The Anterior Chain: Don't Neglect It
As of late, the posterior chain gets so much attention and credit, and the loyal, reliable anterior chain seems to be regarded with disdain, or at least neglected in an undeservedly hurtful manner. Despite this poor treatment, it remains and continues working diligently.
This is not to say (an expression one of my college professors used in infuriating excess while shamelessly demonstrating his vomitous infatuation with romantic era English poetry), of course, that the posterior chain is not deserving of attention; simply that one must balance the training of anterior and posterior chains appropriately, and prevent excessive development of one to the detriment of the other with regard to determined needs.
If an athlete’s sport or particular position within that sport demands greater posterior chain than anterior chain development, or if a given athlete's development is imbalanced incorrectly between the two, then by all means, that athlete needs to train accordingly with more posterior chain work. However, based on casual observation I’ve declined to make formal, it appears that many individuals have begun increasing the emphasis on posterior chain training, not with regard to their actual needs, but more as one would alter clothing to suit the day’s fashions.
Most of us value the abs implicitly, because most of us like doing ab work, whether to aid our athletic performance or to look athletic. Many of us end up including hip flexor work in our ab work, intentionally or not, although many who do would simultaneously tell you that you shouldn’t do too much hip-flexor work.
The quads have garnered a bad reputation, seemingly because of their association with knee pain and injuries; because quad-dominance in athletes and partial-depth squats that rely largely on the quads have been determined to be potentially injurious, folks have apparently decided that the quads are inherently problematic, as if a design flaw in the human body, the strength and participation in movement of which need to be carefully limited.
The problem is that this mindset is cramping people’s athletic development unnecessarily. The pendulum is swinging too far to the posterior side. Encouragement to correct the common anterior dominance is, instead of balancing anterior and posterior strength, creating posterior dominance. In some cases and ways, this may be somewhat of an improvement, but it misses the point by failing to develop the balance that’s actually needed—and again, what’s needed will vary to an extent among individuals.
The common argument to this is that few individuals are Olympic weightlifters, and therefore don’t see a problem with posterior chain dominance. While it’s of course true that weightlifters make up a very small percentage of total trainees, these are not the only individuals who need to be able to squat and pull with an upright posture. In a room filled randomly with athletes and fitness enthusiasts, I’d be willing to bet that of all the pertinent and valuable training modalities they’re either using or need to be using, the one at which they're the least adept is Olympic lifting.
This is due in large part to poor or absent technique instruction and misunderstanding, but also to some degree simply a lack of strength and flexibility in the necessary positions. Addressing these shortcomings very quickly improves individuals’ Olympic lift performance. More importantly, in no way does it negatively impact any posterior chain emphasis movements. In other words, if we train it all, it all works. Improved Olympic lifting benefits all athletes employing it in their training, not just competitive weightlifters.
We can find other examples of such posterior chain dominance—or, more accurately, anterior chain underdevelopment—being problematic. The push press, for example, is overwhelmingly performed improperly by athletes other than weightlifters. This is of course in part a problem of instruction, but in equal or greater part a problem of the athletes’ physical inability to perform the exercise correctly. Athletes whose only exposure to squatting and pulling is of the posterior-chain emphasis variety not only find it odd to dip with a perfectly vertical torso, but find that with any significant weight they’re unable to because their quads can’t manage the load. And then they complain about it hurting their knees, that they can’t lift as much, and use this to justify their return to their dropped-chest hips-back push presses and jerks, failing to understand that this is what is truly limiting their lifts.
To be clear, this is not a call for the sudden removal of any posterior-chain development in your training; this is simply encouragement for training in a way that balances the anterior and posterior chains to ensure individuals are strong and flexible through the spectrum of movements.
Squatting & Pulling
We see anterior chain weakness manifesting in a number of ways. By far the most common is demonstrated in the positioning of the deadlift and the first pulls of the snatch and clean. I can instruct people to perform the exercises correctly all I want, but as the weight increases, the body will shift itself into the positions in which it’s strongest and to which it’s most accustomed.
In other words, if an individual’s quads are weak relative to his or her posterior chain, we’re going to see in heavier lifts, no matter how hard he or she is fighting it, the hips shoot up and leave the shoulders behind during the first pull of the snatch and clean and in the deadlift. There’s nothing particularly surprising or anatomically curious about this—the body is simply extending the knee to a point at which the joint’s mechanics can make up for the relatively weak quad and shift the bulk of the effort to the stronger hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors. Along with technique instruction and practice, then, we have a need for position-specific strength development.
Similarly, we’re going to see this hip-leading in the squat as well; that is, when recovering from the squat, the individual will naturally and unavoidably extend the knees to a more mechanically advantageous angle while the shoulders (and bar) move very little if at all. This is easily the biggest problem people have with the front squat (and to a great extent the overhead squat). The unloading of the legs because of the quads’ weakness places them into a forward-leaning position in which they’re unable to support the weight of the bar.
Although it functions to force more concentrated posterior chain effort ultimately, leading with the hips in a pull or squat is not hip work itself; a constant back angle during a pull or squat means the hips are extending in concert with the knees rather than extending to a smaller degree first, and then finishing the movement later. What we want is balanced development to allow coordinated knee and hip extension rather than the see-saw movement of posterior-chain dominant individuals. That said, if a more hip-dominant squat and pull position is appropriate for your chosen sport or activity, and you're able to move in the correct positions for them, don't lose any sleep over this.
The hip flexors are a tricky part of this lovely anterior chain. We want to develop their strength and our ability to recruit them when necessary, but we also need to be cautious of the easily-developed inflexibility.
The hip flexors play a number of important roles, but one of the most critical is the maintenance of the positional relationship of the pelvis and spine by opposing the pull of the hamstrings and glutes. This becomes integral to the maintenance of lumbar lordosis in the bottom position of the squat and during deadlifts and other pulling movements. The hamstrings and glutes will, as they contract, rotate the pelvis posteriorly, flexing the lumbar spine and placing it in a structurally unsound position. Activation of the hip flexors in these positions and movements will counter this pelvic rotation and contribute to proper spine and pelvis positioning.
The key with the hip flexors—no different with any other muscles—is developing adequate strength and activation while also developing and/or maintaining adequate flexibility to preserve joint mobility. Because much of the more interesting core exercises involve hip flexion, and stretching the hip flexors is difficult, uncomfortable and easy to neglect, it’s fairly common for athletes to develop problematically tight hip flexors. This then often leads to the reduction or elimination of exercises involving the hip flexors in an effort to combat this increasing tightness. Of course, this just shifts the imbalance in the other direction, and often further shortens the muscles (weak muscles tend to exist in the shortest state possible for protection). Instead, hip flexor work should be continued, although possibly at a reduced volume temporarily, and flexibility work added to re-open the hips and maintain this mobility.
An easy way to ensure the hip flexors are being stretched is to force yourself or your clients to stretch them during and after any exercises involving considerable hip flexor action. For example, a set of lunge stretches between each set of hanging leg raises, and then another when finished, or possibly the death stretch, will help relieve the tension generated by the exercise. Unsurprisingly, nearly every individual who reports lower back pain during Roman chair or glute-ham bench sit-ups—after correcting any positioning errors—in my experience responds very well to hip flexor stretching before and during the exercise.
Making it Work
I suppose the theme of this article can be distilled to the simple notion of balance. Balance, whether between posterior and anterior chains, or between strength and flexibility, will keep you functioning well rather than constantly bouncing between limitations and over-corrections. Take the time to evaluate your training, your movement, your posture and your perspective and be sure you know why you’re doing what you’re doing and whether it truly serves your particular needs or simply the whims or preferences of others.