Today’s post marks the start of what I hope to be a weekly installment here at Happy Life Healthy Life: Fit Tip Fridays! In addition to my regular weekly (or bi-weekly, or monthly 😉 ) ramblings, I’d also like to provide you with some fun fitness facts each Friday. Hopefully you can incorporate some of what you learn into your daily life or share some knowledge around the old watering hole at work. Because who DOESN’T love it when their co-workers talk about health and fitness all day?! Am I right????
This week I’d like to shed a little light on the posterior chain. Your posterior chain includes all the muscles of the rear side of your body: the upper and mid-back (your trapezius, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi to be exact!), your erector spinae which supports the spine, and then of course your glutes, hamstrings, calves, and all the fun ligaments and connective tissue in between.
On the other hand, your anterior chain includes all the muscles of the….you guessed it! ANTERIOR side of your body! Think chest, biceps, abs, quads….the glamour muscles. We see men spending 90% of their gym session on a flat or incline bench working their chest. We see women on the floor doing crunches, ab rollers, and whatever other new hot ab move a magazine told them to do (probably after spending an hour or more on a piece of cardio equipment) in an attempt to get that six pack. Not only is this ineffective – if you continually train the same muscles they won’t get a chance to rest and therefore grow and get stronger – you’re putting yourself at risk of developing some hefty muscular imbalances if you don’t give your posterior chain the same level of attention that you give your anterior chain.
We are already predisposed to anterior and posterior imbalances just due to the way our lives are these days. Many of our regular activities are quad-dominant, such as walking, climbing stairs, running, etc. Our poor old hammies just don’t get the same love our quads do. Similarly, a large portion of the population spends most of their workday sitting at a desk. I’m no ergonomic expert, but I have a feeling that most of them aren’t sitting with proper posture. As the day wears on and the coffee wears off, their shoulders slouch forward creating a lovely, rounded spine. As the upper back muscles become weaker, the posture gets worse, and the chest and abdominals spend the day in a tightened position. See how heading to the gym after work and pumping those same short, tight muscles and ignoring the ones we ignored all day may not be ideal?
If you’re like me, after reading this you’re probably like “holy shit I’ve done irreversible damage to my body and in 5 years I’m going to be shorter than a 109-year old woman omgomgomg”. Even if you’re slightly less melodramatic, you may still be concerned. But no need to worry! You don’t need to spend tons of money on ergonomic chairs (as handy as they may be) or try to get a hamstring transplant to balance things out. The nice thing about having weak muscles is that once you do start working them, they progress really quickly! BONUS! By incorporating some of the following exercises into your current exercise routine, or even just tossing in a couple at random intervals throughout your work day, you’ll slowly gain strength in the areas that are lacking and you’ll notice your posture improves, your back and knee pain may lessen, and if you’re an aspiring athlete (or just like gettin’ your fitness on) you may notice your performance improve with a more-balanced body.
The Upper Posterior Chain
As I mentioned above, our slouchy-desk positions tend to lead to weak upper back muscles. These include your rear deltoids, upper and middle trapezius, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi. By strengthening these muscles, your shoulders will begin to naturally draw back, improving your posture, making you appear taller, and helping to hold in the midsection. Some of my favourite exercises to work these muscles include:
- Rear delt flyes – these can be performed with dumbbells, resistance bands, or cables
- Rowing exercises, which include
– Seated cable row
– One or two-arm dumbbell row
– Bent over barbell rows
– Standing cable rows
– Seated or door-anchored resistance band rows
- A new favourite, face pulls! (try to keep your upper body a little more stable than this guy thought 😉 )
- Lat pull-downs, both wide and reverse-grip, and pull-ups & chin-ups, which can be done with the assistance of a band or the machine if necessary. These exercises are not as crucial to posture development as the others mentioned in my opinion, however if we’re trying to build balance between our anterior and posterior sides, we should be developing a well-balanced back, no?
In addition to strengthening our backs to improve our posture, we also want to strengthen the muscles that support our spine, aka the ERECTOR SPINAE. Say it with me people. ERECTORRRR SPINAE. Kinda fun, hey? This probably goes without saying, but our spine is pretty important. And the more support it has, the better. Back extensions are main exercise I would recommend to build strength in the ERECTOR SPINAE (I’m saying that in my head with a big booming echo, just so you know). These can be done on the floor, on a Swiss ball, or with the actual back extension….I don’t know if I’d call it machine, but..contraption? Maybe? That you find in some gyms. These can be made more challenging by reaching the arms straight overhead.
The Lower Posterior Chain
Ahhh the wonderful lower posterior chain. Remember, this includes our glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Who doesn’t love a nice set of glutes? The glutes are probably one of my favourite muscle groups to work, for obvious reasons.
Our glutes are pretty important, aesthetic reasons aside. They’re responsible for flexion and extension of the hip, aka. WALKING, among other movements. But many of us are only familiar with our gluteus maximus, or the big fleshy part that makes itself most noticeable. But we also have our gluteus medius AND minimus that are frequently ignored in training programs. So in addition to squats, step-ups, lunges, and kickbacks, which all mainly work the glute max, we need to work those smaller glute muscles as well. Bret Contreras wrote an interesting article about glute imbalances and provides some great little exercises you can do to help treat these imbalances, which you can find here . (Side note: I don’t agree with all of Bret Conteras’ articles, nor have I read through all of them. I am only referring you to his site for this specific article!)
I include these exercises after most workouts, and I’ll occasionally do them lying on the floor watching television, and they don’t take more than 20 minutes to do. Since working them into my routine I’ve noticed considerable hypertrophy in my gluteus medius. In layman’s terms, my side-butt is bigger. And that’s a good thing. 🙂
And of course, we can’t forget about our hamstrings! The hamstrings (which are actually a group of three muscles) can be tricky to work because a) most exercises require a piece of equipment, and b) have you ever had really sore hamstrings after a workout? It’s a total bitch. In any event, some effective hamstring exercises are as follows:
- Hamstring curls – can be done either with the hamstring curl machine or with a Swiss ball
- Good mornings
- Romanian deadlifts
Just as I believe it’s important to build a well-balanced back, I feel it’s equally important to evenly develop all of the muscles that make up our lower posterior chain which means including some calf training into our routine. This does not have to make up the brunt of the workout, but including weighted standing or seated calf raises will provide the desired balance without requiring us to spend hours on end in the gym working every. single. muscle.
So there you have it: my top exercises for correcting imbalances that develop from us just goin’ about our daily lives. I would like to make an important note here that if you are suffering from an injury or continued discomfort, please consult a doctor or physiotherapist (or even better, both!) before engaging in the exercises I listed above. This article is written with the apparently healthy individual in mind, and if you have a specific injury or imbalance that is causing you discomfort there may be better options for you (and not exercising is not one of them!). If you are unsure as to whether or not these exercises are suitable for you, it never hurts to ask first!
I know I’ve provided a lot of information here and I could continue to blab on and on about imbalances and corrective exercises, but I’ll stop here. To those of you who have read up to this point, thank you! I hope you learned something you can take from this. Not every Fit Tip Friday will be this long, but as I mentioned in a few posts back, if there is anything you’d like to learn a little more about, please feel free to let me know! I’m always happy to do some research and share knowledge 🙂