Unless you've been under a stone for the past decade, you've heard of the posterior chain. Posterior means back and chain basically links, more specifically links of muscles. So posterior chain means the muscles that make up the backside of the body. For the lower body this would mean your gastrocnemius, hamstring complex, and glutes.
If you've ever heard from power lifters or olympic lifters, they'll often tell you they are most afraid of someone with a well developed backside not someone with a well developed front side. Big, developed muscles of the posterior chain is associated with strength, power, and athleticism. Look at any sprinter, field athlete, or really any athlete in a power/explosive sport and you will likely see well developed glutes and hamstrings.
As many strength coaches will tell you, if you want to get faster, jump higher, and become more athletic start hitting these muscles. And hit them in different vectors, angles, tempo's, intensities, and rep/set schemes. The a strong posterior chain will accomplish all of these
The muscles of the posterior chain propel us forward during sprinting, give us explosive hip extension for jumping, tackling, blocking, etc, aid in quicker lateral/agility movements, give us better posture and a more appealing look to the opposite sex ;), and stabalize the legs during all of the movements to minimize energy leaks
During sprinting the hamstrings act not only as knee flexors and extensors, but also very important hip extensors. The glutes work primarily as hip extensors and hip hyperextensors, but they are also very important in hip abduction/external rotation and hip stability. The gastrocnemius works as plantar flexors and a great deal of this is done isometrically. These same basic priciples hold true for most movements, and it is important to train these muscles in all these ways.
It is very important to work these muscles in conjunction, and not so in isolation. During sport and athletics these muscles work in unison with each other and it is very important to have great co-contractions and correct motor firing patterns. Many different muscles are used in hip extension/hyperextension and the extensor recruitment varies depending on the load vector, knee action, hip angle, and other factors. For example the 3 different hamstring muscles (biceps femoris, semitendinosis, semimembranosis) are more active/involved at different times during hip extension along with the adductor muscles playing a role and of course the glutes are also heavily involved..
Many times injuries occure to the Hamstring complex because the glutes aren't firing correctly or in the correct pattern. You must develop this muscle coordination and timing throught the correct exercises and then starting overloading this pattern for greater results.
The first thing I would suggest before doing lower body posterior exercise is stretch the hip flexor. The hip flexors tend to be shortened in most people due to our lifestyles. Tight hip flexors inhibit the ability of the glutes/hamstrings to fire at their true potential because they cause the pelvis to tilted at a dis-advantaged angle. So statically stretching them opens up the hips and allows the backside to be more effective. So here are my 5 favorite ways to strengthen your P-Chain.
First on the list is the hip thrust. The hip thrust is an exercise made popular by Bret Contreras (Check out the interview we did with him HERE) Basically what Bret did was say hey, a ton of programs use body weight glute bridges to activate the glutes before working out, so why not load these bridges and make them a main lift, and the hip thrust was born.
Bret has done a ton of great work with EMG (elecomyography) to study the amount of muscle activation in the glutes, hamstrings, etc and the hip thrust is the king of glute exercises! What I like about the hip thrust is the different angle/vector load it puts on the glutes. We spend most of our lower body work moving vertically, moving weights up-and-down (ie squat, deadlift). The hip thrust however loads yours hips horizontally and you move the weight from back-to-front.
When you do hip thrusts for the first time, you will feel the difference in this exercise from anything you've done before. Hip thrusts work hip extension and hyperextension or basically the end range of motion of the glutes like nothing else. You will definitely feel these bad boys, and will for sure add them as a staple to your program.
I recommend getting some sort of pad for your hips, because as you increase the weight on the bar, it can be uncomfortable on your hip crease, and despite what it looks like, it won't crush your junk.
Key technique is to squeeze your butt at the top of the movement, basically posteriorly tilting your pelvis (ducking it under). Try and keep your lower back relaxed and let the glutes control the exercise. Lower back pain can often be caused by weak glutes and many find adding this exercise into their routine eliminates their back pain.
Yup the back squat makes the list. Many consider the back squat the king of lower body lifts, and they have a damn good reason for that.
The squat is hits just about all of the major lower body muscles, and if done correctly can really hit the glutes. The key to the squat is to make sure you sit back, spread your knees apart (try spreading the floor with your feet) and get to parallel or beyond. All of these ques will help you activate your glutes.
The squat allows you to really load the lower body, and this allows you to built some mass and strength. It is also a great mobility exercise for your ankles, T-Spine, and Hips. The wider stance you take the more posterior chain you'll hit, while vise versa, narrow stances will hit the quads more.
Deficit, Snatch Grip Deadlift
Take the deadlift, now twist it, mold it, and make it evil, and you have the deficit, snatch grip deadlift.
This is a deadlift that basically puts you in a harder position in order to put even more stress on your whole lower and upper posterior chain.
First step you add a block, box, or plate to stand on. I choose anywhere from 1-3" depending on what's available. So now the bar is lower on your shins, and then to compound that you take a snatch grip.
Essentially you're making yourself bend down even lower to grab the bar, and making your hips set higher, thus putting your hamstrings and glutes in a bigger stretch and harder angle. Your backside really has to take over in this lift, as the angle takes your quads out of the exercise. Another big reason I like this is because it is not quite so hard on the CNS as regular deadlifts are, mostly due to the lighter weight you'll have to use.
The wide grib forces you to really squeeze your back tight, and is great for your lats and overall back strength. The deadlift is possibly the best lower body lift you can do, but it is just so hard on the body and nervous system, that I find this version more effective and can impliment it more frequently.
Valslide Leg Curls
Valslide leg curls are the same thing as stability ball leg curls except it is my opinion better to use a stable object rather than a stability ball.
The use of the valslides allow us to focus on the movement we want to achieve rather than limiting load, muscle actions, stability, and angle that you get with the stability ball. The valslide leg curls are great because you get simultaneous hip extension and knee flexion. This type of exercise trains the hamstrings through both extension and flexion, while also isometrically training the glutes in extension.
With your heels on the valslide, begin by squeezing your glutes and extending your hips into a bridge position. Do not extend your lower back, try and keep it neutral and relaxed. Then slide your feet in, keeping your hips up the whole time.
When bodyweight becomes too easy, you can progress to attaching bands to your feet, or my favorite way is single leg (S/L). The videos below show each variation. Please start adding this exercise, it the BEST way to train simultaneous hip extension and knee flexion of the hamstrings while also training glute extension, and these actions are the how the P-Chain work together during athletic movements.
Sprinting might be the overall best exercise/movement you can perform, and maybe the most under used or utilized aspect of training for some. Sprinting in itself is the basis or a key quality of most athletics and really a basic fundamental movement of our species.
While most sports do rely more heavily on acceleration rather than top speed, it is still a very important quality to train, especially with the benefits it has. EMG studies show that the hamstrings are the most active during forward propulsion muscle during sprinting as they contribute the majority of the terminal swing hip extension and knee flexion torques, while the glutes contribute most to the stance phase hip extension.
If you think about this, the hamstrings and glutes are working eccentrically to extend the leg to touchdown, and after touchdown, the glutes work isometically to keep transfering this force until take-off. Just like the the valslide leg curls, this is an extremely important quality to train and improve.
Honorable MentionIt's very tough to choose only 5, so I'm making an honorable mention, heck theres an honorable mention for everything now, so why not this. As you can see from above, I picked mostly big/compound lifts. These are great for developing the correct motor firing patterns, overloading and progressing, carryover into athletic movements. But I had to throw in these 4 honorable mention because these are always in my programming somewhere and I feel are very important to athleticism. Not don't get me wrong, some of these could be considered a main lift, but for me they are usually an assistant lift or activation lift. But without these would subtract results and greater progression from my athletes.
Eccentric Natural Glute/HamThe Eccentric Glute/Ham is great for working the eccentric strength of the hamstings, and is really a killer. It works again knee flexion and hip extension in an eccentric fashion. This exercise is a real tester to see how strong your hamstrings really are. If you can perform a perfect Ecc. Glute/Ham, you have some strong hammies. Also recent studies have shown that training the eccentric action of the hamstrings helps prevent hamstring pulls and recover faster from a hamstring pull.
Single Leg RDL
The Single Leg RDL, is a great exercise because it works the P-Chain in a straight legged position. If you watch the leg that's on the ground during the exercise it is very close to the same angle as a plant leg would be in during sprinting.
The single leg RDL, more than a traditional RDL, works the glute medius because it must prevent abduction of the hip due to being on one leg. This is also a great exercise because it works the end range of motion of the hamstrings, or bascially it works the hamstrings at a stretch.
When performing any sort of RDL movement, you should think about pushing your hips/butt back and pull your chest forward. I like to think that there is a rope tied around my waist and someone is pulling back on that rope. There is also a rope around my upper back, and someone is pulling that rope forward. These forces are happening at the same time, and you are getting a big vertical separation of your hips and upper back and the same tempo. Kind of hard to explain, but you'll feel it when you do it.
The dumbell or kettlebell swing is quickly becoming a favorite exercise for many coaches. For some it is replacing Olympic lifts, due to it's simplicity. If you really look at the movement, it is just a dynamic RDL. You get a big hip hinge, with a flat back, hips pressed back, and the glutes/hamstrings pull the weight out of the hole and swing it out and up.
As you can see, swings get great hip extension, and for some this exercise comes naturally, but for others it must be taught more thoroughly. First off the head must stay neutral. There is a tendency for the head to look up when the weight swing between the legs. You should strive for a straight line from the back of the head to the back of your butt in that position. Then when coming out of that position really stress to change the direction of the weight by actively extending your hip, not by extending your back! This is a great exercise that can be used in so many different way. It's versatility definitely makes this an exercise a must for all.
And finally rounding it all off is the reverse hyper. The reverse hyper is a great exercise to target hip extension in the horizontal plane. Just like the hip thrust it differs from most lower body exercises because it's not bottom to top, but front to back. I love this exercise as a great activation and learning tool. You can really feel how you must activate your glutes in this exercise, and not your lower back. The only negative about this exercise is that it is an open chain movement, meaning nothing is in contact with the ground, and not many athletic activites work in this manner. Also if you do not have a reverse hyper machine, it can be difficult to load. You can use dumbells between the legs or bands, but it can be a pain depending on your situation.