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Posterior Chain Exercises That Build Strength & Power

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

An image showing a fitness trainer performing posterior chain exercises.

This article brings you a broad range of exercises that build strength and size in the posterior chain muscles. The exercises feature a mix of compound, isolation and bodyweight exercises. This will enable you to target whole sections of the chain or specific links.


To make the tutorials both instructive and engaging, each exercise features an overview of the muscles targeted, a list of key techniques, and a link to a video demonstration. So, you’ll be able to develop your knowledge and technical mastery of the nine posterior chain exercises.


How to approach the posterior chain exercises

Unless you are a complete novice, it’s likely that you have obtained technical proficiency in some of the exercises below. But there will be exercises that you haven’t encountered or tried before. Also, there may be variations of exercises that, though you are familiar with them, feature subtle yet important technical differences.


With that said it would be unwise to attempt to learn more than one exercise at a time. Trying to master too many exercises too quickly could result in the acquisition of incomplete or incorrect techniques.


So, the best way to use this article is as a reference guide. You could make a list of all the exercises that you would like to add to your repertoire. Starting at the top of the list, you would work through it one exercise at a time.


You would only move on when you have mastered all the key techniques and can perform the exercise with confidence.


Train safety when performing these posterior chain exercises

The single most crucial training consideration is safety. ‘Lifting safely is of paramount importance when exercising because it greatly reduces the chances of injury,’ (NSCA – Strength Training). As well as reducing the risk of injury, safe training also enables us to maximise the time we spend working out.


Furthermore, following the correct training protocol can improve physical performance. But not only fitness performance. The author of The Complete Guide To Strength Training tells us that preparing properly for your workout boosts exercise motivation.


The key elements of safe training include warming up, cooling down, stretching, applying correct technique, and, as Bruce Lee wisely put it, not lifting more weight than ‘you can handle without undue strain,’ (The Art of Expressing The Human Body).


Posterior chain exercises quick finder

Posterior chain exercises #1: Squats

Posterior chain exercises #2: Romanian deadlift

Posterior chain exercises #3: Kettlebell swing

Posterior chain exercises #4: Good morning

Posterior chain exercises #5: Bent rows

Posterior chain exercises #6: Lat pull-downs

Posterior chain exercises #7: Pull-ups

Posterior chain exercises #8: Shrugs

Posterior chain exercises #9: Power clean


 

Posterior chain exercises #1: Squat

A woman performing posterior chain exercises.

Posterior chain muscles activated: Hamstrings, gluteals (maximus, medius, and minimus), and erector spinae


‘This multi-joint exercise is extremely effective at developing the muscles of your legs. [Squatting is also a] great foundation exercise for building overall power and strength,’ (Strength Training).

The squat is a powerhouse of an exercise that primarily builds strength in the legs and lower back. To the posterior chain muscles listed above, you could include the quadriceps, core, and a plethora of synergists.


In addition to being one of the best whole-body builders, the squat is also extremely versatile. For example, you could shake up your squatting by performing the sumo, front, overhead, or sissy variations.


Also, to add a dynamic twist to your squat, you could perform a plyometric jump (which is best performed with dumbbells or a kettlebell).


Alternative variations of the barbell squat include:


Squatting with dumbbells, kettlebells, cables, or resistance bands (or just your body weight)
Squatting variations: sumo, front, sissy
Seated leg press machine

Key technique points

  • Beginners should use a Smith machine and solicit the services of an experienced spotter.

  • When performing a barbell back squat, the bar is resting across the traps.

  • You are gripping the bar with a hand position slightly wider than shoulder-width.

  • Lift the bar off the supports (for those using a free weight) and step back so that you comfortably clear the rack.

  • Organise your stance so that your feet are directly below the bar and spaced about shoulder-width apart – the toes are pointing out slightly.

  • Keeping the back neutral and chest up throughout the exercise, lower down until a 90-degree angle forms at the back of the leg.

  • Pause momentarily before standing up out of the squat position.

  • Remember, do not lock the knees out in the top position.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Posterior chain exercises #2: Romanian deadlift

A woman performing posterior chain exercises.

Posterior chain muscles activated: Hamstrings


In the NSCA’s Strength Training manual, only the hamstrings are listed as the target muscle group for the Romanian deadlift. However, while the range of muscles is much narrower than the standard deadlift, the Romanian variation certainly engages more than one link in the posterior chain.


To prove this, we could employ Arnold Schwarzenegger’s experimental method for ascertaining the muscles an exercise engages. He tells us that if you want to know what muscle an exercise works, perform a hundred reps with a hefty weight. Then give it a day or two for the DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) to kick in. On that second day, the excruciating ache will be more informative than any reference guide.


I bet if you applied Arnold’s method to the Romanian deadlift, you’d suffer soreness in your glutes, erector spinae, and lower lats – and yes, your hamstrings as well.


Alternative variations of the Romanian deadlift include:


Split Romanian deadlift

Key technique points

  • Stand with an Olympic barbell held against your thighs.

  • The hands are space shoulder-width, and the arms remain straight throughout the movement.

  • With feet planted firmly, and the hands spaced shoulder-width, bend the knees slightly before fixing them into position.

  • Remember, unlike the standard deadlift, with Romanians we do not bend the knees beyond the fixed point.

  • To initiate the exercise, hinge forward at the hips until the bar dips below the knee.

  • Depending on the flexibility of your hamstrings, you can go a little lower.

  • Pause momentarily before retracing your steps.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Posterior chain exercises #3: Kettlebell swing

A woman performing posterior chain exercises.

Posterior chain muscles activated: Hamstrings, gluteals (maximus, medius, and minimus), erector spinae and lats

The kettlebell swing is one of the few exercises that engage the entire posterior chain register. To initiate the movement, you must first fire up the hamstrings and gluteals. This initial phase puts momentum in the bell.


Essential training kit: Competition Kettlebells!

Controlling and guiding the trajectory of the kettlebell involves the lats and traps (as well as a host of synergists). Throughout the swing, the erector spina muscles are constantly engaged to support and stabilise your posture.


Alternative variations of the single kettlebell swing include:


Dumbbell swing

Key technique points

  • Stand directly over the kettlebell, feet spaced a touch over shoulder-width.

  • Squat down and take an overhand closed grip on the bell.

  • Before pulling the bell back between your legs, tighten up the upper links of the posterior chain – including your core.

  • When you feel your forearms pull into your groin, propel the bell forward using your hamstrings and gluteals.

  • The arms remain straight throughout the movement.

  • To assist the flight of the kettlebell, engage the lats and traps (and deltoids).

  • When the bell is level with your shoulders, arrest the movement and allow it to fall back following the same path.

  • Harness the kinetic energy to assist the next rep.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Posterior chain exercises #4: Good morning

A woman performing a posterior chain exercise.

Posterior chain muscles activated: Gluteals and erector spina

The good morning is a terrific exercise for targeting the mid-section of the posterior chain – specifically the gluteals and erector spina. Typically performed with a barbell, ‘you can use this exercise to prepare for squats and deadlifts,’ (Strength Training).


However, because the resistance is positioned across the traps, a great deal of stress is loaded on the lower back. This increases injury risk when going heavy – a fact Bruce Lee experienced when performing good mornings with a 70kg barbell.


After severely damaging his lower back, which left him confined to an armchair for six months, Lee said that you should never go heavy when doing good mornings (The Art of Expressing The Human Body).


Other than using an unloaded barbell, a safer way to perform this exercise is by holding the resistance (barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell) at your front.

Alternative variations of the good morning include:


Bodyweight back extension
Reverse plank

Key technique points

  • With an unloaded barbell (or broomstick) positioned across your traps, organise your stance into a neutral position: feet shoulder-width apart, knees soft, eyes fixed forward.

  • To execute the exercise, hinge forward at the hips until your torso and legs form a right angle.

  • Pause momentarily before rising back to the start position.

  • The action of the movement takes place at the hips. If you find your knees begin to flex, this suggests one of two reasons: 1) you are either lifting too much weight or 2) your hamstrings are too tight and are thus restricting your range of movement (ROM).

  • Resolve the above problems by a) reducing the weight and b) constricting the ROM (bowing to 45 degrees as opposed to 90).


Posterior chain exercises #5: Bent rows

A woman performing a posterior chain exercise. She's doing bent over rows.

Posterior chain muscles activated: Erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, trapezius


‘This is one of the most important exercises for the large muscles of your back [as it] builds good posture, helps prevent back injuries, and also provides a thorough lower-body and core workout,’ (Strength Training).

Bent-over rows enable you to access and activate the middle and upper links of the posterior chain. The action of rowing primarily engages the lats and traps (and the biceps and rear deltoids).


However, to stabilise the bent position, the erector spina and gluteals are engaged isometrically. To a lesser extent, the quadriceps also serve the same function.


What we typically find when performing big compound or ‘multi-joint’ exercises is that a vast range of muscle groups are recruited to perform and assist the lift. Anita Bean tells us that compound lifts ‘cause [the] greatest stimulation of the muscle fibres’ and that they should ‘form the basis of strength- and mass-building programmes,’ (The Complete Guide To Strength Training).


Alternative variations of the barbell row include:


Cable rows

Key technique points

  • The start position is the same as the Romanian deadlift.

  • Keeping a slight bend at the knee, hinge forward at the hips until the barbell (or dumbbells) is about level with the knee cap.

  • Your back is flat and you are looking forward.

  • Under control, row the bar to the stomach – somewhere between your navel and nips.

  • Pause at the peak contraction point, giving a little ‘squeeeeze’, before lowering the bar.

  • Repeat for the desired number of reps.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Posterior chain exercises #6: Lat pulldown

A woman performing posterior chain exercises.

Posterior chain muscles activated: Latissimus dorsi, lower sections of the trapezius

The lat pull-down featured prominently in Bruce Lee’s bodybuilding routines. According to his training biographer, John Little, Lee selected the exercise because it specifically targets the latissimus dorsi muscle and helps to enhance strength in the mid-section of the back (The Art of Expressing The Human Body).


Arnold Schwarzenegger identifies lat pull-downs as a superlative exercise for widening the upper lats. He goes on to say that ‘this exercise allows you to do Chins with less than your total body weight.’


It’s this feature that makes the pull-down an ideal alternative for those that are not yet strong enough to perform pull-ups. With lat pull-downs, you ‘can do a lot of extra reps for the upper back if you feel you need more work in that area,’ (The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding).


Alternative variations of the lat pull-down include:


Single-arm dumbbell rows
Single-arm cable rows
Seated cable row

Key technique points

  • First, consider the setup of the pull-down machine. The leg supports should be set so that they provide a resistance point that you can use to prevent yourself from being pulled up off the seat. Also, the resistance selected should be commensurate with your current level of strength.

  • Take a wide arm grasp of the bar, palms pronated, ensuring that your hands are spaced evenly.

  • Prior to performing the exercise, it’s good practice to check your posture and position. Your head is directly under the bar and your legs are firmly wedged under the supports.

  • When you’re ready, smoothly pull the bar down to your chin.

  • As you do so, lean back slightly so that the bar clears your noggin.

  • The elbows should point perpendicularly to the body. If the elbows begin closing together during the lift, this suggests that you have elected a resistance that exceeds the strength capacity of your lats and thus it should be reduced.

  • Remember, quality always takes precedence over quantity.

  • When the bar is under the chin, pause at peak contraction before extending the arms.

Posterior chain exercises #7: Pull ups

A man performing posterior chain exercises.

Posterior chain muscles activated: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius

The pull-up is used widely in the military to assess the upper body strength of recruits. Though seemingly simple, many people find the pull-up problematic. It requires considerable strength to heave your entire body weight above that bar.


But, for those that persevere and master this exercise, the rewards far outweigh the effort. In addition to being able to lift your full body weight, something few can do, you’ll also develop strength in the upper links of the posterior chain.


The benefits don’t stop there. Pull-ups also improve strength in your forearms and biceps as well as many minor muscles in the back – teres minor and major, rhomboids, and infraspinatus.


That’s all well and good but what if I can’t do pull-ups? The author of The Strength & Conditioning Bible provides us with some helpful pull-up alternatives and modifications. This exercise can be made ‘easier by using an assisted chin-up machine or heavy-duty superbands.’


We are advised to use these alternatives as opposed to performing partial repetitions because ‘it is important that you develop strength through the full ROM.’


Other pull-up alternatives include:


Performing only the eccentric phase of the exercise (lowering the body down)
Using the assistance of a spotter

Key technique points

  • Hanging from a stable pull-up bar, your hands are pronated (palms facing away) and spaced between one and one and a half shoulder-widths apart.

  • In the military, the start of the pull-up is called the ‘dead hang’ as the arms are perfectly straight, and the body dangles lifelessly from the bar.

  • Looking up in the direction of travel, heave your chin over the bar. Remember, when performing a proper pull-up, we are prohibited from kipping.

  • Pause momentarily before lowering under control back to the dead hang.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Posterior chain exercises #8: Shrugs

A woman performing posterior chain exercises.

Posterior chain muscles activated: Trapezius


The barbell shrug is an isolation exercise as it only involves one joint. (Though not the shoulder joint but the sternoclavicular joint which is the ‘linkage between the clavicle (collarbone) and sternum (breastbone)’ (American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons).


Because it’s an isolation exercise, shrugs are comparatively narrow focused engaging just the upper section of the trapezius. However, as Schwarzenegger observes, if performed with a substantial resistance, shrugs thicken the traps and help to carve that ‘chiselled-out-of-granite’ look.


Alternative variations of the barbell shrug include:


Shrugging with different resistance equipment such as dumbbells, kettlebells, cables, machines, and resistance bands
Farmer’s walk

Key technique points

  • The start position of the shrug sees you in the upright position, a barbell resting against your upper thighs.

  • Your hands are spaced evenly and shoulder-width along the bar.

  • The knees are ‘soft’ and your spinal erectors and core are actively engaged.

  • To execute a shrug simply raise your shoulders to your ears.

  • Remember, we are not rolling but raising our shoulders. Rolling has been shown to aggravate the rotator cuff and with heavy loads and persistent lifting, can lead to inflammation.


Posterior chain exercises #9: Power clean

A woman performing a posterior chain exercise - she's doing a power clean..

Posterior chain muscles activated: hamstrings, gluteals, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, trapezius.


So far, we’ve reviewed a broad range of posterior chain exercises that target two to three links. These exercises are ideal for isolating single muscles or short segments. Bundling them together into a posterior chain workout would enable you to develop all five muscle groups.


Our final exercise, however, single-handedly engages the entire posterior chain. The power clean is a formidable powerlifting movement that builds superior strength in the hamstrings, glutes, and lower and mid sections of the back.


Furthermore, because it’s a maximal stimulation exercise that requires the application of multiple components of fitness, the power clean also enhances whole-body strength and conditioning. Not convinced? Once you’ve mastered the basic techniques outlined below, pit yourself against a 10-minute power-clean AMRAP (as many reps as possible).


Alternative variations of the power clean include:


Dumbbell clean
The amalgamation of the deadlift and hang clean – but with a distinct pause separating the transition phase

Key technique points

  • Adopting a neutral stance, the barbell is touching your shins.

  • Bending at the knees and hips, grasp the bar taking a slighter wider than shoulder-width hand position.

  • Before initiating the exercise, tighten the core, flatten the back, and don’t forget to look forward.

  • Take the strain prior to executing the first phase of the exercise – which is simply a deadlift.

  • However, you are trying to pull the bar onto your upper thighs so that you can apply an explosive hip extension to assist the lift. (If you’ve ever watched a powerlifter perform this exercise, you’ll recall that they literally physically push or hit the bar up off their thighs.)

  • In conjunction with the hip extension, you are using lat, trap, and rear deltoid strength to heave the bar into the front rack position.

  • Advanced technique. As the bar continues its upward trajectory from the thigh thrust, you can take a shallow dip at the knees and drop under the bar thus ‘catching’ it in the front rack. This technique is typically employed when going heavy. But you’d be wise to practice it with a light bar first.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


 

Conclusion

Once you’ve mastered the posterior chain exercises, you’ll no doubt want to put them into practice. There are hundreds of ways that you could do this.


For beginners, it would be best to integrate one or two of the exercises into your routine to start with. As your confidence and technical proficiency develop, you could get a bit more adventurous by forming posterior chain circuits and strength complexes.


Intermediate and advanced trainers will no doubt want to jump straight into the deep end. Below you’ll find links to a diverse range of workouts which will provide you with the opportunity to put your fitness prowess to the test.



 

If you need more training ideas, get a copy of the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 2.

This blog of the best posterior chain exercises concludes with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 3.

 

This article of the best posterior chain exercises concludes with the author bio. It's me again, Adam! I hope you are well and enjoying our content.

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