How Runners Can Train the Posterior Chain
Five exercises for improving strength in the posterior chain, the runner's propulsion powerhouse
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The posterior chain is our powerhouse and is comprised of some of the biggest and strongest muscles in the body. These muscles, including those of the back, glutes, hamstrings and calves, are critical to all athletic movements, including running.
Why? The contracting of the posterior chain is what propels your body forward with each stride—the back muscles act to straighten and extend the spine; the glutes extend the hips and keep the femurs aligned; the hamstrings extend the hips and flex the knees (while also stabilizing the knee joints), and the calves extend the ankles and play a role in knee stabilization.
As runners, it’s easy for us to fall into a quad-dominant scenario, taking our hamstrings and glutes out of the picture or, at the very least, moving them to the back burner. Add to that the amount of time many of us spend sitting on our butts. In a sense, these posterior muscles forget how to work, forcing our anterior muscles to take over and do jobs they were never designed to do. This leads to a host of problems with reduced running performance and an increased risk of injury topping the list.
How do you know if your posterior chain is weak? If you spend most of your day sitting, you can pretty much guarantee your posterior strength leaves something to be desired. If you regularly experience knee pain, your quad-to-hamstring ratio may need some improvement (i.e. stronger hamstrings). If you regularly experience back pain during runs or at rest, you may have tight, overdeveloped quads and hip flexors that are causing excessive anterior pelvic tilt and spinal lordosis (sway back). If your kick isn’t there or you feel your power is lacking, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not running on all cylinders.
The key to optimal stride efficiency and power is balance between the intricate system of the anterior and posterior chains. Because running is flexion dominant, adding extension exercises that target the posterior chain to your training will balance out the stress your body consistently endures. Work a few of the following moves into your routine to increase your power output and up your running game:
Kettlebell swings are the ultimate move for improving strength and power in the posterior chain, not to mention they’ll demand a lot out of your heart and lungs if you’re willing to push yourself.
How: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a kettlebell with both hands, arms extended toward the floor. Lower into a squat with your back straight or slightly arched and allow the kettlebell to hang freely between your legs. Slightly swing the kettlebell toward the back then immediately push through your heels to extend your hips and knees and swing the kettlebell forward and up. Allow the kettlebell to go only to shoulder-height, squeezing your glutes and opening your hips at the top of the movement. As the weight begins to descend, lower back into a squat to absorb the energy and immediately repeat the movement. Your arms should act only as an attachment point to the kettlebell; all of your power should come from your hips and legs (the posterior chain).
Hip Bridge/ Thruster
The hip bridge and thruster is a great way to wake up those glute muscles that have a tendency to forget their job. These can be performed with heavy weights for strength or lighter weights for power—it’s completely up to you.
How: Beginners can start out with a simple flute bridge. Lie face up on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat. Press through your heels and contract your glutes to lift your hips off the floor until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Hold for a count then lower back to the floor. Once the movement is comfortable and you feel your glutes responding, add resistance in the form of bands or weights.
Progress to the hip thruster once you’re ready for a greater range of motion or heavier weights. Position your back perpendicular to an exercise bench or against a stability ball with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place a weight across your hips (you’ll want it wrapped with a pad or towel to keep it from bruising your hip bones). Begin with your hips flexed then press through your heels and squeeze your glutes to powerfully and forcefully drive your hips to full extension. Avoid arching or rounding your back during the movement. Slowly lower back to the starting position.
Deadlifts target your posterior chain from top to bottom, developing strength and power everywhere in between.
How: Stand with your legs hip-width to shoulder-width apart and your shins close to the barbell. Flex your hips and knees to lower into a squat and grasp the bar with an overhand or mixed grip on the outside of your legs. Look straight ahead, flatten or slightly arch your back, stabilize your core, press through your heels to lift the bar along the front of your shins by extending the knees and hips. Lift until your body reaches full extension then return to starting.
Back Extension and Reverse Back Extension
These posterior exercises are great for those without access to a gym or equipment. All you need is a stability ball to engage the major muscle groups.
How: Lie face-down over the top of a ball with your stomach resting on top. Straighten your legs and brace your feet to stabilize yourself. Contract your back to lift your upper body off the ball. Pause at the top of the movement then lower back down with control. Complete the desired number of reps then repeat the process, this time contracting your glutes to lift your legs off the floor. Adjust your body as needed to remain anchored against the ball. Your legs should remain together and straight throughout the movement.
The Samson stretch is going to engage your posterior hip muscles while stretching those tight hip flexors. Work this stretch into your workout between your other exercises to give your hip flexors a chance to release while you strengthen the muscles of the posterior chain.
How: Kneel into a lunge position with your right leg to the front and left to the back. Adjust your right heel so that it’s in front of your right knee when looking down from above. Square your hips and move your pelvis into a neutral position. Press the top of your left foot into the ground along with your right heel to engage your glutes. Gently press your hips forward until you feel a mild stretch in your left hip flexors; for a greater stretch, reach overhead with your left arm. Hold here for 20 to 30 seconds then repeat with your other leg.