September 11, 2011

Progressions Of Exercises To Strengthen The Posterior Chain And Increase Your Vertical Jump And Sprint Performance

The major muscles that run along the backside of the body are collectively referred to as the posterior chain by kinesiologists. What they’re referred to as is irrelevant in comparison to the overall impact they can have on sport performance (ex. jumping, sprinting).

The glutes and hamstrings are estimated to respectively contribute roughly 40% and 25% to the overall height achieved in one’s vertical jump and sprint performance. Therefore, those focused on improving athletic performance should devote a relatively greater amount of training time to performing lifts that best develop this collection of muscles. (The remaining percentage contributing to vertical jump performance coming from the shoulder girdle, the quads, and the calves – roughly 15%, 20%, and 5% respectively, give or take a few percentage points)

Because these muscles need to work in unison to perform such athletic movements, isolated exercises that specifically target muscles throughout the chain, like leg curls, rank low on the priority list, as they will not have much transfer to vertical jump performance. They may however help in the long run by promoting balanced development systemically by strengthening muscles that receive relatively less tension during compound movements better suited for improving athletic performance, so don’t count them out completely.

In terms of training focus is concerned, improving strength first will set the stage for explosive power to be maximized later. Power, along with virtually every other trainable physical attribute, is essentially capped by how much force can be generated. The stronger you are, as in the more weight you can lift in major movements like squats and deadlifts, the higher the ceiling for using power movements that teach the nervous system the concept of acceleration.

The most complete exercises, and their variations, for developing the posterior chain in a functional manner to best carryover to athletic performance, are:

-          Back Extensions (45 degree, horizontal, single leg or double leg)

-          Reverse Hyper Extensions (45 degree, horizontal, single leg or double leg)

-          Stiff Leg-Deadlifts (clean grip, snatch grip, from floor or podium)

-          Good Mornings (seated or standing, single leg or double leg – for standing only)

-          Deadlifts (clean grip, snatch grip, from floor or podium, single leg or double leg)

-          Olympic Lifts (clean pull, snatch pull, high pull, low pull, from floor, from hang, from blocks, from podium, clean and jerk)

*The Snatch Grip will place additional tension on the hamstrings than the Clean Grip (standard grip width)

Some other exercises to strengthen the posterior chain, but with a little less carryover to athletic performance, are:

Rack Pulls, AKA top-range deadlifts (clean or snatch grip)

Stiff-Leg Deadlifts w/Dumbells (single or double leg)

Glute-Ham Raise

Glute Bridges (single leg or double leg, feet on floor or bench, shoulders on floor or bench)

If you are simply training for general strength and conditioning then it is not necessary to ever really focus on performing the Olympic lifts, as the learning curve, to benefit, ratio is too great. Improving clean and snatch performance will not necessarily directly influence day to day lifestyle, unless you are involved in some sort of anaerobic sporting activity.

If you are training for improved sport performance, and jumping/sprinting ability will improve your performance, then certain exercises may provide greater benefit than others, those being (with the exclusion of the Olympic lifts because not everyone can do them, and the length of time needed to get through the growing pains of learning them):

1.    Snatch Grip Deadlift on Podium – This exercise stresses the posterior chain through a very longe range of motion, and allows for the greatest loads to be used per length of range.

2.    Front Squat – This exercise places a greater emphasis on both the quads and the hamstrings than the snatch grip dead, and prevents compensation for a weaker lower body by leaning forward.

3.    Back Squat – This exercise allows for the greatest loads to be used for the greatest range of motion relative to the actual vertical jump itself, and a variety of parameters can be used to effectively develop both strength and power.

4.    Stiff-Leg Deadlift – This exercise allows for a great deal of weight to be used, and places a preferential amount of tension onto the posterior chain.

5.    Seated Good Morning – This exercise teaches the concept of hip extension in an isolated manner.

6.    Standing Good Morning – This exercise teaches the concept of hip extension, but allows for greater loads to be used, although it’s much easier to compensate by bending at the knee and turning the movement into a ‘squat-morning’, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you’re just better off performing a proper squat if that’s the case, since a greater load can be used.

7.    Reverse Hyper Extensions – Because of the upper body stability, a deeper neural connection with the posterior chain can be developed, and this exercise also allows for great deals of tension to be placed on the musculature without the spinal compression that often accompanies axial loaded movements.

8.    Upper Body Elevated/Lower Body Elevated Glute Bridge – This exercise allows for a great deal of weight to be used through a long range of motion without the spinal compression that often accompanies axial loaded movements.

9.    Rack Deadlifts – This exercise allows for extremely great loads to be used, albeit through a limited range.

10. Jump Squats – This exercise resembles the vertical jump more than any other, although there are several variations of jumps that can be performed. It is important to use a light enough weight to focus on acceleration and height, and not go too heavy that speed is compromised.

Some final tips to further improve performance and development are to perform movements with the toes elevated (on a pair of 5 or 10 lb. plates for example), and to stretch out the hip flexors prior to performance. The former further stretches the posterior chain which results in a greater deal of activation, as the muscles that are stretched the most are recruited the most, and the latter results in relaxing the hip flexors and thus enabling the hip extensors of the posterior chain to fire maximally without resistance from the antagonists contributing to an unwanted decelerating effect.

If you have any questions about the posterior chain, or how to improve your vertical jump with strength training, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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