You will often hear Lifters brag about their squat strength, and whilst it's great to be able to squat big numbers, and can aid in Olympic Weightlifting, it is not the measure of the sport.
First of all, if you are a Weightlifter then yes, you should be squatting. Considering both lifts in Olympic Weightlifting force the athlete to catch the bar in a squat position (overhead for the Snatch and in front for the Clean), then yes, it would be wise to train the strength and stability of your squat.
Realistically however, you're not going to get a chance to stand up with the bar if you can’t pull it to begin with.
Enter Posterior Strength
If you spend a great deal of effort squatting with little actual pulling in your training programme, then chances are your posterior system is comparatively weak.
The posterior chain encompasses the entire musculature of the back of the body. Within the context of Weightlifting, we are most concerned about the strength of our backs, hamstrings and glutes. These are the muscle groups that essentially support the body during the pull and beyond.
There are different phases to the pull in Olympic Lifting and different schools have different terminologies. For simplicity, I will refer to three distinct phases of the pull as: the first pull (from ground to slightly above knee), the transition (from knee to hip), and second pull (from hip upwards).
The posterior chain is most stressed during the first pull and transition phase given to the nature of an athlete's positioning. A great degree of eccentric stress is placed on the hamstrings as the Lifter pushes the floor away in the first pull. Similarly the muscles of the back support the trunk isometrically during this phase and, therefore they must be adept at resisting flexion at high loads and speed.
The glutes also play a crucial role in stabilising and extending the hips throughout the pull, more specifically during the second pull. Consequently, should the pull be weak for an athlete, then they would need to strengthen the posterior chain.
Posterior Chain Development
Taking all considerations into account, the context of the sport and demands placed on the body, the best way strengthen the pull is to… Pull.
Nothing fancy here, but mimicking the movement at various loads and speeds will help translate to the real thing. You'll often see or hear of programmes where pulling exercise are prescribed over 100% of best Snatches and Cleans. This is because the athlete is focussing on strengthen the pulling component of the lift.
Of course there is also merit to pulling with sub-maximal weights. Where you are in your training phase will dictate the loads used. Ultimately however, to get better at something, you have to practice it.
Aside from pulls, which you should be doing regularly, there are other exercises which can also develop the posterior chain.
Romanian Deadlifts (RDL)
These are a great exercise to strengthen the transition phase of the Olympic Lift as it imposes a similar position and movement on the body. The lowering phase of an RDL eccentrically loads the hamstrings (ring any bells?) And works the back musculature isometrically. The upwards phase of the lift works the glutes and hamstrings as a hip extensor; all criteria of the second pull.
Typically you'll want to use a load that allows you to do sets of 4-8 reps of this type of movement for strength.
Another great exercise for posterior chain development are Good Mornings. These fashion a similar movement to RDL’s except with the bar placed on your shoulders behind your head.
This change in bar placement increases the leverage and stress placed upon the back musculature and can be used as a “lighter” alternative when one is looking to decrease their overall training load.
You can really emphasise the eccentric portion of the lift and get those hamstrings singing. People tend to veer to towards one end of the ‘how to make these exercises as inefficient as possible’ spectrum.
At one side, there are individuals who never use more than 5kg and use the exercise for stretching purposes.
On the other side, you unfortunately have those who load up to much, going beyond an acceptable range of motion and end up lifting the bar like quasimodo.
Both the stretch and strength components are important in these movements, so get yourself in the middle.
This is a great hip extension exercise, but only if it is actually performed with hip extension. Typically you'll want to perform this exercise with a load that allows you to do 6-12 reps.
Speaking of hip extension, there is more and more research coming out that suggest the barbell hip thrust to be superior in glute development than back squats and deadlifts.
Bear with me here…
The barbell hip thrust is similar to a glute bridge but with shoulders elevated and external loading placed with a bar.
Because of this positioning, hip extension can be isolated and consequently loaded significantly. With more loading comes the potential for greater gains in strength due to greater innovation of muscle fibres. For 'buns of steel' you'll definitely want to consider adding this isolated hip extension exercise. You could go heavy for sets of 1-5 or perform lighter reps of 6-10 for more glute development than strength.
Back Extensions/ Hyper Extensions
For more specific isolated works, it is common for athletes to perform exercises like back extension or reverse hypers for the back. This again can be used to stress the back muscle both concentrically, isometrically and eccentrically.
If you have access to a reverse hyper apparatus or GHD, then it's well worth finishing your training sessions with some isolated back extension.
Isolated exercises tend to work better with higher reps as opposed to heavy, fewer reps, so try this one with your bodyweight or weight that allows 8-20 reps per set.
Lastly, one underutilised exercise in Weightlifting are Nordic curls.
To be able to do a full rep on one of these means you have some seriously strong hammies. As opposed to the hamstrings working as hip extensors like in RDLs, the hamstrings work eccentrically as knee flexors in this exercise.
This exercise is as brutal as it is simple. To perform this movement, simply anchor your feet down with an apparatus or partner and start the exercise on your knees.
To initiate, you must lean forward, as far as you can go, whilst maintaining a complete upright torso with your hips locked forward.
The aim here is to slowly lower your body all the way down to the ground. If you can do that bit, then come back up the same way without bending your back or shooting your hips out. In Strength Circles, this exercise is used as a injury prevention tool to offset strains and sprains in the hamstring from activities such as sprinting.
Now, although there clearly is no sprinting involved in Weightlifting, it definitely would not hurt your chances to develop pure eccentric strength in the hamstrings, especially given that there is a eccentric demand on the hamstring throughout the Olympic pull.
With this one you'll definitely want to slowly increase the reps as your able to perform more and more of the movement. Try with sets of 3 Eccentric Nordics at first before increasing your reps or going for the full movement without any support.
So far, we have spoken about extension but the hamstrings also act to flex the knee. This can then be developed by doing exercises such as leg curls on a machine or even with a band with an appropriate set up.
Typically seen as a rehabilitation tool, this piece of equipment is great to isolate your hamstrings without stressing other parts of the body and definitely has its place in any training plan.
With the band or a machine, you can work at any rep scheme. However, I'd say it's best in the 6-12 range for general strength and hypertrophy.
Aside from the lower body, you also have a plethora of rows that can be utilised to improve the posterior chain.
My personal favourite would be the Bent Over Row (BOR). This is because you are actively holding a bent over position, forcing an isometric contraction throughout the entire posterior chain, prior to working the primers of the movement, which are the muscles of the middle and upper back (rhomboids, trapz and latts).
Because of the added weight trying to pull the body down, the posterior chain gets a great workout.
Alternatives to this exercise for those who find this a little too difficult at first, are movements such as inverse rows or ring rows. This is where the aim is to hold an inverted plank position while you pull your body towards a bar/ring. Again the focus is on maintaining a solid body throughout the movement whilst you effectively “pull” yourself up.
To strengthen your posterior chain, you will need to:
Target the upper, middle and lower back.
Target the glutes.
Target the hamstrings.
Focus on movement which targets hip extension, back extension and knee flexion.
Consider single leg variations of the exercises mentioned.
Work these muscle groups eccentrically, isometrically and concentrically.
Hopefully this gives you some ideas on how to go about approaching your posterior chain development. Of course as with any exercise you should be looking to build up slowly and emphasises movement quality over the loads lift.
By Angelo Noto
Strength & Conditioning and Weightlifting Coach.