Whether its learning how to deadlift and build strength, or finding the best “booty workout”, lower body training is a hot topic these days.

Training can’t be all deadlifts or booty workouts all the time, though. You’ll need a variety of exercises that focus on different muscles and work them from different positions.

I challenge you to think beyond training one body part or obsessing over one exercise.

If you really want to get strong and turn heads, train your entire backside!

The main lower body, or “backside” muscles responsible for movement are the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and erector spinae.

Image of posterior anatomy, showing gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles. The erector spinae group is not shown, as it lies beneath the latissimus dorsi and lumbodorsal fascia. Image courtesy of Human Anatomy Charity.

All three muscle groups attach to the pelvis. The gluteus maximus and hamstrings extend the hips, while the erector spinae extends and laterally flexes the spinal column (1).

Why You Need to Train These Muscles for More Than Looks…

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve your appearance, it doesn’t take much more effort to train your body for strength and durability.

The need for strength and strong posterior muscles becomes obvious when you consider the prevalence and risks associated with lower back pain:

  • Lower back pain is the most prevalent cause of disability worldwide, and it is estimated that roughly 80 percent of adults will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives (2).
  • Muscle strains, ligament sprains, and stress are the most common causes of acute back pain. (3)
  • As of 2016, lower back injuries accounted for 38.5% of all missed work days due to injury. (4)

That’s a lot to take in! Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to reduce your risk of injury. Resistance training is one of them.

Benefits of resistance training

Improved muscular coordination and control.

Getting stronger, bigger, or leaner aren’t the only benefits of resistance training. You’re learning to actively contract and relax different muscles of the body. Over time, muscle groups work better with each other and you have more control over your body.

In the case of the posterior chain, we want to train the gluteus maximus to work before the lower back and hamstrings in movements involving hip extension.

Not only is this important for injury prevention, but it is a necessary step in the process of getting stronger and learning more complex movements.

This is the reason for the exercises included below and why I left out squats and deadlifts. These are great exercises, but they’re also tricky and with a lot going on. You’re better off learning to actively contract and use your glutes with less complicated movements.

Increased strength and muscular endurance.

Low fitness level, weak back and abdominal muscles, and occupational risks such as heavy lifting, pushing, and pulling are some of the risk factors associated with low back pain.

A well-designed resistance training program solves all of these problems without the need for surgery, pain medication, or time away from your job or other activities.

Making your body stronger, more durable, and able to withstand physical stress is a no-brainer. At the very least, learning to lift, lower, and move moderately heavy things in a controlled environment decreases your risk of injury and prepares you for work or other activities you might miss out on due to pain or discomfort.

Don’t forget the hamstrings!

Lower back injuries are a widespread problem, but hamstring injuries are common too. This is particularly important for athletes of any level, as they are at higher risk of injury due to the dynamic nature of sports (5).

Make sure you include exercises to strengthen your hamstrings!

The hamstrings are a group of three muscles located on the back of the upper thigh. They are unique in that they cause movement at two joints; the hip and the knee.

Because of this, you’ll need to include exercises that flex the knee (leg curls, for example) as well as exercises that extend the hips to ensure proper strength and development of these muscles.

Ok, enough talk. Let’s get to the exercises!

Bridges

If you want strong glutes and a sexy backside, mastering this exercise is an absolute must.

Why?

This is the most simple exercise for learning to extend the hips and contract your glutes. If you can’t get this right you will struggle with more advanced exercises.

The goal of the exercise is to lift your hips using only your glutes. Like any exercise, this will take some practice if you’ve never done it before or have trouble feeling it where you’re supposed to. Don’t get frustrated!

One of the more common issues with bridges is getting a cramp in the back of the upper leg. This happens when the hamstrings work more than the glutes. The hamstrings also extend the hips, but we shouldn’t feel them first when trying to isolate the glutes.

To contract your glutes, imagine that you’re trying to “squeeze your cheeks” together. You might feel like you’re holding yourself from going to the bathroom, but with practice you should be able to separate the two actions.

Start slow and don’t “jerk” into the movement. You can try moving your feet a little further away from your body as well.

The video shows the double and single leg versions, but there are other ways to do bridges. Place your feet on a step or bench to increase the range of motion, or add a partial rep to each full rep for an added challenge and more burn!

Hip Thrusts

This exercise is similar to a bridge, but the elevated position allows for greater range of motion.

To set up for this exercise, get your upper back on a bench at or just below armpit level. Keep your abs tight and lower your hips to the floor. Imagine your upper body is a seesaw, and as your hips move toward the floor your upper body pivots off the bench.

If you lower your hips without moving your upper body, you’re getting the range of motion by arching your lower back.

This is the most common mistake made with this and other exercises involving hip extension. If you’re doing it this way you won’t feel the exercise in your glutes and you’re putting your spine at risk.

Don’t “bend” in the middle while doing this one. Brace and tighten your abs, and remember to pivot off the bench.

As with any exercise, get the form correct before you add a lot of weight. Get it right to get the results you want!

Romanian Deadlift

This targets the glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors, as all three muscle groups are responsible for hip extension.

You can perform this in a parallel stance, split stance to focus on one leg at a time, or stop short of flexing the glutes to target the hamstrings.

This exercise can be tricky. Getting the “hip hinge” down takes practice and  not everyone learns the same way. If you’re having a hard time getting this one, practice against a wall with no weight.

The video below has 3 exercises that progress from using the wall to the single leg version. I use these with clients when they have a hard time figuring it out. Hopefully they will help you too!

Kickbacks

This is another great but often butchered exercise. Remember that with any exercise the goal is to use the right muscles to perform the movement, not necessarily get the biggest range of motion possible.

That’s the mistake made with this exercise, as you see people swinging the leg as high as possible and arching the low back.

You are strongest and most stable with a neutral spine and your legs directly under your hips, and that is the position you want to be in to finish this movement. Use your glutes to push your leg back instead of up toward the ceiling.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a strength exercise. However, I find it helpful for teaching the movement and as a high rep exercise towards the end of a session. This is one that my clients seem to “get” right away and like because they feel the muscle working.

You’ll need a set of mini-resistance bands for this exercise. The 4Kor bands are what I use and recommend to clients. I like these because the set goes from light to extra heavy and they come in a pouch so it’s easy to keep track of them.

Clam & Seated Hip Abduction

So far, all of our exercises have focused on the gluteus maximus and hamstrings. Hip extension is an important movement to learn, but your glutes do more than that.

The other two gluteal muscles, the gluteus medius and minimus, are responsible for abduction (away from the center of the body) and internal rotation of the leg (6). These muscles are also important for stabilizing the pelvis in a single leg stance.

These exercises target the gluteus minimus and lateral rotators of the hip. You can do these lying on your side, seated, or progress to a standing version to increase the difficulty.

For the standing single leg version of this exercise, pay attention to the knee of the leg you’re standing on. Keep the knee slightly bent, and make sure it doesn’t “fall in” towards the other leg.

These bands were made for exercises like this, so it’s a good idea to keep one or two around. The mini-bands work alright here, but they are more likely to break from the big range of motion.

You can also use the hip bands on hip thrusts, bridges, and squats. I use these during clients’ warm ups to “remind” them to pay attention to the position of their knees.

Tips For Best Results

Slow down!

If you’re flying through reps trying to get the set over as fast as possible, I suggest that you reconsider.

You can’t learn at full speed! Moving slower during new movements gives your brain and muscles time to adapt to and understand what’s going on. This is how you develop good technique.

Lifting weights builds strength, but so does lowering them! Ignoring this part of your repetitions leaves a lot of progress on the table.

Control your reps and slow down, especially on the lowering part. This is one of the most simple ways to get more from your efforts in the gym without longer workouts, more reps, or adding more exercises.

Move from your hips.

If I could give one piece of advice that would bring better muscle development, increased strength, spare your knees and back, and allow you to move without worrying about injuries, it would be this.

Learn to move from your hips!

It sounds simple, but it is a challenge because you’re learning new exercises and aren’t sure what to do or what you’re supposed to feel and where.

Don’t go through the motions just to “feel the burn”. Take the time to understand how to use your glutes and how your hips move with each exercise.

Practice this as often as you can to really master it. Add exercises like bridges and wall hinges to your warm up so you’re ready to go when you get to the bigger exercises in your workout.

Find the weak spot, then drill the crap out of it.

This is something I picked up playing guitar. When you come up against a difficult part of a song or something that causes a breakdown in technique, my instructor taught us to find the “weak spot”.

Focus on the difficult section and create exercises to improve that technique or weak spot. After deliberately performing these isolation exercises, you go back to what you were playing before and integrate your (if you practiced correctly) improved technique.

You can do the exact same thing with lifting!

If you’re struggling with an exercise or aren’t “feeling it” where you should, take a step back to a less difficult version. Do a few sets and focus on good movement and deliberate muscle contractions. When you go back to the exercise you were struggling with, you should have an easier time with it.

Of course, these aren’t the only posterior chain exercises. There are plenty more, so leave a comment and let me know which are your favorite!

References
  1. Sieg, Kay W, and Sandra P Adams. “Section 1C.” Illustrated Essentials of Musculoskeletal Anatomy, 5th ed., Megabooks, 2009, p. 97,102, 1o3, 164.
  2. Rubin Dl. Epidemiology and Risk Factors for Spine Pain. Neurol Clin. 2007; May;25(2):353-71
  3. “Back Injuries Prominent in Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorder Cases in 2016.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 28 Aug. 2018
  4. “Low Back Pain Fact Sheet.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  5. “Injury Rate, Mechanism, and Risk Factors of Hamstring Strain Injuries in Sports: A Review of the Literature.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 21 July 2012
  6. Sieg, Kay W, and Sandra P Adams. “Section 1C.” Illustrated Essentials of Musculoskeletal Anatomy, 5th ed., Megabooks, 2009, p. 98, 99.