Strength experiment, part 3: Posterior chain, aka, working your backside

The primal joy of the deadlift. Sah-weet!

It’s been fun recapping the strength workouts I did over the winter. Some are harder than others. Today we’re going to hit on an area that, for most people, offers the greatest potential for growth, and yet is often sorely neglected: the posterior chain.

So, what the heck is that? Simply put, it’s all the musculature on the back side (posterior) of your body, starting with the muscles in your neck all the way down to your hamstrings. So many people focus on the “mirror muscles” – the muscles they see when looking their reflection – that they forget about crucial areas which will make or break you athletically, and will affect your long-term health.

Let me lay out some truth to you. You cannot be strong if your back is weak. You will not stay healthy is your back is weak. You will likely become injured, physically compromised and otherwise headed toward greater immobility if your back is weak. Bench-pressing a truck is great. So is squatting a house. You will do neither if your back is weak.

And think about all the other things you do. Running, skiing, hiking, backpacking, recreational sports – just about anything, really – depends greatly on a strong back, and will be hindered if you are weak in this area. Some of the most debilitating injuries you can imagine are back injuries, and if your spine is not protected by strong back and core muscles, you WILL hurt your back. It might happen while grabbing a rebound. Or on a 20-mile hike. Or while running your next half-marathon. Or picking up a basket of laundry. That’s the truth, folks.

Here’s another: The deficiencies in your back can be solved by you.

Earlier this week, I mentioned the four main movements of strength training. One of those was the hip-hinge. Another was the pull. That’s what we’re going to focus on today.

When describing “pulls,” we’re talking about pull-ups, chin-ups, barbell rows, dumbbell rows, and cable pulls. These will primarily work the lats, those big muscles that flank the spine from your armpits down to your tailbone. Your biceps will also get some work here, as will the muscles on the back side of your shoulders. Being strong in these areas will go a long way toward balancing your anterior workouts and promote shoulder health as well as back strength.

Hip-hinge exercises are deadlifts, hip thrusters and kettlebell swings. The latter two exercises are great at working the glutes and hamstrings. But the deadlift rules them all. Deadlifts work the glutes and hamstrings while also giving your quadriceps some love. But wait, there’s more! Deadlifts will also work all the muscles in your back – from the muscles at the base of your neck to the base of your spine. An added benefit is holding a weighted barbell does wonderful things for improving grip strength. Master the deadlift and you will become strong.

I do two posterior chain workouts per week. The first one is an “easy” day. The second one is the toughest, most taxing workout of the week. Done right, these workouts will become the core of building strength.

Here’s the plan:

“Easy” day posterior chain workout

Lat pulls, 3×8

Cleans, 3×5

Seated cable rows, 3×10

Straight-arm cable pull-downs, 3×10

Mix in some core work and you’re good to go.

One note: If you haven’t done cleans before, go light and practice the form. This is a tricky, skill-based Olympic-style lift that will build back strength and overall explosive power, but get it wrong and you’ll jack up your back.

“Hard” day posterior chain workout

Warm-up: Pull-ups, 8, 9 and 10 reps; Sumo deadlifts with a kettlebell, 3×10

Barbell deadlift, 8, 7, 6, 5 reps (escalating weight with each set). If you’re brave, try adding fifth set of a 2-rep or a single rep with a heavy weight that you’re not sure you can get.

Standing horizontal cable pulls, 3×10 (escalating weight)

Farmer’s walk, loaded trap bar, 3 sets, walk with the weight for 45 seconds per set

Dumbbell bicep curls, 3×12 (escalating weight)

Hammer curls, 3×10 (escalating weight)

Throw in some planks and dead bugs, 3 sets each.

I added in the dumbbell curls to give your biceps a little more love.

But what I really want to address is the farmer’s walk. Such a great exercise. If you don’t have a trap bar, you can carry plates or dumbbells. The farmer’s walk, or any other loaded carry, works your back, legs and core. It will test your cardio. And it will build grip strength. This is one of my favorite exercises, and it has practical applications.

One last admonition: Form on the deadlift is crucial, especially when the weight starts getting heavier. You must brace your core and keep your back straight. A bowed lumbar is a recipe for injury.

So there it is. No lift scares me more than a really heavy deadlift single. No exercise makes me happier than the deadlift. And nothing is more satisfying than loading the bar with a big weight, walking up to it, and hoisting that bad boy off the ground. It’s simple, primal, aggressive and oh so good.

As a bonus: The deadlift is a total body exercise, and if you get strong doing these, you will get stronger everywhere else.

In the next installment, I’m going to discuss what I did for self-care during this strength cycle. It ain’t sexy, but it’s important.

Bob Doucette

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