One of the principles behind building strength is to keep your training balanced. For example, you wouldn’t want to build up strength in one muscle and ignore the antagonist muscle group. If the agonist muscle is stronger than its antagonist, it can lead to a muscle imbalance and, potentially, an injury. The same applies to training some muscles and skimping on others. Balanced muscle development is important not only for injury prevention but for healthy posture as well. Read on to learn why you may need to spend more time on your posterior chain muscles.
Your body functions best when strength development is balanced. You don’t want one muscle or group of muscles weak to the point that other muscles have to take up the slack. This forces the muscles that have to step in to work even harder. Before you know it, the overworked muscles develop an overuse injury.
At an extreme, muscle imbalances can even create structural problems, like lumbar lordosis where the spine curves inward due to an imbalance in leg strength. In this case, the quads are stronger than the hamstrings. This muscle imbalance places uneven stress on the spine and can lead to excessive curvature of the lower spine. Poor posture and obesity are other causes of lumbar lordosis.
Anterior and Posterior Chain Muscles: The Importance of Balanced Training
One reason muscle imbalances develop is from training that isn’t balanced. In general, we tend to focus more on the muscles in the front of the body than the muscles in the back, the ones we don’t see every time we look in the mirror. For examples, it feels good to look in the mirror, flex your biceps, and see a ripple. It’s so gratifying that you might be tempted to work your biceps more than the triceps, simply because they’re more visible. We tend to favor our vanity muscles.
From a fitness standpoint, the muscles in the front of your body are called the anterior chain, while those that run through the back, the ones you can’t see, are part of the posterior chain. The best way to prevent training imbalances is to make sure you work the posterior chain as much as the anterior chain. More specifically, the posterior chain includes the muscles behind you, the muscles in the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. It’s these muscles that help you oppose gravity and keep you from falling forward.
Plus, these muscles play a role in the way your physique looks. If you have weak muscles in the posterior chain, particularly glutes and hamstrings, the hip flexors have to work harder. The greater strength in the musculature in front versus the back creates an imbalance that leads to an anterior pelvic tilt. You’ve probably seen people with this problem. Their pelvis tilts forward, enhancing the curvature of the back, and their stomach and buttocks look more prominent.
Anterior pelvic tilt is so common because of the sedentary lifestyle most of us lead. When you sit in a chair for long periods of time, the hip flexors in the front tighten and the posterior muscles, particularly the glutes, lengthen and become weaker. As you might imagine, this imbalance is linked with back pain. What you might not realize is that it can also lead to hip and knee pain. A weak posterior chain can affect sports performance as well, especially for sports that require jumping and sprinting.
Balance Your Own Training
Now, that you know how important it is to strengthen your posterior train to avoid muscle imbalances, what are the best exercises? The two “kings” of posterior training are squats and deadlifts. Most squat variations hit the posterior chain hard. According to Bret Contreras, the Glute Guy, the kneeling squat is best for targeting the glutes, the largest muscle in the posterior chain, based on EMG data. Unfortunately, this is an awkward squat to perform. Fortunately, front squats hit the glutes and going deeper increases glute activation even more.
As mentioned, deadlifts are an exercise that targets the posterior chain – but don’t forget about isometric exercises like back extensions and other highly effective glute exercises, hip thrusts, and barbell glute bridges. For a dynamic way to target the posterior chain, add kettlebell swings to your training. But, here’s the kicker. Many people do kettlebell swings wrong. They essentially turn a swing into a modified front squat. Doing them incorrectly can worsen the anterior-posterior imbalance you’re trying to correct. The key to doing them correctly is to master the art of the hip hinge.
Hip hinges are, as the name implies, hip inspired moves. To do a swing correctly, push your hips back with only minimal bending of the knees as you let the kettlebell swing back between your legs. Keep your back flat. Then, drive your hips forward to swing the kettlebell into the air. It’s the hip hinge that’s the secret to maximizing glute and hamstring activation. From this point, let the kettlebell swing back through your legs while controlling its descent. It’s crucial to use good form when you do this dynamic exercise. Throughout the movement, focus on bending your hips rather than your knees.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why balanced training is important and how easy it is to skimp on working the muscles in the back that you can’t see. You also know what exercises best target the posterior chain. So, make sure you’re not placing too much focus on the muscles you see when you look in the mirror and not enough on the muscles you depend on for better function and posture, those in the posterior chain. In fact, you could argue that because we sit so much, posterior chain training is more important than working the anterior chain. But keep in mind, compound moves, especially when you use heavy resistance, are more taxing on your body, so schedule some rest days for adequate recovery.
Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2000 Jan 15;25(2):211-3.
Stack.com. “The 14 Best Posterior Chain Exercises. Period.”
The Glute Guy. “Which Type Of Squat Maximizes Glute Activation?”
BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2013; 14: 204. Published online 2013 Jul 9. doi: 10.1186/1471-2474-14-204.
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