your day leads to the glutes losing their primary function of hip stabilisation and extension. Even if you have an active lifestyle, if your training program includes exercises such as running and aerobic classes that overwork the muscles at the front of the leg (quads), it’ll lead to imbalances and niggling pains.
When it comes to performance, strength and power, the quads take a back seat to the posterior chain muscles mentioned above.
Because the quadriceps are overworked, they become dominant and lead to tightness through the hip flexors. This causes something known as reciprocal inhibition of the glutes, which in layman’s terms, means your glutes stop switching on properly. If this happens, the hamstrings and lower back have to work harder to compensate, which then leads to more pain and tightness.
I’m sure you can recall at least one time when you have been performing an exercise, or doing something as simple as washing the dishes, and your lower back aches. Or you’ve tried to squat in the gym but it just felt so hard and unnatural that you gave up. Well, don’t feel too bad about it.
When those posterior muscles, especially the glutes, have been inactive for so long, they literally forget how to engage and it can take some hard concentration and help from a knowledgeable coach to rectify the situation.
Another major benefit of having a strong posterior chain is its functionality. Functional training– it’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot (we admit it, the fitness industry loves buzzwords). But what does it actually mean?
Put simply, functional training is any exercise that has transferability to your daily life.
A strong posterior chain keeps you stable and upright, which, believe it or not, is the body’s most natural and preferred state. Other everyday movements that will benefit include walking with a backpack, running, lifting things, standing around the water cooler talking about Steve in accounts’ awful nose hair, aaand of course- strength training.
In terms of injury prevention, the more stable you are, the more resistant to external forces you’ll be. This means you’ll be less likely to experience issues when doing things like playing contact sports, to tripping over a shoe in your hallway at 3am.
So how strong should my posterior chain be?
The best way to look at this is to use ratios. The ratio of strength of the muscles at the back of the leg (posterior), compared to the front (anterior) should be 60% to 40% in males, and 70% to 30% in females.
For both guys and gals that’s almost never the case. Probably one of the worst imbalances we see is with females who live the corporate lifestyle and are in heels most days. You might look sharp, but this is a biomechanical disaster; the hips are in a constant state of flexion, causing them to tighten – hence leading to inactive and weak posterior muscles. It’s also common with guys who love training chest and arms, but loathe back and leg days. That imbalance is not only visual, it has real mechanical implications.