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Posterior Chain Muscles & Best Exercises

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

A woman performing a deadlift which aims to demonstrate the action of the posterior chain muscles.

The posterior chain is comprised of five muscles. In ascending order, these muscles include the hamstring, gluteas, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, and trapezius.


This long chain of muscles is involved in most athletic and sporting activities. Rugby players and Olympic rowers rely heavily on the posterior chain to perform effectively in their respective disciplines.


In addition, the posterior chain supports many functional and compound exercises. For example, all classic kettlebell exercises and powerlifting movements – deadlifts, squats, snatches – involve multiple links of the chain. But, as our other article shows, there are many more posterior chain exercises.


But the posterior chain muscles aren’t just an integral part of sports and exercise performance. Strengthening each link of the chain can have wider benefits beyond the gym or playing field.


Some of those benefits include improved postural alignment and reduced injury risk. Furthermore, forging a robust chain can make everyday activities less strenuous. Those that are unfamiliar with this group of muscles will no doubt be surprised by just how much we rely

on them.


Essential reading: Strength Training Anatomy

Posterior chain muscles

From this article, you will receive a comprehensive insight into the primary posterior chain muscles. The muscles have been organised into an ascending order.


In addition, the actions of each muscle have been outlined. Also, a list of best exercises accompanies each link of the chain. This way you’ll how to target and strengthen specific muscles.


But before we review the posterior chain muscles, their actions and specific exercises, below you’ll find three posterior chain FAQs.


Essential reading: The Concise Book of Muscles

What is the posterior chain?

The posterior chain refers to a group of muscles that forms an interconnected link running the length of the back of the body. In ascending order, these muscles include:



What are the benefits of improving posterior chain strength

Because the posterior chain is actively involved in a broad range of sports and exercises, improving posterior chain strength can confer many benefits. In a sporting context, such as competitive rowing, increasing the strength of all links of the posterior chain will enhance performance.


The action of rowing primarily involves the mid to upper segments of the posterior chain – glutes, erector spinae, lats and traps. Thus, developing the strength of these muscles will enable the rower to apply more force through all phases of the stroke. This will likely translate to improved row times.


From the perspective of the person concerned with physical performance, improving posterior chain strength can augment exercise effectiveness. Those with a strong posterior chain will be able to apply more force when performing many compound exercises.


Generally speaking, improving posterior chain strength can make everyday tasks easier. In addition, increasing the robustness of the posterior chain can stabilise posture when sitting, walking, and running.



What are the best exercises for posterior chain

Arguably there is no ‘best exercise’ for engaging the posterior chain. However, some exercises simultaneously activate multiple links of the chain and then some exercises isolate individual segments.


The ‘desired training effect’ – i.e., your fitness goal – should determine the exercises that you select for your workouts. For example, if your fitness goal is to target an underdeveloped muscle in the posterior chain, say your lats, you may select isolation exercises such as single-arm dumbbell rows or lat pull-downs.


On the other hand, if your goal is to enhance your performance in a specific sporting discipline, such as rowing, you will want to develop multiple links of the posterior chain. To achieve this training effect more efficiently, you would select large compound exercises – such as squats, deadlifts, and power cleans. These exercises not only closely reflect the action of rowing, but they also engage two or more posterior chain muscles.


 

Posterior chain muscle link #1: Hamstrings

This image shows the anatomy of the posterior chain muscles hamstrings.

The hamstrings are the first (or lowest) link in the posterior chain. They are comprised of three muscles: semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris (Concise Book of Muscles).


Though often overlooked in training and development plans, the hamstring muscle is instrumental in supporting and driving a multitude of different movements.


Strong hammies help when performing powerlifting exercises such as deadlifts and squats. In addition, they also assist in everyday (mundane) activities like walking, climbing stairs, and getting on and off the toilet.


Hamstring in action

  • Flex the knee joint

  • Extend the knee joint

  • Semimembranosus and semitendinosus medially rotate (turn in) the lower leg when the knee is flexed

  • Biceps femoris laterally rotates (turns out) the lower leg when the knee is flexed


Best exercises that engage the hamstrings

  • Deadlifts (especially the stiff-leg and Romanian variations)

  • Squats

  • Leg curl machine

  • Good mornings


Essential equipment: The best Olympic Barbell by a mile

Posterior chain muscle link #2: Gluteals

This image shows the anatomy of the posterior chain muscles gluteals.

The gluteals are comprised of three separate muscles that include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus (Complete Guide to Strength Training). Together they form the bulk of the buttock.


‘The gluteus maximus,’ the largest part of the gluteals, ‘is the most coarsely fibred and heaviest muscle in the body’ (The Concise Book of Muscles). Thus, it could be argued, the ‘glutes’ (colloquially called) form the largest link in the posterior chain.


All major sports, including combat sports, and Olympic/powerlifting, in some way or another, involve the glutes.


Glutes in action

  • Extends and laterally rotates the hip joint

  • Assists trunk extension

  • Is involved in adducting the hip joint

  • Stabilises posture when walking and running

  • Is the primary driver of aerobic exercises, especially running and cycling


Best exercises for developing the glutes

  • Deadlifts (all variations – stiff-leg, sumo, standard)

  • Squats (all variations – sumo, sissy, standard)

  • Clean phase of the clean and press


Related: Engage your posterior chain with this Barbell Routine

Posterior chain muscle link #3: Erector spinae

This image shows the anatomy of the posterior chain muscles erector spinae.

The erector spinae is a long latticework of interconnected muscles collectively referred to as the spinal erectors. Also called sacrospinalis, the erector spinae is comprised of the ‘three sets of muscles organised in parallel columns. From lateral to medial, they are: iliocostalis, longissimus and spinalis,’ (Concise Book of Muscles).


In conjunction with the gluteals, the spinal erectors support, assist, and drive a myriad of movements. From stabilising postural alignment when seated to facilitating the execution of a powerlifting exercise, this often overlooked group of muscles play a prominent part.


Spinal erectors in action

  • Extends and laterally flexes the torso (that is, bending backwards and sideways)

  • Help maintain ‘correct curvature of spine in the erect and sitting positions,’ (Concise Book of Muscles)

  • Stabilises the vertebral column when walking and running


Best exercises for developing the erectors

  • Deadlifts (all variations – stiff-leg, sumo, standard)

  • Squats (all variations – sumo, sissy, standard)

  • Clean phase of the clean and press

  • Good mornings

  • Back extensions

  • Side bends


Related: Pit your posterior chain against this Barbell Complex

Posterior chain muscle link #4: Latissimus dorsi

This image shows the anatomy of the posterior chain muscles latissimus dorsi.

The latissimus dorsi (informally referred to as ‘lats’ or more informally still ‘wings’) is an intermediary link in the posterior chain. This large upper-body muscle facilitates a wide range of functions.


For example, most lifting and hoisting movements involve the lats. This is especially so when the action consists of pulling the trunk up to the fixed arms. Movements that primarily make use of that action include climbing and pull-ups.


In addition, the lats also assist with transition phases when executing such exercises as power cleans and snatches – that is, taking the bar from the hips into the front rack position or above the head.


Lats in action

  • Extends the arm when flexed

  • Adducts and medially rotates the humerus

  • Assist in ‘forced inspiration, by raising the lower ribs’ (Concise Book of Muscles)


Best exercises for developing the lats

  • Bent-over row

  • Reverse cable flys

  • Wide arm pull-ups

  • Rope climbing

  • Lat pull-downs

  • Pull-overs


Related: Enhance whole-body strength this Stronglifts 5x5 Workout

Posterior chain muscle link #5: Trapezius

This image shows the anatomy of the posterior chain muscles trapezius.

The trapezius is the final link of the posterior chain. From the hamstrings, which insert way down on the inside of the tibia and fibula (back of the knee), the trapezius takes us up to the base of the skull, which is the peak of its origin point.


Typically, the trapezius is identified as the bulges that straddle either side of the neck. However, this is only the tip of the trapezium. When viewed as a whole, the traps span a sizable segment of the spine – origin: base of the scull and all thoracic vertebrae.


As well as being desirable for the dual reason of aesthetic appeal and a sign of superior strength, the trapezius muscle is a major player in a plethora of upper body movements.


Traps in action

  • Assist shoulder griddle elevation (touching your ears with your shoulders)

  • Stabilise the shoulder griddle when performing such exercises as the Farmer’s walk

  • Retract, depress, and rotate the scapula


Best exercises for developing the trapezius

  • Shrugs

  • Shoulder press

  • Dips

  • Pull-ups

  • Farmer’s walk (isometrically engages the traps)

  • Face pulls

  • Lateral dumbbell raises


 

The final link

This article aimed to provide you with a concise overview of the primary posterior chain muscles. Not satisfied with producing a simple list, each link in the chain features a review of its key characteristics.


In addition, a comprehensive outline of the best exercises has been provided. The thought behind this was to enable you to target specific posterior chain muscles in your workouts.


So, if we’ve done our job, you should now possess a comprehension of the following points:


  • What the posterior chain is

  • The primary muscles that comprise the posterior chain

  • An understanding of the action of those muscles

  • An insight into a range of best exercises for each link in the chain


 

Improve whole-body fitness with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 2.

This blog on the posterior chain muscles concludes with the hungry4fitness book of circuits and workouts volume 2.

 

The article outlining the main posterior chain muscles concludes with the author bio.

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