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

Fitness: Deadlifts, clean-and-jerks, pull-ups and more for a full-body workout

Old-school weightlifting can lead to huge strength gains. Make the barbell your friend.

Old-school weightlifting can lead to huge strength gains. Make the barbell your friend.

I’m a creature of routine. I find things that work for me, then stick with it. This can be a good thing when it comes to training; while some preach constant changes (muscle confusion, brah!), I’m more of the type who believes you create a program, use it over time and give it time to work.

However, there comes a time to change things up. It’s a tough balance between distance running and weight training for me. These forms of exercise compete with each other for time and resources. Want to be fast? You won’t be very muscular. What to be big and muscly? Fine, but forget about being fast over the long-haul.

I’ve accepted that reality. I know that I’ll only get so big or so fast, and I’m cool with that. As long as I can tough out a race over 15 miles or more, I’m good. And while I may not ever be a body builder or a power athlete, I like the idea of being strong. A little bit of both goes a long way in terms of staying healthy for a long time, and performing well in the outdoors.

Anyway, I digress. I decided it was, in fact, time to shake things up. My leg-day workouts were getting too long, too taxing. And there were areas in my training that got short-changed as a result.

So I split up some of the stuff I do on leg day, then added some more goodies. The end result? A workout that blasts the posterior chain (back, shoulders, glutes and hamstrings) while also balancing out a rather imbalanced weekly workout schedule. Here’s a review of the exercises:

Barbell deadlift: I do four to five sets of these. I start light, but quickly get heavy. This is a power lift, one that requires heavier weights and lower reps. Stand at the bar, feet about shoulder width apart. Hand grips vary; I choose to have one hand palm out, one hand palm in (the axle grip), and both hands gripping the bar outside of my stance. Grip the bar tight, and tense those lats. Pull up on the bar to take up any “slack,” or the little bit of room that exists between the bar and the plates. Keeping your head and neck in a neutral spine position, drive up by firing your quads, squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward. Your back should be straight, and your chest slightly up (to the point where someone could see the logo on your shirt as you began the lift). When you’re at standing position, your chest should be out (proud) and your shoulders slightly back. Then slowly lower the weight down, bending at the knees and getting your hips back. Tip: DO NOT hunch your back; keep it straight. And don’t tilt your head back to look up at the mirror; doing so will deactivate your hams and glutes and overly recruit your lower back, which you DON’T want to do. If you can’t avoid hunching over and pulling with your back, use less weight and get the form right.

Barbell clean-and-jerk: One of the standard Olympic lifts, this is also a power move, and a complicated one at that. The clean-and-jerk is very technique-oriented, and I recommend good coaching and research before performing this move. That said, it’s an awesome full-body, compound exercise that builds explosiveness and power, and ultimately, strength in your legs, core and back. Stand at the bar in a deadlift position, but place your hands further apart than in the deadlift, and both palms down (no axle grip). To start the lift, explode up with the bar, but instead of stopping at a deadlift finish position, raise that bar to a front-squat position. You will likely come up on your toes a bit (the whole leg gets involved). Once in this position, you will do a push-press to finish the move — squat down slightly, then explode up powerfully with your legs, press the bar up, and lock out. For balance purposes, you might feel comfortable having one leg forward, one back, then coming to a neutral standing position once this lift is complete. This lift is easier shown than explained in type, so here ya go:

I do this in sets of four reps. This ain’t an exercise where you do high-rep sets. Even so, you will get a cardio element during your sets. Tip: This exercise is VERY technique oriented, and it is a riskier move than most other lifts. It’s vital you do weight you can handle, and don’t break form.

Farmer’s walk: This one is a lot easier to master. Simply pick up two heavy weights, then walk slowly with them in your hands for a minute. Dumbbells or plates work here. Maintain good posture and keep tension on your shoulders. A real trap-buster, and it will really help your grip strength, too.

Nothing beats the old-fashioned dead-hang pull-up.

Nothing beats the old-fashioned dead-hang pull-up.

Pull-ups: The king of back exercises, especially those broader lat muscles. But don’t be fooled, pull-ups and chin-ups are awesome for the entire back/shoulder muscles groups, as well as for your biceps and grip strength. I strongly recommend doing dead-hang pull-ups (no kipping) for optimal strength gains and muscle growth. Grab the bar, and “pack” your shoulders (don’t start from a completely relaxed position); flex your shoulders so they are supporting your weight at the bottom of the lift). Concentrate on pulling your chest toward the bar until your chin clears it, then lower yourself slowly. With this, do as many reps per set as you can.

Rear-delt band pulls: Band pulls? Really? Yes, really. I’ve read some really great stuff from elite lifters who use band pulls to strengthen those small backside shoulder muscles (rear delts, rhomboids), which in turn opens their chest and allows them to get huge gains in exercises like the bench press. Take an elastic band and grab both ends with your hands. Then slowly stretch the band out until your arms are fully extended in full-wingspan mode. Then slowly return to your starting position. Sets of 20 to 25 reps are good on this one.

Flexed-arm hangs: A good finishing exercise for the back. Go up to the pull-up bar, then pull yourself up to where your chin clears the bar. Hold that position for, say, 10 seconds. Then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat. As you get stronger, increase the time.

So my workout looks like this:

Deadlift: sets of 8, 6, 4, 3, 2 (increasing weight)

Clean-and-jerk: 3 sets of 4 reps (increasing weight)

Farmer’s walk: 3 sets, 1 minute per set

Pull-up: 3 sets, as many reps as possible for each set

Rear-delt band pulls: 3 sets of 20

Flexed-arm hang: 3 sets, 10 seconds per set (more time if you’re stronger)

This is causing me to redo some of my other workouts during the week, but I’m good with that. A lot of the things I do are geared toward promoting a stronger posterior chain. This has a couple benefits. First, you can’t be a strong person without a strong back. And second, if you’re an endurance athlete, that entire posterior chain — back, glutes, hams and calves — need to be strong if you’re going to perform well and prevent injuries. Elite distance runners may need to tweak this (for the sake of being fast). But in general, if you’re interested in a high level of general fitness, doing the work on that ole backside should be a priority.

Bob Doucette

Video: Proper deadlift technique

Deadlifts are great, but you need good technique to get all you can out of the lift and not get injured.

Deadlifts are great, but you need good technique to get all you can out of the lift and not get injured.

Last week, I wrote about the leg workout I’m doing right now. One of the things I mentioned was deadlifts.

That particular exercise is pretty simple: Pick up a weight, put it back down. Repeat. But the reality is that it is heavy on proper technique. I wrote some things to keep in mind as you’re lifting, but sometimes it is better to be shown than just told. So I found this great video that illustrates good deadlift technique. It’s about 5 minutes long and worth every second. Have a look, and then get after it.

Strength training and fitness: A killer 45-minute leg workout

You can play around on the new-fangled machines, or get old school with barbells and dumbbells. If you want to get your legs stronger, you'll choose the latter.

You can play around on the new-fangled machines, or get old school with barbells and dumbbells. If you want to get your legs stronger, you’ll choose the latter.

I’ve written a few times about how important it is to train your legs. And by that, doing something more than walking, running or hiking. Strength training is key to building and maintaining muscular strength, mobility and bone density.

Strength training your legs also builds a great foundation for any athletic endeavor you want to pursue, be it skiing, hiking, running or a whole range of other sports and activities.

I like to focus on exercises that work multiple lower-body muscle groups at once. There are some exceptions, and there’s nothing wrong with using or adding isolating exercises so long as you balance that out pretty well (if you’re hitting your quads, for example, be sure to do a similar amount of work for your hamstrings).

Lately I’ve been doing a specific workout, with exercises you will be familiar with if you read this blog very much. This session will take about 45 minutes, and it will help you get some work done. In order, I do this:

Calf presses (seated leg press machine): 10 reps 220, 10 reps 265, 10 reps 315. (You could also do standing single-leg dumbbell calf raises or seated calf presses on a calf press machine). I start out with calves because the stretch at the bottom of the lift helps loosen up your Achilles tendon, which in turn will increase mobility and range of motion in your forthcoming lifts. Tip: Don’t bounce the weight; Pause at the bottom of the lift for a second or two, then do the press. Bouncing does nothing for you.

Dumbbell lunges: 8 reps 20s, 8 reps 25s, 8 reps 30s. Try not to have your forward leg’s knee go too far over your ankle, and when you’re standing back up, squeeze the hams and glutes on the back leg. Doing so will actually pull up upright instead of relying too much on the forward-facing leg’s quads doing all the work. Tip: Don’t lean in forward; keep your upper body upright. If you find yourself wobbly, use less weight.

Barbell squats: Now we’re in the thick of it. I don’t squat much — 8 reps 135, 7 reps 185, 4-5 reps 225. Grip the bar hard as you get under it, and flare your elbows forward slightly, tensing your shoulders and lats. “Packing” those muscles will help tighten your core, stabilize your spine and get ready for the work to come. As you drop down, you should bend at the knees AND at the hips, keeping you back straight (now bowed) as your rear drops down and back. Squat deep, at least past the point where the tops of your thighs go below parallel. If you can’t do that, use less weight. I used to squat with much heavier weight, but form was being sacrificed. So no more of that. It’s better to go lighter and do the exercise right that go heavier and do it wrong. Anyway, as you get to the bottom of the lift, drive your hips forward and stand back up. Tip: Some people look up; I say don’t do that. Keep your head in line with your spine (“neutral spine”) so your entire posterior chain, from top to bottom, is helping you with the lift. Anytime your head tilts back, you lose power from your glutes and hamstrings and your back takes over. That’s bad news. And NEVER bounce at the bottom of the lift unless you really want to tear something. Cheating never gets you anywhere.

I can’t stress how important form is on this exercise. Do it right, your strength will skyrocket. Do it wrong, you’ll get hurt. So learn proper form, use weight you can handle, and do it right before you start piling on all that weight. Ego won’t save your back.

Barbell deadlift: With this exercise, we’re in the heart of the workout. Again, I don’t go all that heavy; form matters here. I do 135×8, 195×7, 255×5. Stand at the bar, feet about shoulder width apart. Hand grips vary; I choose to have one hand palm out, one hand palm in, and both hands gripping the bar outside of my stance. Grip the bar tight, and tense those lats. Pull up on the bar to take up any “slack,” or the little bit of room that exists between the bar and the plates. Keeping your head and neck in a neutral spine position, drive up by firing your quads, squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward. Your back should be straight, and your chest slightly up (to the point where someone could see the logo on your shirt as you began the lift). When you’re at standing position, your chest should be out (proud) and your shoulders slightly back. Then slowly lower the weight down, bending at the knees and getting your hips back. Tip: DO NOT hunch your back; keep it straight. And don’t tilt your head back to look up at the mirror; doing so will deactivate your hams and glutes and overly recruit your lower back, which you DON’T want to do. If you can’t avoid hunching over and pulling with your back, use less weight and get the form right.

Barbell Romanian deadlift: I do 135×8, 165×8, 195×8. Similar to standard deadlift, but instead of bending at the knees to pick it up, you will keep your legs nearly straight. The idea is to isolate the glutes and hamstrings. With a slight bend at the knees, hips back and a neutral spine (you should be looking at the floor when you start), begin the lift by squeezing your glutes and hams and thrusting your hips forward. Tip: Again, do not tilt your head back to look up; keep that neutral spine. At the top of the lift, your chest your be out, shoulders slightly back. You can use the same grip here as you did for conventional deadlifts. Then slowly lower the weight down, spine neutral, hips going back and allowing for a slight bend at the knee.

Goblet squats: This makes for a nice finisher. I use dumbbells, doing sets of 8 with 45, 55 and 65 pounds. Hold the dumbbell or kettlebell collarbone high with both hands, feet a little more than shoulder width apart, back straight. Squat down deep (rear to ankles, if possible), then stand back up. Your hips will not go as far back on this as they do on a back squat.

Keep in mind: Many of you won’t be able to do these exercises with as much weight as I currently use; conversely, there are a whole lot of you out there who can and should use way more weight than me. Scale these exercises to your abilities, and remember to NEVER sacrifice form.

Side note/disclosure: I have an earlier post with photos on a different leg workout; those photos show me doing deadlifts and squats with my head tilted back (not neutral spine). At that time I didn’t know any better. So don’t do that!

Try this workout and let me know what you think, or share your leg day workout plans in the comments. I’m always up to hear and learn something new!

Bob Doucette