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The Art of Movement Edition 64: Why Your Weak Link Is Your Posterior Chain

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Edition 64: The Weak Link Is The Posterior Chain


I’ve seen it 100 times. I’m introducing deadlifting to a new gym member (starting very light of course), and after a thorough demonstration and some detail around how the movement should look, I ask them to give me 5-10 repetitions so I can take a look at their form and get a feel for how they choose to execute the movement. After each set I ask where they are feeling the most work, the most muscle activity, or any muscle ‘stress’ - and often it’s always the same culprit.


The lower back.


Is this because they aren’t keeping their back straight? Not necessarily. Is it because they have a weak lower back? Not necessarily. Is it because they aren’t strong enough to lift that weight? Almost always not the case. The aspect we have to consider at this point is how well the person is utilising the entire strength of the body in synergy, more specifically the back of the body - which we refer to as the posterior chain.


The ‘posterior chain’ refers to a group of muscles including the calves, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and upper back. These muscles play a crucial role in our overall physical health due to their significant role in our daily movements, and big heavy movements like picking something up from the floor. They help us stand upright, walk, run, and jump. But unfortunately, most people in society have weaknesses throughout their posterior chain. The typical sedentary lifestyle, long hours of sitting, and lack of physical activity contributes to weakened posterior muscles and poor posture, leading to excessive muscle imbalances and increased risk of injury.


What we are seeing when my gym person experiences this excessive load through their lumbar spine, is often a breakdown in a few things. Firstly, bracing - bracing of the core muscles (deep and superficial), bracing of the stabilisers of the hip and the shoulder and the spine. A breakdown in our ability to brace correctly when deadlifting often impacts the lower back, causing it to tolerate forces we should be absorbing elsewhere. Secondly, we may be seeing a breakdown in the basic posterior strength to simply maintain posture while holding the bar. For example, if our upper back and shoulders lack strength, the bar sitting in front of our centre of mass will pull the shoulders forwards into a rounded position.



Finally, we may also see a breakdown in the previous whole body synergy I mentioned earlier - a classic example of this is when the person begins trying to pull the bar upwards with their arms (elbows beginning to flex), indicating that they are emphasising all of their lifting energy through their upper back and shoulders, while the lower body contributes very little. It is not that they aren’t strong enough, they just aren’t using their body correctly by creating a synergistic pulling effort with all of the big muscles of the posterior chain - hamstrings, glutes, erectors etc.


Having a weakness in any of the regions throughout the posterior chain can affect the strength of the entire chain. I like the analogy of the train carriage hooks, which work together to hold an extremely large collective force - our body is the same and we cannot afford to have a weak link in our posterior chain. A weak link will limit the strength and integrity of the entire chain, making it vulnerable to breakage when we well and truly test it.



This chain of strength gives us a base of support for the spine and helps us to maintain proper alignment. Weakness in these muscles can lead to a rounded back, which in turn leads to pressure on the spine, and this can cause severe pain and injury over time. Meanwhile, committing to developing strong glutes and hamstrings is one of the best life choices you can make. You will be bulletproofing against basic injuries, and developing essential strength for proper movement mechanics, especially during activities that involve long walking, climbing, jumping or sprinting. The feeling of doing these activities with the confidence that your body won’t let you down should never be undervalued.


To maintain a healthy posterior chain, it is essential to incorporate exercises that target each muscle group into your training routine. Regular strength training will help to improve muscle strength and function. Focusing on the posterior chain can also help to improve overall posture, balance, and movement mechanics, reducing the risk of injury and enhancing overall physical performance. Some of my personal favourites are:

  • Deadlift

  • Pull-ups / Chin-ups

  • Lat pull down

  • Barbell bent over row

  • Seated row

  • Single arm row

  • Reverse flye

  • Back extension

In addition to strength training, it is also crucial to build mobility, stretching, and activation exercises into your routine to keep the posterior chain healthy. For example, foam rolling and dynamic stretching can help to improve mobility in the hips and hamstrings, while activation exercises like glute bridges and clamshells can help to improve muscle activation and prevent imbalances. Incorporating regular mobility and stretching exercises into your routine can also help to reduce the risk of injury and improve overall flexibility.


In summary, the posterior chain is a crucial aspect of physical health, and neglecting these muscles can lead to imbalances, poor posture, and an increased risk of injury. Incorporating strength exercises that target the calves, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and upper back, as well as mobility, stretching, and activation exercises, can help to keep these muscles healthy for life.


“Baby got back” - Sir Mix A-Lot


Movement of the Week: Back Squat




5 x 5 reps (heavy, with 3 min recoveries)


That’s all for this week! Check out my Patreon channel for video episodes, on-demand workouts, training programmes, training guidance/advice and more!


Thank you,

Gabriel

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