Posterior Chain Training For Athletic Conditioning

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Every athlete and fitness junkie spends their life searching for the magic bullet in training.

It's like walking to the end of the rainbow in search of the pot of gold. Deep down you know you're never going to find it, and never be 100% satisfied with progress but soon, the journey goes on.

However, you probably have more chance of hooking up with a little green man guarding the untold riches at the end of the rainbow than of finding someone who spends enough time working on their glutes.

Call them what you want, the butt muscles are without doubt the single most important muscles for pretty much every human especially those engaged in sports which involve full body movements requiring any kind of strength or power.

Unfortunately, most athletes still have a preoccupation with their quads.

While most compound movements involving the legs will strengthen the glutes as well to a certain degree, the focus is usually on what training effect it is having on the legs.

Before we look at how to improve glute function, we need to figure out what the posterior chain is and why the glutes so important.

The posterior chain can be simplified as the hamstrings, glutes and back muscles. Dysfunction in, or dominance of, one group of muscle will affect the function of the others.

Because modern society spends far too much time sitting down leading to tight hip flexors and hamstrings, it is usually the glutes which 'switch off' leading to overactive lower back muscles and extremely back pain.

Let us now consider the importance of the glutes to sports performance.

Power in most cases comes from the ability to perform 'triple extension' with well directed force. In other words, you are able to coordinate extension (straightening of the joint) at your ankles, knees and hips simultaneously. This can be seen best when watching Olympic lifting, 100m sprinters and high jumpers.

Your glutes are the largest muscle in your body, so if they are not firing on all cylinders, you're not reaching your power potential and will not be jumping or running as high or fast as you could be.

In a fighting context, driving powerful knees into the sternum of your opponent in Muay Thai can only be performed perfectly by rapidly rising on to the ball of your standing foot, straightening of the standing knee and thrust of the hips using the glutes. Yes these exercises can be performed without perfect glute function but nobody wants sub-optimum performance.

In a running context, whether sprinting or at lower intensity for longer duration, if you are restricted to 80-90% extension of the hips, the inability to maximize stride length will result in a greater number of strides required over a given distance. Early fatigue is the result, which will clearly affect performance.

Injury prevention is also a key consideration. Many of the aforementioned 'quad and hip flexor dominant' athletes suffer from low back pain. This is often due to lower cross syndrome which, to put it rather simply, involves tight hip flexing pulling on the front of the spine where they attach, tight back muscles and / or weak hamstrings and glutes causing the pelvis to tilt forward.

Outwardly, this shows itself as protruding 'lower abs' and a backside that follows a few minutes after the rest of the body.

These imbalances often manifest themselves as either nagging back aches in training and competition or filled hamstrings, neither of which are particularly productive.

We must also consider deceleration factors. The human body will only allow a powerful movement to occur in one direction if it feels there is sufficient strength to decelerate the movement before injury events.

This means attention must be paid to the upper back muscles in opposition to powerful movements such as throwing a punch in boxing, as well as strengthening the glutes to allow powerful hip flexion (lifting of the lead knee) to take place in sprinting, jumping and throwing knees and kicks in a fight.

The Solutions

Any athlete not paying close attention to glute function is risking reduced performance at best, and injury at worst.

However, there is little point launching into some of the exercises commonly used to increase glute strength such as deadlifts and lunges. This will only serve to strengthen the dominant muscles, increasing the dysfunctional compensatory patterns.

The first stage is to get your glutes firing with flexibility exercises to 'open' the hips, allowing room for the extension to occasion.

Once your glutes are firing with activation and isolation exercises such as hip lifts you can move on to compound exercises which will deliver noticeable strength gains.

My top 5 'glute' exercises (once you have the muscles firing properly) are as follows. These are in no particular order as a lot depends on the individual being coached.

Kettlebell swings

Emphasize folding at the hip over squatting to avoid thebody relying on the strong quad muscles.

Front squats (kettlebell and barbell)

Deep range of motion increases the recruitment of the glutes so get down there!

Bulgarian split squat

Single leg work is critical for sportsmen and women and will help address imbalances. For instance a track runner at distances greater than 100m will always have imbalances from running bends to the left side all the time.

Plyometric split squats

Once you've built the strength from Bulgarian split squats, progress to power split squats by driving straight up in the air from the split squat position, switching legs in mid air.

Pay attention to absorbing the impact as effective deceleration is also a critical element in any sport involving running strides.

Single arm kettlebell snatch

A similar 'hip drive' movement to the swing but also addresses the stabilization mechanisms that work across the back of your body, especially when you add the following little tweak to how the snatch is typically taught.

Your lats (the ones you use for pull ups and other upper back exercises) form a cross 'sling' with the opposite glute, making an X shape.

This mechanism helps stabilize your spine and pelvis in running.

For instance, the right lat stretches as your right arm comes forward. At the same time, you are planting your left foot on the ground so the left glute is being stretched.

The opposite lat and glute are attached by muscle tissue called fascia, which tightens across the lower back as the glute and lat are stretched, stabilizing it. The same occurs in the opposite way on the very next step and so on.

When performing the kettlebell snatch with your right arm, rock on to your left heel as the kettlebell goes through your legs, then drive up with the emphasis on the left foot, coming up on to the ball of your left foot to perform 'triple extension 'on that individual leg. As you do this you will be pulling the kettlebell overhead causing the tightening of the fascia as your right arm goes up.

Obviously, repeat the process the other way around on the opposite side.

Conclusion

No matter what sport you are involved or, or if you just want to achieve a high level of athletic strength and conditioning, you must be paying attention to the function of you posterior chain so, these exercises should be included in your program at certain times of the season.

Obviously, depending on the sport, weight training programs must be designed so as not to conflict with core training but that's for another discussion.

Remember have patience getting your glutes to fire properly, then build steadily.



Jon Le Tocq

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