In this series we will be looking at how to develop athletic capabilities. Essentially, the aim of this series is to provide a guide to training in order to become a better athlete. If you are not an Olympian then the chances are you are not anywhere near your genetic athletic potential,and while this series isn’t about taking an average Joe and turning him into Chris Hoy, it is about taking an individual and aiding their knowledge – allowing them to maximize their potential! So whether you are an amateur sports star looking to dominate the competition, or a mother of three who wants to carry the family shopping bags without a titanic struggle: pay close attention because you are about to learn the secrets of athleticism.
The Need for Speed
Speed rules. I don’t know many sports where speed and force production is not important for success, therefore developing these should be a top priority on an athlete’s ‘to do list’. Newton’s law (force = mass x acceleration) has taught us that the more relative strength a person has, the more force they can produce. Further, research suggests that producing maximal strength and power output in a gym context carries over to athletic endeavors[i].
The Story of Mr. X and Mr. Y
For example if we take two weight lifters; Mr. X is a 80kg man who can back squat 160kg for 1 rep and Mr. Y a 100kg man who could also squat 160kg for only one rep. Mr. X is relatively stronger because he is able to squat twice his bodyweight (whereas Mr. Y squats 1.6 of his bodyweight). In order for Mr. X to achieve the same 1 rep back squat as Mr. Y, he must make-up for his lack of mass by accelerating quicker than Mr. Y. In short, Mr. X can move his body and other loadings quicker than Mr. Y which means he should be able to sprint faster and jump higher than Mr. Y.
Let Sleeping Hamstrings Lie?
Before you can reach top speed when sprinting you have to start accelerating and moving muscles quickly. If you have ever seen a sprinter explode out of the blocks, or even a football striker starting a sprint down the wing then you’ll notice that they have a forward body lean. Go ahead, YouTube a 100m sprint just now and you’ll see a 45° chest angle to the ground and you might notice a similar angle with the shin on the striking (leading) foot. This is a common position in sports that involve acceleration and when in this position it is mainly the quads, hip flexors and glutes that are producing the force to move. To use my experience of training rugby players as an example, the sport creates an imbalance of quad dominance. Some research of the sport shows that an average sprint distance is less than 20m[ii], which of course remains in the acceleration phase of an overall sprint. The biomechanics involved leaves players with a non favorable quads: hamstring ratio. This ratio of quad dominance isn’t just restricted to rugby players – due to the unpredictable nature of sport there is constant changes in body positions, think of your sport and you might notice a similar pattern. I can honestly say that in my four years of working in the fitness industry and out of all my non athlete clients I have observed that most people need to train their posterior chain better or more often than they do just now. What does my observation say about the average Joe? Training the hamstrings, glutes and lower back should become a stable in your regime.
Developing the Posterior Chain
When training the posterior chain I do not advise isolation training. For bodybuilding this might work well, but in everyday life and sporting endeavors the hamstrings, glutes and lower back seldom work independently of each other. For this reason I recommend choosing exercises that train all three muscle groups, and choosing the exercise that emphasizes your particular weak point. For example, if an athlete has a strong lower back then I would recommend knee flexion posterior chain exercises (such as ‘Glute Ham Raise’) which will place more emphasis on the hamstrings. Likewise if the lower back is a weaker point then I would recommend a hip dominant movement (such as the ‘Stiff Leg Deadlift’) which will place more emphasis on the back.
There are many ways to train the posterior chain, depending on where you train. For most of my clients programming we are restricted to a commercial gym and its equipment; however, ‘a good workman never blames his tools’ and there is no excuse to have a poor posterior chain! With that in mind, my top five exercises for developing the posterior chain are:
1.Below Parallel Box Squat
Go as low as you can while maintaining a straight back. Before you come out of the box, actively tense your hamstrings and explode upwards. All the weight should be through your heels (which should remain planted on the ground for the whole movement).
2.Stiff Leg Deadlift (SLDL)
Lead the movement with your hips. Lower the bar down as you push your hips further and further back, stopping just after your knee cap. Remember to keep your chest out throughout the movement.
3.Natural Glute/Ham Raise
You can perform this with a partner, or by putting your feet under a fixed object. Your partner must try really hard to not let your heels touch your bottom (which is what you are trying to achieve when you lower yourself). (You may notice in the video that my partner relaxes a little bit on one rep which makes me fall down faster.) Try lowering yourself down slowly and giving a little push to get back up. The aim is to catch your bodyweight with your hamstrings on the way up. If you can go down and up without using your hands then you have super strong hamstrings and should skip to part two of this series!
Get reasonably close to the bench and place your heel on the edge. Power your body up by tensing your hamstrings and glutes. In the mid position you should have a neutral spine.
5.Power Ups (advanced)
I have labeled this as advanced simply because it takes good relative strength and good mobility. Lean forward and actively tense your hamstrings before exploding upwards and landing in a squat position. Don’t be fooled by the brackets, this is an exercise kids could do! If you can’t do it then keep working on your relative strength and mobility (more on that in part 5).
These exercises can be incorporated with any training method you prefer to use. In fact, you could even use the above five exercises for a lower body training session.
Below Parallel Box Squat
Stiff Leg Deadlift
Glute/ Ham Raises
3 x 6
3 x 10 e/side
2 x 10
*An example for a lower body session for individuals that have no prior injuries and know how to perform each exercise with correct form.If you are going to try these exercises please seek instruction if you cannot perform them like I do in the video below.
Of course this session isn’t individualized, but hopefully it gives you a scope into how you might go about training the lower body when trying to maximize posterior chain development.
If you find yourself always performing the same movements on your leg day I can’t emphasis this enough: try one of the above exercises. I’ve seen too many populations (recreational lifters, group exercisers and athletes) always perform squats to above parallel which will mainly train the quads, but consider this; would you bench press to half way?The truth is some people just don’t have the hamstring strength to perform some of the exercises above. If this is the case for you then I would recommend performing the ‘Single Leg Bench Bridge’ (2x10) before every training session because this exercise is more of an activation movement that will help ‘switch on’ your hamstrings and glutes.
In the video below you can see the correct technique for my top five posterior chain exercises (with commercial gym constraints). Remember to think about the muscle you are trying to use as you lift!
Training the quadriceps is very important, but often people neglect the big trio at the back! So now that you are armed with the knowledge to develop your posterior chain you are one step closer to maximizing your potential. Whether you are going to dominate the competition or the shopping bags remember one thing: speed rules.
Stay tuned for part 2 of the series: The Kinetic Chain.
[i]Peterson, M,. Alvar, B., Rhea, M. (2006). The contribution of maximal force production to explosive movement among young collegiate athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 20(4), 867-873.
[ii]Cunniffe, B., Proctor, W., Baker, J.S., & Davie, B. (2009). An evaluation of the physiological demands of elite rugby union using global positioning system tracking software. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 23(4), July 2009, pp 1195-1203.