Millions of people worldwide experience neck and back pain. It’s one of the most common ailments, yet it can be difficult to pinpoint what causes it, and its source is often mistakenly placed in the upper back. Think about it—collectively, we get countless shoulder massages a year, yet the pain usually comes back.
“Back and neck pain are incredibly common, even in fit and active people,” women’s fitness expert Julie Lohre, who writes for such magazines as Women’s Health, Esquire, and Muscle & Fitness, among others, told The FruitGuys Magazine. “Whether that pain is the result of hours in front of a computer or poor overall posture…the problem most often lies not just in the back or shoulder muscles, but in the lower posterior chain.”
Experts define the lower posterior chain as the group of muscles on the back of the body that helps you stay upright—it consists of the muscles of the lower back along with the glutes and hamstrings.
When your posterior chain is weaker than its counterpart on the front of your body—known as the anterior chain—it throws things out of whack. The anterior chain (made of muscles like your quads and core) is usually stronger for a number of reasons, most of them related to work and lifestyle. “This is primarily due to how many activities we do that involve sitting (driving in the car) and rounding the shoulders (hunched in front of a computer),” says Chicago-based fitness expert Chris Falcon. “Basically, there is a relationship between the muscles in the front and the ones that mirror them in the back. When that relationship is out of balance, there will be numerous gaps and limitations placed on how a person can perform in the gym, and in activities of daily life.”
“Gaps and limitations” is a nice way of saying that you won’t be able to lift as much in the gym; it will be easier to tweak something while, say, lifting a bag of groceries; and you’ll probably find yourself in need of a back rub more often than not. A weak posterior chain also puts you at risk for more serious injuries such as ACL tears.
Fortunately, many of these issues can be addressed through exercise and training. “Optimal strengthening of the posterior chain is extremely important, and perhaps even more important than training the anterior chain,” Falcon says. Similarly, Lohre notes, “It is great to build those smaller upper-back muscles like the lower traps and the serratus anterior, but if you neglect the bottom half of your anatomy, pain can persist.”
Posterior Chain Exercises
To start shoring up your lower posterior chain, “single-leg or double-leg hip bridges are easy to do and fantastic,” Falcon says. He also recommends an exercise called the Superman. “This is when you lie belly-down on the ground and lift all your limbs up toward the ceiling. This will help stimulate all the little muscles in the torso that aim to maintain good posture.” Finally, he says, “I would also suggest stretching some muscles on the anterior side, specifically the chest, shoulders, neck, and abdomen. All this can be done by lying down belly-up on a stability ball. Place the ball around low to mid-back, reach your arms out to the side, and go back into a little backbend. You don’t really need to go far. Just pushing back a little while sinking your hips down to the floor and letting your head drop back will do wonders.”
Try mixing in some of Lohre’s exercise recommendations too. “Hand release push-ups are one of my very favorite exercises, not just for the lower back but for the whole body,” she says. “Begin in a strong plank position, shoulders directly over your hands and a straight line from your ankles to the shoulders. While keeping your elbows tucked in toward your sides, lower down slowly until your chest and thighs touch the ground. Maintain your elbows tight into the body and lift up slightly through your lower back to bring your hands off the ground and your chest up. Focus on using those erector muscles as the source of the lift and keep your scapula retracted.”
Finally, try plié wall squats. “I love that this combination exercise activates the entire lower posterior chain, benefiting the glutes, hamstrings, and calves while still supporting the lower back,” Lohre says. “Using a large stability ball, head to a sturdy wall and place the ball low at your glutes/lower back. Take the feet wider than your shoulders and turn your toes outward. While keeping the lower back pressed against the ball, slowly lower down until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Press through your heels and maintain good posture with the ball supporting your back as you rise back up to the starting position.”
Try mixing and matching any of these movements, or branch out and research others for the posterior chain on your own or with a trainer. It may be challenging at first, but you’ll find that your balance, athleticism, and posture will most likely improve once you get your back—and glutes and hammies—on track.
Always consult with your health-care practitioner before beginning a new exercise regime.
Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, OR, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.