Activation of the posterior chain for lower back dysfunction – Johnny Fuller, Manager, Paramedical Services, Swimming Canada
Good things come to those who squat… whilst activating the posterior chain!
Research into injury prevalence within competitive swimming consistently shows that shoulder & upper arm complaints are, by far, the most frequently reported musculoskeletal disorder. Lower back issues are a distant second. In many of these cases of lower back issues, the root cause is the same; muscle weakness through the lower body posterior chain – more specifically, glute & hamstring insufficiency.
This will briefly present why we need to focus on activating the posterior chain – certainly it is a concept that is less well understood and, perhaps as a result of this, consistently overlooked in practice at all levels of the swimming pyramid.
Most coaches recognize the role of the quadriceps as one of the primary propulsive muscles utilized in swimming (alongside Latissimus Dorsi and Pectoralis Major). In acknowledgement of this, a lot of dry-land training programs (that I witness) are too focused on prioritizing the development of this muscle group. This often results in a situation whereby athletes effectively become ‘quad dominant’ – the uneven strength distribution (between anterior and posterior portion of the upper legs) becomes ingrained, necessary muscular ‘co-contraction’ fails to materialize, joints become less stable, muscle activation sequences are adversely affected and movement patterns become confused. This creates an environment whereby the lower body becomes vulnerable and exposed to injury – either through instability, muscle weakness and/or ‘muscular overload’ (resulting from an increased demand on a particular muscle(s) as a result of weakness elsewhere in the kinetic chain).
Working on glute and hamstring strengthening – alongside the quads – will significantly improve this common anterior/posterior chain imbalance and, in doing so, reduce the risk of some of the other most prevalent swimming injuries (especially around the lower back, hips and knees). In addition, and just as importantly, strengthening the glutes and hamstrings will significantly improve core stability and trunk alignment – ultimately helping to improve body position in all strokes, reduce drag coefficients and enable improved stroke mechanics. In short, developing these posterior chain muscles will enhance stroke efficiency and harness additional propulsive power.
So, some simple re-focusing of dry-land training habits can help athletes reduce the risk of injury AND help to maximize performance potential!
And, there is more good news; the glutes and hamstrings are reasonably easy to activate and are keen to work. The human body prefers to be balanced and aligned… it is far more efficient, and generally less stressed, when it is enjoying a sense of equilibrium. As such, some simple exercises – employed correctly and consistently around the current training program – can ‘switch on’ these muscle groups and encourage them to begin working for (rather than against) your athletes.
Outlined below are some of the key glute/hamstring activation exercises that I recommend employing. As with most muscular activation and recruitment drills, these exercises are generally most effective when performed with a low number of repetitions, at a slow/controlled pace and with a complete focus on correct technique. In order to ensure the posterior chain is activated, I generally integrate these four particular exercises to every athlete’s personal pre-pool or pre-gym routine:
Athlete performs a slow deep bodyweight squat with a resistance band placed just under the knees. Focus should be placed on maintaining outward pressure on the band throughout the entire movement – particularly in the final 20% of downward motion and first 25% of upward motion (where the tendency is for glute muscles to ‘switch off’). Advise 3x5reps.
Banded Lateral Walks:
Athlete places resistance band just under knees and stands upright with a wide stance and slight knee bend (approx. 1/8th squat). Athlete then moves laterally for 15secs and then reverses direction for a further 15secs (repeat 3 times). Focus should be places on maintaining wide stance (taking ‘micro’ side-steps) and maintaining outward pressure on the band throughout lateral movement. Advise 3x30secs.
Glute Medius Activation:
Athlete lies in a prone position with mini resistance band placed around ankles. Athlete then raises one leg off the ground, externally rotates this leg (turns foot outwards) and then abducts the leg (moves leg outwards). The final position for 2secs before allowing leg to return to the rest position and repeating with opposite limb. Movement range is the maximum possible – dictated by athlete’s own mobility and band resistance. Focus should be on achieving the maximum available range for each stage of movement (hip extension, external rotation & abduction), maintaining straight leg and holding end position for 2 seconds. Non-active leg can be used to ‘anchor’ movement by pushing down into the ground. Advise 3x3reps each leg.
Proprioceptive Bridge Raise:
Athlete lies in supine position with active leg placed on medicine ball. In-active leg is not used to assist movement (bring knee to chest or lift leg straight up – ensure it remains motionless throughout drill). Arms can be placed by the side, out to the side or above head in ‘streamline’ position – these represent increasing levels of instability/difficulty/activation potential. Athlete placed direct downwards pressure onto the ball and slowly raises hips until linear body position is achieved. Once stability is achieved in this position, hips are slowly returned to rest position. Focus should be on maintaining direct downwards pressure on ball throughout movement, controlling lateral motion (instability) and ensuring slow pace throughout. If drill is too difficult, athletes can begin on the ground and gradually increase level of instability (BOSU ball, lacrosse ball, medicine ball, 45/55/65/75cm Swiss ball). Advise 3x5reps each leg.