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A system of kinetic chains composed of interacting muscle groups controls your different body movements. Your lower back, hamstrings, glutes and calves make up what's called the posterior chain. Isolation exercises for any of these muscles improve their strength and definition, but workouts that fire all of them reinforce this cohesive chain and improve muscular coordination.
Muscle Firing Sequences
Safe, efficient movements initiate in the core, then transfer to your extremities. A faulty sequence impedes coordination and increases your vulnerability to injury. Kinesiologist Rob Williams explains that your posterior chain should use a "one-two-three muscle firing sequence," which begins by engaging your multifidus, the deep core stabilizer that attaches to your spinal vertebra. Your glutes contract next and your hamstrings and calf muscles follow. Late-firing glutes might trigger hamstring strains and other injuries.
Activating the Glutes
What physical therapists sometimes call "dead butt syndrome" might cause improper posterior chain firing sequencing. Inhibited glute muscles -- often a consequence of a sedentary lifestyle -- need a wake up call. Start by contracting each butt cheek and holding the contraction for five seconds. Do this about 10 times a day, from any body position. The prone hip extension reinforces correct posterior chain firing sequence. Lie prone, and draw your navel toward your spine. This activates your multifidus. Next, contract your right butt muscle, then lift your straightened right leg a few inches from the floor. Do 10 on each leg.
Compound vs Isolation
If you're training your posterior chain for athletic performance, certified strength coach Tim Pelow advises against hamstring muscle isolation exercises such as the leg curl. This type of exercise recruits your hamstrings from your knee, instead of the more sport-specific method of engaging the muscles from the hip down. Pelow explains that athletic movements sometimes trigger torque in the hamstrings. Compound exercises activate the buttocks and hamstrings, teach them to work together in sport-related movement patterns, and protect your hamstrings from torque-related injuries.
Exercises such as the stability ball bridge and leg curl effectively recruit your posterior chain. Lie on your back with your legs extended and your feet on the ball. Draw your belly in, press your heels into the ball to fire your butt muscles and lift each vertebra from the mat. This activates your multifidus and back muscles, along with your glutes. Once your spine forms a bridge, remain in the position, and bend and straighten your legs. Do eight reps, roll back to the starting position and perform three sets.
Glute Hamstring Raises
Bodybuilder Charles Poliquin sings the praises of the glute-ham raise for the posterior chain. Use the back extension at the gym for this exercise. Lie prone, placing your feet on the footplate with your toes pointed downward. Flex your spine and bring your head toward the floor. Your upper torso will form a 90-degree angle with your lower body. Cross your arms across your chest, contract your abs and glutes and lift your upper torso to an upright position. Your knees will bend in this position. To activate your calves, push against the footplate with the balls of your feet. Do 10 reps. Avoid this exercise if you have back problems.