Fixing the Flaws: Weak Posterior Chain

About the Author: Eric Cressey

Big, fluffy bodybuilder quads might be all well and good if you’re into getting all oiled up and “competing” in posing trunks, but the fact of the matter is that the quadriceps take a back seat to the posterior chain (hip and lumbar extensors) when it comes to athletic performance. Compared to the quads, the glutes and hamstrings are more powerful muscles with a higher proportion of fast-twitch fibers. Nonetheless, I’m constantly amazed at how many coaches and athletes fail to tap into this strength and power potential; they seem perfectly content with just banging away with quad-dominant squats, all the while reinforcing muscular imbalances at both the knee and hip joints.

The muscles of the posterior chain are not only capable of significantly improving an athlete’s performance, but also of decelerating knee and hip flexion. You mustn’t look any further than a coaches’ athletes’ history of hamstring and hip flexor strains, non-contact knee injuries, and chronic lower back pain to recognize that he probably doesn’t appreciate the value of posterior chain training. Or, he may appreciate it, but have no idea how to integrate it optimally.

The best remedies for this problem are deadlift variations, Olympic lifts, good mornings, glute-ham raises, pull-throughs, back extensions, and hip-dominant lunges and step-ups. Some quad work is still important, as these muscles aren’t completely “all show and no go,” but considering most athletes are quad-dominant in the first place, you can usually devote at least 75% of your lower body training to the aforementioned exercises (including Olympic lifts and single-leg work, which have appreciable overlap).

Regarding the optimal integration of posterior chain work, I’m referring to the fact that many athletes have altered firing patterns within the posterior chain due to lower crossed syndrome. In this scenario, the hip flexors are overactive and therefore reciprocally inhibit the gluteus maximus. Without contribution of the gluteus maximus to hip extension, the hamstrings and lumbar erector spinae muscles must work overtime (synergistic dominance). There is marked anterior tilt of the pelvis and an accentuated lordotic curve at the lumbar spine.

Moreover, the rectus abdominus is inhibited by the overactive erector spinae. With the gluteus maximus and rectus abdominus both at a mechanical disadvantage, one cannot optimally posteriorly tilt the pelvis (important to the completion of hip extension), so there is lumbar extension to compensate for a lack of complete hip extension. You can see this quite commonly in those who hit sticking points in their deadlifts at lockout and simply lean back to lock out the weight instead of pushing the hips forward simultaneously. Rather than firing in the order hams-glutes- contralateral erectors-ipsilateral erectors, athletes will simply jump right over the glutes in cases of lower crossed syndrome. Corrective strategies should focus on glute activation, rectus abdominus strengthening, and flexibility work for the hip flexors, hamstrings, and adductors.

Eric Cressey