It’s impossible to say which skeletal muscles are the most important, as each one has such different functions. However, there is a strong case for putting the posterior chain at the top of the list because it’s such a powerful group of muscles.
Technically, the posterior chain refers to every muscle on the back of your body. But, for the sake of simplicity, that’s typically whittled down to just three muscles – the hamstrings, gluteus maximus, and erector spinae.
Together, these muscles extend your hips and spine, holding you up against the never-ending pull of gravity. However, they’re also your “engine room” and are the muscles responsible for driving you forward and upward when you run and jump.
You can train each individual posterior chain muscle in isolation, but that’s not how they work in nature. Instead, it’s best to train them as they function – together.
One of the most accessible posterior chain exercises is a move called hyperextensions. This simple bodyweight exercise is often thought of as a lower back exerciser. Still, it’s much more than that and provides your glutes and hamstrings with a good workout, too.
But what if you don’t have a hyperextension bench for your workouts? Maybe, because you train at home.
Don’t worry; there are plenty of equally effective exercises that you can use to develop your posterior chain utilizing a variety of workout equipment.
Posterior Chain Anatomy
While it’s not essential to know all the ins and outs of posterior chain anatomy, a basic understanding of how this muscle group works can be helpful. Feel free to skip this section, though, if you just want to get on with your workout!
The hamstrings are a biarticular muscle group which means it crosses two joints: the knees and the hips. As a result, the hamstrings are responsible for two major joint actions; knee flexion and hip extension, although hyperextensions involve minimal knee flexion. There are three hamstring muscles:
- Biceps femoris
Known as the glutes for short, this is the largest muscle in the human body (and you thought it was your biceps!). Working with your hamstrings, glute max is a powerful hip extender. It is also involved in the abduction and external rotation of your hip.
The erector spinae muscles are really three muscles: spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis. These muscles run the length of your spine, from the bottom to the top. It’s responsible for extending your spine and also plays a part in lateral flexion. When it contracts isometrically or statically, the erector spinae holds your spine upright and prevents it from rounding.
Top Ten Hyperextension Alternatives
Whether you don’t have access to a hyperextension bench or just don’t like this exercise very much, there are lots of other ways to strengthen your posterior chain.
Here are 10 of the best exercises for your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
1. Cable Pull-through
With hyperextensions, the least amount of weight you can use is your body weight. This may be too much for some exercisers. In contrast, with cable pull-throughs, you can use as little or as much weight as you want, making them ideal for beginner, intermediate, and advanced exercisers.
While cable pull-throughs do engage your entire posterior chain, they’re pretty lower-back friendly, making them a good choice if you suffer from lower back pain.
Related: Learn how to do this exercise in our detailed guide.
2. Reverse Hyperextension
If you don’t have a hyperextension bench, you may not have a reverse hyperextension machine either. But, in case you do, this exercise is an excellent alternative to regular hyperextensions. With this movement, your body remains stationary as you extend your legs out behind you. Because your back is supported, it is another lower back-friendly exercise.
Related: Learn how to do reverse hyperextensions here.
3. Romanian Deadlift
You can’t beat a barbell exercise for building strength and muscle size. Romanian deadlifts are very effective for training your posterior chain and can help teach and reinforce the hip hinge motion that’s so important for safe and effective exercise performance. Minimize lumbar spine stress by keeping your knees slightly bent when doing this exercise.
Related: Learn how to do Romanian deadlifts here.
4. Barbell Hip Thrust
Barbell hip thrusts don’t look a lot like hyperextension, but they’re every bit as effective for working your posterior chain. While there is nothing wrong with the bodyweight variation of this move, using a barbell will build and strengthen your posterior chain more effectively. Place a folded mat under the barbell to protect your hips, especially when using heavy weights.
Related: Read this article and find out how to do barbell hip thrusts.
5. Deficit Deadlift
All types of deadlifts involve your posterior chain. But, if you are serious about building powerful hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors, deficit deadlifts could be your best choice. Deficit deadlifts increase your range of motion, putting more stress on the target muscles. Needless to say, deficit deadlifts are a whole lot tougher than the regular version, so don’t go too heavy too soon.
Related: Learn how to do deficit deadlifts here.
6. Kettlebell Swing
You can do lots of exercises with a kettlebell, but the two-handed swing is arguably one of the best. Not only does it work your posterior chain like hyperextensions, but it builds explosive power too. Power is your ability to generate force quickly and is a crucial ingredient in most sports.
There are two main ways to do swings; the American swing and the Russian swing. The American swing, which is popular with CrossFit, involves raising the weight overhead. In contrast, Russian swings only lift the weight to around shoulder height.
Both options are good for your posterior chain, but the Russian swing may be easier on your lower back. Try them both to determine which one works best for you.
Related: Check out our guide to kettlebell swings here.
7. Good Morning
Good mornings are challenging posterior chain exercise, which is probably you won’t see many people doing them. The long lever puts a lot of stress on your erector spinae and lumbar spine, so you’ll have to work extra hard to stop your lower back rounding. But, if you can do this movement with good form, you’ll be rewarded with a very effective posterior chain workout. Just make sure you brace your core and DON’T round your lower back!
Related: Find out how to do good mornings here.
8. Reverse High Plank
The high reverse plank is a challenging calisthenic alternative to hyperextensions. It requires and develops good shoulder flexibility and can be done both isometrically (held statically for time) or dynamically (for reps).
If tight shoulders make this exercise uncomfortable (or impossible!), you can also do it with bent arms and while resting on your elbows.
Related: Learn how to do reverse high planks here.
9. Stability Ball Hyperextension
You don’t need a hyperextension bench to do hyperextensions. You could do this exercise on the floor, but the range of motion is very small. Instead, use a stability ball to give you more freedom of movement.
How to do it:
- Lie face-down on your stability ball with the ball under your hips. Brace your feet against a wall for balance. Place your hands on your temples or across your chest.
- Keeping your legs stationary, push your hips into the ball and lift your torso up until your shoulders, knees, and hips form a straight line.
- Lower your upper body back down and repeat.
10. Stability Ball Hip Lift and Leg Curl
This bodyweight exercise combines leg curls and hip extensions to really hammer your hammies and glutes. Your lower back IS involved, but it’s not working especially hard. This could be beneficial for some exercisers.
How to do it:
- Lie on your back with your legs straight and feet resting on a stability ball. Place your hands on the floor by your side for balance.
- Push your heels into the ball to lift your butt off the floor, so your body is straight.
- Next, bend your legs and pull the ball toward you. Push your hips up to the ceiling as you roll the ball in.
- Push the ball away so your legs are straight, and then lower your hips back down to the floor.
- That’s one rep – keep going!
Hyperextension Alternatives – Wrapping Up
We have a saying in the fitness industry – if you always do what you have always done, you’ll always get what you always got. This basically means that if you want to continue making progress, you can’t do the same exercises over and over. Instead, you need to shake up your workouts from time to time by using a variety of training methods.
While hyperextensions are a great exercise, they’ll lose their potency if you do them too often.
So, don’t get stuck in a posterior chain training rut; liven up your workouts with these ten equally effective hyperextension alternatives.