When you’re training, you might tend to forget about the things you cannot see. That’s why many lifters run the risk of overemphasizing their “mirror muscles” like their chest, biceps, and quads. Because you can’t see your back without a lot of twisting and turning (or giving your training partner the camera), you may forget how important it is to build a strong, muscular posterior chain.
The muscles of your upper back, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings sometimes get pushed aside for the sake of training chest, biceps, abs, and quads. But doing this leads to all show and no go — you’ll be inadvertently throwing your body into imbalance. All things being equal, keeping your body well-balanced is crucial for maximizing overall performance and helping avoid injuries.
Without a strong posterior chain to keep your mirror muscles balanced, the front part of your body can easily overpower your back half. This leaves you exposed to injuries from overcompensation and jeopardizes your training progress. Even a strong bench press requires powerful back muscles. So even if your major training goals involve your anterior muscles, you’ll want to make sure your posterior chain is solid.
Best Posterior Chain Exercises
- Pendlay Row
- Rack Pull
- Cable Pull Through
- Barbell Overhead Carry
- Barbell Bent-Over Row
- Hip Thrust
- Kettlebell Swing
- Glute-Ham Raise
- Barbell Good Morning
- Romanian Deadlift
- Landmine Single-Leg Deadlift
- Back Extension
- Hang Clean
- High Pull
The Pendlay row is a barbell row named after legendary weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay. This row variation involves rowing the barbell from the floor, as opposed to being in a bent-over position where the barbell hovers above the ground.
Being in the hinge position provides isometric strength for your lower back and hamstrings while training your upper back and lats. However, this is a more lower-back-friendly variation because even though you’re hinging, the weight rests on the floor between reps.
Benefits of the Pendlay Row
- This move develops power and explosiveness off the floor because you’re pulling from a dead stop.
- Resting the bar on the ground between reps is friendlier on the lower back than the standard bent-over row.
- Pendlay rows are performed from a hinge position, so they strengthen the entire posterior chain.
How to Do the Pendlay Row
Place your feet in your conventional deadlift stance. Hinge down to the barbell. Take an overhand shoulder-width grip. Squeeze your armpits together and bring your chest up. Explosively pull the barbell towards your sternum. Return the barbell to the floor and repeat.
The rack pull is a deadlift variation that — similar to a conventional deadlift — focuses strongly on your erector spinae, lower back, mid-back, and upper back. With rack pulls, you pull with a partial range of motion. Doing so focuses on your glute lockout strength and a little less on your hamstrings.
Because you’re pulling from a higher starting point, it’s easier to maintain a neutral spine throughout the lift. Because of the reduced range of motion, you can move more weight with this deadlift variation. When you do that, you’ll acclimate your body to lifting heavier weights to increase your posterior chain strength.
Benefits of the Rack Pull
- Because you’re lifting from a partial range of motion and moving more weight, you’ll strengthen your deadlift lockout.
- Overloading your deadlift improves your grip strength, as well as your lower and upper back strength.
- This move has great carryover to improve your standard deadlift.
How to Do the Rack Pull
Set the barbell up in a squat rack either above or below the knees. Assume your standard deadlift stance. Hinge down and grip the barbell with an overhand shoulder-width grip. Squeeze your armpits together. Keep your chest up and your shoulders down. Pull up until lockout, finishing with your glutes. Hinge back to the starting position. Repeat.
The cable pull through forces you to sit back with your hips. It will strengthen your glute lockout strength, which has great carryover to more demanding hip hinge variations. However, since you won’t be overloading on weight, you can increase your pulling volume and focus on technique without adding too much stress to your body.
Benefits of the Cable Pull Through
- This move reinforces solid hip hinge mechanics without putting too much strain on your lower back due to lower loading and different angles of pull.
- The accommodating resistance from using a cable machine helps build more strength and muscle since you’re increasing your time under tension.
- You’re able to do more reps, as this move is less technical than other hip hinges and doesn’t get trained with max weight.
How to Do the Cable Pull Through
Attach a rope to the cable set on its lowest setting. Turn around to face away from the machine. Hold the rope attachment between your legs with your palms facing each other. Take a few steps away from the machine until you feel tension. Set your feet hip-width apart. Hinge down while keeping a neutral spine. Reverse the movement. Squeeze your glutes at lockout. Reset and repeat.
The overhead carry may not be the first move you think of for targeting your posterior chain. However, the barbell overhead carry variation allows you to move more weight than other overhead variations. Carrying significant load overhead for time, distance, or both puts incredible tension on your upper traps, lower back, and glutes.
Even though they’re not the prime movers, you need your lower back and glutes to stabilize your body while you’re walking. Plus, it’s a great accessory move to improve your overhead strength for presses and Olympic lifts.
Benefits of the Overhead Carry
- Carrying heavy weights overhead improves your overhead stability for lifts such as overhead presses and the Olympic lifts.
- This move provides a great amount of time under tension for your upper traps and back, which are essential for posterior strength.
- Any overhead carries will help improve your mental toughness, conditioning, and posture.
How to Do the Barbell Overhead Carry
Set a bar at chest height in a squat rack. Face away from the rack. Unrack the bar. Press the barbell overhead into a locked out position. Take small steps. Keep your head and chest up. Pack your shoulders. Walk for the designated distance or amount of time. Place the barbell back into the squat rack.
The barbell bent-over row strengthens your upper back, lats, and posterior shoulder. Because you’ll maintain an isometric hinge, it also helps improve lower back endurance. This makes it a powerhouse in terms of upper body posterior chain exercises.
It’s also an excellent accessory exercise for improving your deadlift. The bent-over position keeps you in an isometric hip hinge. Holding this position for time under moderate and heavy loads help improve your lower and upper back endurance. This endurance carries over nicely when you need to prevent your back from giving out during tough deadlift sessions.
Benefits of the Bent-Over Barbell Row
- This move adds strength and mass to your upper back, lats, and erector spinae.
- You’ll reinforce good hip hinge mechanics, which will have a direct carryover to your deadlift.
- Maintaining an isometric hip hinge improves your back endurance, which you need to support all your major barbell lifts.
How to Do the Bent Over Barbell Row
Hinge at your hips. Grab a loaded barbell with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Row the barbell until it’s touching your stomach. Angle your elbows at about 45 degrees throughout the movement. Hold the top position of the row briefly. Lower the weight back down with control. Repeat.
The hip thrust builds both strength and mass in your glutes. As such, it’s a great exercise for the posterior chain. Because your lower back is less involved with the hip thrust, it serves as a near-isolation movement for your glutes.
Honing in on your glutes specifically helps keep your posterior chain balanced. With stronger glutes, you won’t have to over-rely on your lower back when you’re locking out your deadlift and coming out of the hole with your squat.
Benefits of the Hip Thrust
- This move builds more glute mass, strength, and power than just about any hip extension exercise.
- You can go heavy here, but it’s less technical and easier to perform than many other heavily-loaded posterior chain movements.
- Improved glute strength leads to better stabilization of your posterior chain and anterior core.
How to Do the Hip Thrust
Sit with your back up against the long edge of a bench. Place padding across your pelvis. Roll a loaded barbell into the crease of your hips. Once the barbell is secure, drive your feet and back towards the bench. Keep your shoulder blades to be on the bench. Maintain a straight line with your upper body and hips. Keep your upper body steady as you lower your hips toward the ground. Extend into lockout. Repeat.
Kettlebell swings improve your posterior chain’s strength, power, and endurance. While swinging, you’ll train stabilizer muscles across your entire body because you’re shifting your center of mass with each repetition.
Keeping your stabilizers constantly engaged improves your core stability and endurance. Kettlebell swings also serve as effective conditioning tools while building grip strength and full-body coordination.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Swing
- Swinging kettlebells trains your entire posterior chain for power, strength, and endurance.
- This high-intensity exercise has a low impact on your joints.
- Kettlebell swings help improve cardiovascular endurance and grip strength at the same time.
How to Do the Kettlebell Swing
Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart. Place the kettlebell a foot or two in front of you. Hinge down to grip the kettlebell. Squeeze your armpits. Keep your chest up and your shoulders down. Hike the kettlebell behind you. Thrust your hips forward. Use this momentum to swing the kettlebell up to chest level. Finish by squeezing your glutes and quads. Repeat in a continuous loop for reps.
The glute-ham raise (GHR) develops eccentric strength in your hamstrings and for building a strong and powerful posterior chain. The posterior chain muscles like your lower back, hamstrings, and glutes all work together as a unit to complete this move.
You can perform this bodyweight move for higher reps to increase glute, hamstring, and lower back hypertrophy. Once this becomes easier, adding load (plates, bands, or chains) will help increase your posterior gains.
Benefits of the Glute-Ham Raise
- This move develops eccentric strength in your hamstrings to help prevent hamstring strains.
- You’ll extend your time under tension so that your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back can build strength and endurance without the added strain of max weights.
- With this bodyweight exercise, you can add quality volume to your training without loading up on weight.
How to Do the Glute-Ham Raise
Adjust the GHR so your feet are secured. Rest your quads on the middle of the pad. Make sure you have enough space to lower your torso. Bend your knees at 90 degrees. Keep your body straight. Push your toes into the pad and extend your knees. Keep your arms folded across your body. Slowly lower your torso forward until you are horizontal. Return to the starting position by contracting your hamstrings. Reset and repeat.
The barbell good morning is an excellent potential addition to your posterior training repertoire — if you haven’t got issues with your shoulder mobility or lower back pain. You’ll be pinning the bar very intensely to your back, which your shoulders might not love if they have low mobility. And you’ll be sinking into a deep hinge with a lot of weight on your back, so make sure your low back is healthy enough for the challenge.
If you can perform it safely, the barbell good morning puts your glutes and hamstrings through a large range of motion. This range sets you up for increased muscle-building potential. That kind of strength can translate into better squats and deadlifts.
Benefits of the Barbell Good Morning
- This move strengthens your spinal erectors and glutes.
- You’ll be directly challenging all the spinal stabilizers that help prevent spinal flexion, which is important during lifts like squats and deadlifts.
- If your shoulders and low back can engage with this move safely, you can load it moderately heavy for increased hypertrophy and strength.
How to Do the Barbell Good Morning
Get under a loaded barbell that’s set in a power rack. Set up the same way you would for a back squat. Walk backward a few steps. Keep a slight bend in your knees. Hinge at your hips. Keep your chest up and shoulders down. Hinge until your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Reverse the lift by contracting your glutes and hamstrings until you stand back up. Repeat.
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is similar to the standard deadlift. However, with the RDL, you lower the bar to about mid-shin level instead of to the floor. This tweak keeps constant tension on your muscles. This consistent tension makes it a solid option for adding muscle and strength to your posterior chain.
Since you’ll use less weight with the RDL than the conventional deadlift, you may find that it’s easier on your lower back. For that reason, the RDL is also generally less stressful on your body as it doesn’t allow you to use much weight as your standard deadlift.
Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift
- Improved muscle hypertrophy of your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings due to the constant tension on your body.
- The Romanian deadlift can help improve your upper back and lockout strength for conventional deadlifts.
- Because you’ll use less weight than with conventional deadlifts, you may be able to perform more reps for increased hypertrophy.
How to Do the Romanian Deadlift
Stand tall with your feet hip-distance apart. Grip the barbell with an overhand grip in front of your thighs. Keep your chest up and shoulders down. Take a deep breath in. Hinge at your hips until the barbell is below your knees. Keep the barbell close to your body. Stabilize the bar in the bottom position. Use your hamstrings and glutes to pull you back to a standing position. Reset and repeat.
The traditional single-leg Romanian deadlift exercise helps increase performance, injury prevention, or rehabilitation. But a lot of lifters may struggle with the balance element and have trouble loading this up.
Enter the single-leg landmine RDL. Due to the angle and long lever, this is an easier variation to do and load up heavily. Plus, this variation can help you build the balance you need to progress your way to the conventional single-leg RDL.
Benefits of the Landmine Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
- This version is easier to perform than the dumbbell or kettlebell variations.
- When you control the eccentric contraction, you’ll help reduce the likelihood of hamstrings strains.
- Landmine single-leg RDLs help you develop better balance so you can progress up to other single-leg variations if you want to.
How to Do the Landmine Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
Stand perpendicular to a barbell that’s anchored in a landmine base. Hinge down to grip the end of the bar with one hand. Stand up straight. Take on the same leg off the ground as the hand gripping the barbell. Unlock your knee. Hinge back until the handle is below knee height. Push your foot through the floor. Extend your hip to return to the starting position. Reset and repeat.
Chin-ups increase the size and strength of your biceps, as well as your upper back and lats. Plus, you need good core strength to complete even one rep. Practicing chin-ups will help you develop solid all-around strength and stamina.
Benefits of the Chin-Up
- This move adds strength and mass to your biceps, forearms, posterior shoulders, upper back, and lats.
- You’ll improve pulling and grip strength for other demanding pulling variations.
- Chin-ups train your anterior core and back to remain rigid while your entire body moves, which carries over into your big barbell lifts.
How to Do the Chin-Up
Grab a pull-up bar with both palms facing you. Keep your arms straight. While hanging, engage your core and grip. Engage your scaps. With control, pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar. Stabilize at the top. Lower with control until your arms reach full extension. Repeat.
Back extensions have you lie on either a glute-ham raise bench or a back extension machine. Then, you’ll flex your lower back muscles to lower and raise your torso. This move puts your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings through a large range of motion. Having such a broad range of motion increases your hypertrophy potential.
Benefits of the Back Extension
- The back extension trains and isolates the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings through a longer range of motion, allowing for greater strength and hypertrophy gains.
- This is a versatile exercise that can be loaded in different ways to provide different stimuli for growth.
- You can train this movement for high reps, increasing potential for both hypertrophy and endurance.
How to Do the Back Extension
Secure your feet on the back extension machine with your hips just above the padding. Cross your arms across your chest. Keep your chest up and shoulders down. Lower your torso until you’re below parallel with the floor. Be careful not to round your low back. Raise up using your glutes and lower back until your body is in line with your legs. Reset and repeat.
There’s nothing wrong with the power clean — which is a staple in most weight rooms for good reason. But the hang clean offers many of the same benefits with a shorter learning curve. You’ll learn to generate power from a more low back-friendly position.
Benefits of the Hang Clean
- The hang clean develops a powerful hip drive, which you’ll need for sports and other complex movements.
- This move builds strong upper trap muscles due to the pull and catch.
- You’ll develop more power, muscular coordination, and athleticism.
How to Do the Hang Clean
Stand tall with the barbell at arm’s length with an overhand grip. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart. Hinge at your hips until the bar is at knee height. Push your feet into the floor. Explosively pull the barbell while keeping the barbell close to your body. Keep pulling until the bar is at your hip crease. Snap your hips forward so the bar comes forward. Pull the bar up to your shoulders. As the bar is still coming up, drop into a squat and catch the bar in the front rack position. Your elbows should be up and facing forward. The barbell should be at your collarbones. Squat up until lockout. Reset and repeat.
The high pull is almost identical to the hang clean except for the dip, catch and squat. This makes it a less technical move with an even shorter learning curve. However, you’ll still target your upper back muscles in a big way — and with even more weight, since the move is less complex and demanding.
You can perform the high pull from the hang position to get your hips involved. Or, you can do this from a standing position. It depends on what you want from the exercise. The hip hinge means you’ll pull more weight. Performing the move from an upright position means you’ll be moving less weight but focusing more on your upper body.
Benefits of the High Pull
- This is a less technical move that allows you to train the muscles of the upper back with less lifting experience.
- You’ll strengthen your mid- and upper traps for better posture and a bigger yoke.
- Engaging this move with a hip hinge allows you to lift even more weight for bigger strength and hypertrophy gains.
How to Do the High Pull
Grip the barbell a wider than shoulder-width apart. Hinge at your hips. Bend your knees until the barbell is around knee height. Powerfully snap your hips forward. Extend your knees while you are pulling the bar to your collarbone. Spread your elbows apart while pulling the bar towards you. Reset and repeat.
Benefits of Training Your Posterior Chain
Ever seen a lifter with a huge chest but no glutes? If you can train your posterior chain, don’t be that person. It’s easy to get caught up in training the mirror muscles that feel good and look good — like your arms and shoulders — but, over time, this leads to an unbalanced and injury-prone training program. Instead, you can reap the many benefits of training the posterior chain.
The muscles in your posterior chain are responsible for helping you maintain an upright posture. Especially if you have an office job, you’re likely sitting and hunched over a computer or phone more often than not. In that case, your posterior chain muscles get weakened and tight over time. This weakening and tightening can cause back pain and impede shoulder mobility.
In training, these pains and tightness can lead to poor form and movement compensations. Injuries may well result. By strengthening your posterior chain muscles, you’ll be enabling a more upright posture and strengthening the muscles that might suffer while you’re in an office all day. This can lead to less stiffness and pain, as well as better performance in and out of the gym.
Reduced Injury Risk
Intentionally targeting your glutes and training for a more powerful back can prevent your training from becoming imbalanced. This will decrease your risk of lower back injuries and pain. Strong, muscular, and mobile glutes put your lower back in a better position. Your glutes can absorb training stress that will otherwise have nowhere to go but your low back. Ensuring that your low back won’t have to compensate for weak glutes decreases your risk of low back injury and pain.
Target Muscle Imbalances
The world happens in front of you, not behind you. Because you’ll see your anterior muscles in the mirror first, they’re often more likely to get trained heavier and harder. Plus, muscle imbalances might occur during activities of daily living or because of the demands of your sport. But by regularly training the posterior chain, you’ll go a long way to correcting these imbalances between the your anterior and posterior muscles.
For example, a common imbalance with runners is that they’re stronger and tighter through the quadriceps than the hamstrings. This can lead to muscle strains. Strengthening the hamstrings helps prevent this — and makes you a better overall athlete by helping you avoid future compensations and form inadequacies.
Run Faster and More Efficiently
Strength training in the posterior chain helps you run faster by improving your neuromuscular coordination, power, and VO2 max. It improves your running economy through better movement coordination and stride efficiency. (1) If you use running to help you stay conditioned so that you can maximize your endurance on and off the platform, strengthening your posterior chain in the weight room can help form a positive feedback loop.
How to Program Posterior Chain Exercises
Regardless of your specific goals, training the posterior chain is important for all lifters to keep their total-body strength in balance. Training the posterior chain can be tough because it involves larger muscle groups and you have to work harder to see your muscles pump up. But it’s rewarding because a strong and muscular backside supports almost everything you do in the gym. Here are some general recommendations for posterior exercise order and sets and reps for strength and muscle.
Exercises that work the most muscles and require the most energy pretty much always should come first in your training. This is when you have the most energy and your muscles are not too tired. If you’re training for power, exercises like kettlebell swings, high pull, and hang clean should come first in your training. When training for strength and muscle exercises like, barbell Romanian deadlifts, glute-ham raises, and hip thrusts need your full attention and energy.
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When training two strength movements on the same day, use your best judgment on what exercise comes first. You may want to avoid putting together two exercises that put a compressive load on the spine. For example, bent-over rows paired with Romanian deadlifts may not feel great for your lower back.
Strength Sets & Reps
You can build muscle and strength with a variety of sets and rep ranges. But when the focus is building strength, heavier is generally better. Working with a load of above 80 percent of your one rep-max is a great starting point. Keep the total reps performed between 10 to 25 reps. You can break this up into various set and rep schemes.
Three sets of five reps, five sets of five reps, four sets of six reps, or five sets of two reps all work well depending on your goals and experience. If you’re nearing a competition or one rep-max attempt, only two or three sets of two or three very heavy reps will also suffice.
Muscle Sets & Reps
Most of your accessory training will involve muscle-building rather than developing max strength. The focus here is on increasing volume and time under tension.
Training with loads of between 50 and 80 percent of your 1-RM can help you build muscle and muscular endurance. Keeping your total reps between 25 and 60 works well, depending on your exact goals. Training higher reps with moderate weight can also work. Fewer reps mean heavier load and more sets. More reps mean lighter loads and fewer sets. Hypertrophy set and rep schemes like three to four sets of six to 12 reps, or three sets of 12 to 15 reps. Make sure you’re taking each set to near failure to maximize effectiveness.
How to Choose Posterior Chain Exercises
To properly perform most posterior chain exercises, you’ll need proficiency in the hip hinge. If you’re not able to execute a solid hinge, go back to the drawing board before tackling these moves. Once you can adequately hinge, exercise selection will largely depend on your goals.
If you’re looking to build muscle or improve conditioning, you need to plug in exercises that work the most muscle and have you sucking in more air. Exercises like the kettlebell swings, chin-ups, and the barbell overhead carry all fit that bill.
When you want to improve power and performance, exercises like kettlebell swings, high pull, Pendlay row, and hang clean should be your go-tos. If you’re newer to training, the less technical moves on this list — like back extensions, cable pull throughs and hip thrusts — are great choices.
More Posterior Chain Training Tips
Training your posterior chain is a crucial part of any well-balanced lifting program. Now that you have a handle on the best posterior chain exercises to strengthen your entire backside, you can also check out these other helpful lower body training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
- The 6 Best Lower Body Exercises for Mass
- 3 Leg Workouts You Can Do at Home With Dumbbells
- No Squat Rack? Here are 5 Leg Exercises to Perform in a Smith Machine
- Chtara, M., Chamari, K., Chaouachi, M., Chaouachi, A., Koubaa, D., Feki, Y., Millet, G. P., & Amri, M. (2005). Effects of intra-session concurrent endurance and strength training sequence on aerobic performance and capacity. British journal of sports medicine, 39(8), 555–560.
Featured Image: Sirichai Saengcharnchai / Shutterstock