The posterior chain is one of the terms that you will likely hear tossed around at the gym or when you are reading up on strength training.
After all, posterior chain muscles are some of the most important muscles to train in the body, yet they are frequently overlooked when beginners start strength training.
But what are the posterior chain muscles? What are the best posterior chain exercises? How do you structure a posterior chain workout to strengthen your posterior chain muscles?
In this article, we will discuss the location and function of the posterior chain muscles and provide a complete posterior chain workout with step-by-step instructions for the following posterior chain exercises:
- Barbell Romanian Deadlifts
- Pendlay Rows
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
- Kettlebell Swings
- Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
- Rack Pulls
- Hip Thrusts
- Glute-Ham Raises
- Barbell Bent-Over Row
Let’s dive in!
What Are the Muscles of the Posterior Chain?
The posterior chain refers to the muscles that run along the backside of the body, beginning in the lower back and extending down to your feet.
Therefore, the posterior chain muscles include the following:
- Erector spinae
The reason that these muscles are referred to as the “posterior chain muscles“ is that they are on the backside of your body, which in anatomical terms is referred to as the posterior, and the muscles function as a sequential unit in a chain-like fashion.
How to Strengthen Your Posterior Chain Muscles
The best posterior chain workouts not only target each of the posterior chain muscles individually with isolation exercises but also involve functional movements that work the entire posterior chain as a unit.
Your fitness level and primary training goals will largely dictate your ideal programming in terms of the reps, sets, and loads that you should be using in posterior chain workouts.
For strength gains, aim for 2-6 reps, 3-5 sets, and at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load. The fewer reps you perform, the closer to 100% of your 1RM you should strive for.
The recommendations for hypertrophy (muscle growth) are to perform three sets of each exercise, using loads that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.
The Ultimate Posterior Chain Workout
Here are some of the best posterior chain exercises to add to your leg day workouts:
#1: Barbell Romanian Deadlifts
This is a must-have exercise in your posterior chain workouts, as it trains all the posterior chain muscles to work together as a functional unit.
Here are the steps for performing this posterior chain exercise:
- Set the barbell so that it is at mid-shin height, with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping your back straight, hinge at your hips and grip the bar with your palms facing down.
- Unrack the bar as you brace your core. Keeping your chest up and shoulders down, press through your heels, using your glutes and hamstrings to pull your body upright into a standing position.
- Keeping your core tight and back straight, hinge at the hips to lower the bar back down to lower shin/ankle level.
#2: Pendlay Rows
The Pendlay row is one of the best posterior chain exercises because it requires hinging from the hips and activating your entire posterior chain in a very explosive and powerful manner.
Because the barbell rests on the floor in between reps, you not only maximize the stretch and range of motion in the posterior chain muscles, but you also have to lift the weight from a dead stop position, which is a great way to build posterior chain power.
Additionally, even though the Pendlay row is less common than the bent-over barbell row, it actually tends to be better for your lower back because the barbell rests on the floor between reps.
Here are the steps for this posterior chain strengthening exercise:
- Set up as if you are going to do a barbell deadlift.
- Perform a hip hinge to reach down and grab the barbell with your hands shoulder-width apart and your palms facing the floor.
- Exclusively press through your heels as you bend your elbows, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and bring your chest up as you pull the barbell up towards your sternum.
- Slowly return the barbell all the way to the floor by eccentrically loading your posterior chain muscles.
- Repeat for 6-12 reps depending on your fitness level, training goals, and relative load used.
#3: Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
Single-leg Romanian deadlifts are one of the best exercises for strengthening your posterior chain muscles, while also challenging your balance, requiring hip, ankle, and core stability.
Here are the steps:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, chest up and proud, shoulders retracted, arms at your side, and a kettlebell in your right hand.
- Bring your left arm out to your side for balance and engage your core and glutes.
- Bend your left knee (the one on your standing/support leg) about 20 degrees to activate your hamstrings and glutes while you lift your right leg off the floor.
- Contract your glutes and hinge from your hips to bring your torso towards the floor, keeping your gaze on the floor to prevent hyperextending your neck. Keep your back straight. You do not want to be rounding your back or bending from your back; the hinging should all come from your hips. Your right leg should extend behind you as a counterbalance.
- Reach the kettlebell in your right hand down towards your left foot until you feel enough of a stretch in the hamstrings of your supporting leg.
- Engage your core and glutes to press through your heel to come back up, extending your hips until they are fully locked out. If you need to regain your balance, you can touch your right foot back down to the floor; otherwise, keep it lifted and move into your next rep.
#4: Kettlebell Swings
According to a research study conducted by ACE Fitness, kettlebell swings are one of the most effective hamstring exercises.
Studies have also found that the kettlebell swing exercise is a highly effective movement for improving functional strength and decreasing the risk of low back pain.
For these reasons, it’s a great exercise to add to your posterior chain strength training workouts.
Here are the steps to perform this dynamic exercise:
- Stand upright with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, gripping the horn of a moderately-heavy kettlebell with both hands. Your arms should be fully extended so the kettlebell is hanging down in front of your body.
- Keep your heels firmly planted but allow a gentle bend in your knees.
- Engage your core and glutes as you press through your heels and explode through your hips to drive the kettlebell upward until it’s roughly chest height and your arms are fully extended out in front of you.
- Control the kettlebell as it descends, loading your glutes and hamstrings. The kettlebell should swing back through the space between your legs somewhat.
- At the end of the arc of the swing, snap your hips forward again to drive the kettlebell back up to chest height.
- Complete 12-20 reps.
#5: Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
This is a great posterior chain stability ball exercise. It primarily strengthens your hamstrings and glutes, but it also engages your abs and hip flexors.
Extending the range of motion also helps strengthen your calves.
Here are the steps for this hamstring exercise:
- Lie on your back with your legs straight and your heels up on a stability ball. Place your arms at your sides with your palms down on the mat.
- Engage your abs and glutes to lift your hips up so that your body is in a straight line from your heels to your head. Your shoulder blades should be down on your mat.
- Engage your hamstrings and glutes, and press your heels into the ball as you bend your knees to bring the ball towards your butt.
- You can roll even further so that you press your toes into the ball and allow your heels to come up. This activates your calves.
- Return to the starting position. Move slowly and with control.
- Complete 15 reps per set.
#6: Rack Pulls
The iconic posterior chain exercise is the deadlift, and the rack pull is a variation on the deadlift that focuses on a smaller range of motion to target glute muscle lockout strength.
Because of the reduced range of motion, you can lift heavier weights, which can help increase mass and strength in your glutes.
The rack pull exercise range of motion is also easier on your spine than a conventional deadlift because you aren’t moving as far, which makes it easier to maintain a proper neutral spine throughout the range of motion.
For this reason, this is also a great exercise to include in posterior chain workouts for beginners because you can still make impressive gains in size and strength without requiring such a technique-driven exercise.
Here are the steps to perform this posterior chain exercise:
- Place the barbell at a level in the squat rack that is just above or below your knees.
- Face the barbell with a standard deadlift stance.
- Keeping your core tight and engaging your glutes, hinge down to grip the barbell, placing your hands shoulder-width apart and palms facing the floor.
- Retract your shoulder blades, squeezing your upper back while keeping your chest up and shoulders down.
- Press exclusively through your heels as you contract your glutes and pull the barbell all the way up until you have reached the lockout position.
- As slowly as possible, hinge at your hips and return the barbell to the starting level before performing the next rep. You should not re-rack the weight until you are done with your entire set.
#7: Hip Thrusts
One of the best posterior chain exercises to target the glutes is the hip thrust.
Because your hips are elevated up on a weight bench, you can achieve a greater range of motion than with a glute bridge.
In fact, studies have found that the hip thrust can be more effective than squats at building strength in the glutes and more effective than deadlifts for activating the glutes.
The glutes tend to be relatively weak in the posterior chain, requiring greater reliance on the lower back muscles and hamstrings even though the glutes are larger and more powerful muscles.
Therefore, performing glute isolation exercises can help improve your ability to properly activate your muscles while also increasing the strength and size of your glutes.
Here are the steps to perform a hip thrust:
- Rest your shoulder blades and upper back on the long side of a weight bench.
- Bend your knees 90 degrees and place your feet flat on the floor hip-width apart.
- Rest a barbell along the crease of your hips. You can use a towel underneath for comfort.
- Squeeze your glutes and press through your heels to raise your hips up to a tabletop position so that your body is in a bridge. Your thighs should be parallel to the ground, and your shins should be vertical at the top of the rep.
- Pause at the top of the movement and squeeze your glutes into a full lockout.
- Slowly lower your hips back down, allowing your knees to travel naturally back inward towards your body.
#8: Glute-Ham Raises
The glute-ham raise is a great bodyweight exercise for the posterior chain, and it helps develop eccentric strength in your hamstrings.
As you get stronger, you can add weight plates or chains for posterior chain hypertrophy workouts.
Here are the steps for this posterior chain exercise:
- Secure your feet and then rest your quads in the middle of the glute-ham raise machine pad. Cross your arms over your chest.
- Bend your knees 90 degrees, and make sure to keep the rest of your body completely straight.
- Press your toes into the pad as you straighten your legs.
- Hinge at your hips to slowly lower your torso until your chest is parallel to the ground.
- Squeeze your hamstrings and glutes to lift your body back up to the starting position.
#9: Barbell Bent-Over Row
This classic exercise strengthens your lats, posterior deltoids, traps, and rhomboids. It’s also a great exercise for the upper posterior chain muscles.
Because you have to hold an isometric hip hinge position throughout the duration of the lift, the bent-over row improves the strength and endurance in your lower back extensors.
Here are the steps:
- Place the loaded barbell in front of your feet with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Hinge at your hips, keeping your core and glutes tight to maintain a flat and neutral spine.
- Reach down and grab the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart and palms facing the floor.
- Pull the weight up to your stomach by bending your elbows and retracting your shoulders, maintaining the hinge at your hips throughout the exercise.
- Slowly lower the weight back down until your elbows are fully extended.
For tips to maximize your muscle gains, check out our muscle-building guide here.