Make the Posterior Chain Your Strongest Link
Originally Posted on www.figureathlete.com
Well-developed glutes and hamstrings are a focal point for most women’s bodies. Whether the goal is to win a figure competition, to look great in a bikini, or to make the other girls at the gym jealous, a solid program will get you there faster and more effectively. And, believe it or not, there are functional reasons for having a great backside as well!
All show, no go? No way!
Without boring you to death with the “why’s,” just understand that the glutes and hamstrings are really important if you want to get stronger, be a better athlete, or just look and feel great.
Get Your Glutes in the Game!
It may sound silly, but quite often your gluteals aren’t working as well as they should be, and it’s not just a case of lazy-ass syndrome!
Now, I know what many of you might say. “But… my butt is BIG, so it must be working!” Not so fast, my friend! Just because you have hypertrophy or muscle size in your gluteals doesn’t mean they’re working appropriately.
Your glutes can actually appear bigger than they are because of an anterior pelvic tilt or an increase in your lumbar lordosis. This basically makes your butt “stick out” and gives the appearance of a bigger butt than you really have!
Don’t forget the occasional airbrushing, Photoshop, or Brazilian butt lift.
The glutes work in three planes of motion.
• They help extend your hips, like you’ll learn to do in a glute bridge.
• They help you abduct your hips — lifting your leg away from the midline of your body — like you’ll do in an x-band walk.
• They help you externally rotate your hips — rotating your hip/thigh away from the midline of your body — like you’ll do in a side-lying clam.
Since the gluteals can perform multiple movements, it only makes sense to train them in all these movements. The following are several exercises that will help to get your gluteals fired up and ready for a killer training session.
The Activation Exercises
Lie on your back with your hips and knees bent, and both feet flat on the floor. Brace your stomach as if you’re about to be punched, then slowly squeeze your “cheeks” and lift your hips up in the air.
Come up to a point where your torso, hips, and knees are in a straight line, then lower under control to the starting position. The key is to really focus on using your glutes, rather than your lower back or hamstrings.
Lie on your side with your hips and knees bent, and your feet together. From here, brace your stomach as if you’re about to be punched, and the slowly rotate your top leg away from the bottom. Rotate as far as you can without moving the lower back, and then return to the starting position.
Take a mini-band or resistance band and step on it so that both feet are inside the band. Then, cross it over itself, so the band forms an “X,” and hold it with your hands facing each other, with your arms tucked into your sides.
From this position, tighten your midsection, get tall, and walk from side to side. You should quickly feel a nice burn in the back side of your hips.
The Strength Exercises
Now that we’ve gotten the glutes fired up and activated, it’s time to put them to use with strength training movements. Posterior chain work is often broken down into two movement patterns. It’s important to include exercises from both categories if you want complete development.
Hip-dominant — This includes deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, and pull-through’s.
Knee flexion-dominant — This includes glute-ham raises, ball leg curls, and the dreaded leg curl machine.
Hip-dominant exercises focus on maintaining a flat or neutral lumbar spine, they require moving via the hips (rather than the low back), and they use the gluteals to promote hip extension at the end of the movement whenever you squeeze those cheeks!
I typically like to start clients off with pull-through’s, because unlike Romanian deadlifts or good mornings, the resistance is moving forward and backward, instead of up and down.
Stand facing away from the machine, reach down and grab a single handle with both hands. Take a few steps away from the machine and set your feet just outside of shoulder or hip-width apart.
From the starting position, hinge at the hips and force them back. You want to maintain a chest out/flat back position throughout the lift. Once you get a stretch in your hamstrings, drive your hips forward and finish by squeezing the glutes at the top.
Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
Load a barbell around hip-height in a power rack and grab the bar with a double-overhand grip. You could also use dumbbells instead. Take a step back and set your feet underneath your shoulders.
From the starting position, focus on pushing the hips as far back as you can. Imagine you’re trying to touch the wall behind you. Just like the pull-through, you want to maintain a chest out/flat back position throughout. Once you get a slight stretch in the hammies, drive the hips through and finish by squeezing the glutes.
Single-leg RDL’s are similar to their double-leg relative, but come with some unique benefits due to their single-leg nature. Any single-leg lift helps to iron out side-to-side strength imbalances. Single-leg exercises also help increase recruitment of the glute medius, which is a key hip stabilizer.
To perform a single-leg RDL, grab an appropriately-heavy dumbbell in one hand and pick up your foot of that same side leg. Keeping the chest out and back flat, slowly lower the dumbbell, and your torso, towards the opposite foot.
Once you get a stretch in your hamstrings, drive the hips through and finish by squeezing the glutes. Your “free” leg should be straight, not bent. You may need to have someone watch you do this the first time around, because it’s really important not to allow any rounding of your lower back. Instead, really focus on moving through your hips.
Good mornings are a great exercise, but if you’re new to the iron game, I wouldn’t make this my first option. It can be a little scary to load a weight on your back and then bend over really far!
But if you do want to include it, set the bar up in a rack just like you’re going to squat. Place the bar on your back and set up with a shoulder/hip-width stance. Here’s the major difference, though: Instead of squatting down, you’re basically going to do an RDL with the weight on your back.
The same technique cues apply here: chest out, back flat, push the hips back at the start, and drive the hips through at the end. This is one lift where I typically don’t cue you to really squeeze the glutes hard, as it can put you in a precarious position with the weight on your back.
While hip-dominant work trains both the hamstrings and gluteals, knee flexion-dominant work puts even more stress on the hamstrings. However, the key with knee flexion-dominant work is to keep the core and glutes activated while using the hamstrings. Otherwise, you’ll have a tendency to become more dominant with the hamstrings.
Ball Leg Curls
Ball leg curls are a great starting point. They teach you to maintain a core-glute contraction while effectively training your hamstrings.
Lie on your back with your heels resting on top of a physioball. Bridge up to a point where your torso, hips, and legs are in a straight line. Your glutes and core should be tight, maintain this tension throughout.
Dig your heels into the ball and slowly pull it towards your hips. Once the ball nears your buttocks, slowly reverse the movement until your legs are fully extended again. Don’t forget to keep the glutes and core tight throughout the movement.
If this variation is too simple, progress to a single leg version. In this case, you’ll only have one heel on the ball. The other leg will be extended straight above it. The same performance rules apply.
Glute ham raises are the crème de la crème of knee flexion exercises. Not only do they use the glutes and core, but they blast your hamstrings like no other. Once you get used to these, you’ll see how superior they are to the leg curl machine!
Lie face down on a glute-ham machine with your knees just below the apex of the pad. While you can start with your torso down towards the bottom, I prefer to start with the torso, hips, and legs in a straight line. From here, brace your core and glutes, and press your toes into the plate to “curl” your body up. Pull yourself up until your thighs and torso are perpendicular to the floor, and then lower yourself back down to the starting position.
It may feel like you’re going to cramp the first time you do this, and it’s totally natural. You’re not used to using your hammies like this! After a few sessions, this sensation should subside.
The “Boring” Why’s
Remember in the beginning of the article, when I said I wouldn’t bore you with the reasons why proper glute training is important? Well, now that we’ve learned what to do, here are some reasons why it’s all so important.
As a woman, you have a few strikes against you from the outset when it comes to knee and low back health. Due to the natural width of your hips, there’s a great knocking in (valgus) of the knees. This puts a lot of stress on the medial knees structures, and it’s one of the reasons you’re at an increased risk for sporting injuries such as ACL tears.
Women also tend to over rely on their quadriceps versus their glutes and hamstrings. While this can predispose one to ACL tears, it can also lead to longer-term issues such as patellar or quadriceps tendinosis, and muscle imbalances around the hip/knee.
As we discussed previously in Sexy Core Training, most women have poor anterior core stability, which leads to an anterior tilt of the pelvis and an increased lumbar lordosis.
This leads to a lengthening of the glutes and hamstrings, which decreases their effectiveness overall. Instead, the quadriceps and adductors (groin) take over to do the work. This is why it’s so crucial to fire up those glutes and hamstrings prior to training them.
I hope you can see that besides just looking great, your posterior chain serves an important functional purpose, both in everyday life in athletics. Be sure to use some of the exercises I’ve outlined above to take your backside to the next level!