You may have heard of a little something called the “back chain.” It’s one of those phrases trainers love to toss around — along with “activate your core” and “just 10 more seconds.” But what exactly is the back chain and why do trainers and coaches keep waxing poetic about it like it’s the best thing since coconut oil or black leggings?
We asked experts for the full rundown on the back chain. Here, they share what it is, why it’s so important, and what you can do to strengthen your back chain (because, after this, you’ll definitely want to).
What Is the Back Chain?
“The back chain refers to all the muscles on the backside of the body from the back of your head all the way down to your heels,” says certified strength and conditioning coach Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., founder of Training2XL. “That includes your hamstrings, glutes, calves, lats, rotator cuff muscles, and erector spinae muscles.”
The back chain is a total powerhouse: “It includes some of the biggest and strongest muscles in your entire body” says Karena Dawn, certified personal trainer, nutrition coach, and cofounder of Tone It Up. The muscles in the back chain play a huge role in everyday activities, such as picking something up off the ground, sitting down and standing back up, or jumping.
Perhaps most importantly, “a strong back chain helps reduce your chance of injury and protect your knees and back,” says Katrina Scott, certified personal trainer, nutrition coach, and the other cofounder of Tone It Up.
Don’t get us wrong: It’s important to have a strong front chain (all the muscles on the front side of the body — your chest, core, quads, etc.) too. However, “today’s lifestyle of sitting lend itself towards a front chain-dominant body,” explains celebrity trainer and nutritionist Harley Pasternak. “Most popular forms of exercise today like running, yoga, boxing, and walking forward, continue to strengthen the front muscles.” (P.S. Harley is one of the super-knowledgeable trainers you should definitely follow on Instagram.)
The result? A muscular imbalance between your front and back chains. What that means: Risk of injury and bad posture, to name a few. (No, thanks.) That’s why it’s about time that we appreciate what a strong back chain can do to keep us strong, healthy, and injury-free in both sports and life.
Why a Strong Back Chain Is So Important
1. Enhance posture.
A weak back chain can lead to slouching. “Sitting all the time can lead to a tight chest, and without strong back muscles to pull back your shoulder blades and keep you upright, you end up looking permanently hunched over,” says Luciani.
By enhancing the muscles along the back of your body, you can develop better posture and even cultivate a sense of physical confidence,” states Pasternak, who frequently incorporates exercises targeting the posterior chain with his celebrity clients before they make their red carpet appearances.
Great news: Strengthening your back can aid in improving your slouch and alleviating the symptoms associated with tech neck. (Don’t have any equipment? Give this weight-free workout focused on correcting posture a try instead.)
2. Diminish the risk of injuries.
“When there is an imbalance between the strength and size of the quadriceps and hamstrings, the knee becomes unstable, making you more susceptible to lower-body injuries like ACL tears,” explains Luciani. Female athletes involved in activities that involve jumping and pivoting, such as soccer, rugby, and gymnastics, are four to six times more likely to tear their ACLs compared to their male counterparts participating in the same sports. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure this is not the case.
Good news: “Strengthening your posterior chain to match the strength of your anterior chain can reduce the risk of ACL tears and other lower-body injuries by providing stability to the knee,” she advises. (If you already have knee issues, consider these glute exercises.)
3. Enhance running speed.
Having stronger hamstrings and glutes translates to more powerful legs, leading to faster running speeds. Furthermore, “if you are a runner, it is essential to fortify your posterior chain to support the health of your ankle, knee, and hip joints and prevent injury,” adds Luciani.
4. Increase lifting capacity.
Whether you are an Olympic weightlifter, a CrossFitter, or simply enjoy working with barbells, a strong posterior can enhance all your lifts. “In CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting, movements like the snatch and the clean require substantial power. Strengthening your hamstrings will make you more explosive in executing those movements,” elucidates Luciani. (By the way, here’s what occurs when women engage in heavy-weight lifting.)
5. Boost metabolism.
In general, building muscle can heighten your metabolism. Why? Your muscle mass largely influences your resting metabolic rate, which is the number of calories you burn while at rest. (Here’s all the scientific explanation as to why muscle aids in burning fat and calories.) Considering that the posterior chain encompasses significant muscle groups like the glutes and hamstrings, it provides an ideal opportunity for muscle development, asserts Wilson.
Should You Strengthen Your Posterior Chain?
How can you determine if your posterior chain is weak? To be honest, if you’re reading this, chances are you could benefit from strengthening your posterior chain. However, here’s a quick test: If you have a feeble posterior chain, you can actually observe it by examining your side profile in the mirror, says Luciani. Take a moment to evaluate your posture: Are you hunched forward? Is your buttocks lacking shape? Do your quadriceps protrude while your hamstrings appear flat? If the answer is yes, it’s time to enhance your posterior chain.
Due to the fact that the posterior chain comprises numerous muscle groups, simply adding a “posterior chain day” to your workout routine won’t suffice. Instead, intelligent training involves incorporating exercises that target different parts of the posterior chain throughout the week. (Here’s how to devise a perfectly balanced week of workouts.)
The Finest Posterior Chain Exercises
Back squats, deadlifts, lunges, kettlebell swings, glute bridges, calf raises, bent over rows, and pull-ups are your closest pals, according to certified personal trainer Alonzo Wilson, founder of Tone House, a group training studio in New York City.
However, before you begin incorporating these movements into your routine, a quick note: Form is crucial. For instance, performing a deadlift incorrectly can have the opposite effect of what you intend (injury). So before you load up the barbell, familiarize yourself with the proper form for a conventional dumbbell deadlift, and then experiment with these three variations of the deadlift.
And don’t neglect your lats! Give this beginner lat workout a try, attempt these six exercises for building your back, or enhance your pulling strength by attempting these pull-up progressions.
While it may be tempting to flex your biceps or admire your abs in the gym mirror, the next time you check your reflection, turn around and take a look at your posterior chain. Then, go forth and put in the effort to strengthen it — you won’t regret it. In fact, soon enough, you’ll be admiring how impressive your backside looks in your new athletic shorts.
“A lot of people in the gym completely neglect their posterior chain.”
But after they do so, they realize the extent to which it aids them in engaging in various other endeavors that bring them pleasure and participating in athletic pursuits,” Dawn asserts.