I've worked with great athletes from various athletic backgrounds, including track, dancing, acrobatics, team sports, combat sports, strength sports, CrossFit®, and even golf.
I often hear the same complaints during our first consultation, "My lower back hurts," "My knees hurt," and "My hips hurt."
While there are many reasons an athlete may be experiencing pain, nine out of 10 times, these issues result from weakness in one or more muscles of the posterior chain, and they usually go away in as little as four to 12 weeks under my coaching.
I give everyone the same initial assessment when they come to me for strength coaching. I begin by looking at their physique. Most athletes with the previously mentioned complaints have overdeveloped quads, pecs, biceps, and front delts—all the muscles we want to look good in the mirror.
However, when I look at them from the back and the side, I see the opposite, underdeveloped hamstrings, glutes, upper back, rear delts, and erectors. After ruling out any major injuries or mobility issues, I will have them perform a bodyweight squat to a box slightly lower than parallel with a stance wider than shoulder width and best for their anatomy.
I will instruct them to break at the hips first, sit back, and do their best not to let the knee travel in front of the toes. What does this do? It forces them to use their glutes, hips, and hamstrings. When they lose control and fall backward before reaching the box, my work is cut out for me.
The box squat is the best way to assess the posterior chain. If you need to learn how to perform a box squat, elitefts has many great articles and YouTube videos you can reference.
It's interesting seeing a quad-dominant athlete squat 400 pounds but struggle to squat off a box with 135. You MUST develop the weakest link in the chain to eliminate pain, stay free from injury, and avoid athletic plateaus.
Lower Back Pain? Maybe You Have No Ass...
I don't mean you don't have a great-looking ass. What I mean is that you might have an ass that doesn't work. When your glutes and hamstrings are weak, your body will overcompensate by calling upon muscles in your lower back for stabilization. This ratio forces your lower back to work overtime, and I'm not just talking in the weight room. Doing something simple like carrying groceries, bending over to tie your shoelace, or flexing and extending your hips forces the lumbar to work harder than necessary if your glutes aren't doing their job.
Your glutes extend your hips, and the hamstrings perform two joint actions; knee flexion and hip extension, neither of which should be neglected.
For hip extension exercises, think less about locking your knees out and more about thrusting your hips forward with a hard glute contraction.
Remember, we are developing the posterior chain. Your quads will still extend your legs, but they won't be the primary muscles moving the weight.
Glute and Hamstring Exercises
The following are my go-to exercises for strengthening the glutes and hamstrings:
Drag the sled forward by taking strides slightly longer than you would if walking normally. Pull from the heel. This form will engage your glutes and hamstrings. Avoid working with a heavy weight, forcing you to take short, choppy steps and get into the quads again.
Hold onto the safety grips, break at the hips first and sit back into the squat, keeping a relatively vertical shin angle. Drive your knees out and drive your hips forward on the way up. Belt squats can also be done to a box plus a dozen other variations, so feel free to get creative.
Standing or Laying Leg Curls
Hamstrings protect the knee joint! Nothing to it but to do it. Leg curls are a simple and effective exercise that works knee flexion. Perform ultra-high repetitions in the 25 to 50 rep range to strengthen connective tissue to reduce pain and injury.
A group of muscles commonly neglected by athletes and their coaches is the glute medius, glute minimus, and external rotators. If you notice your knees collapsing in the squat, a weakness of these muscles may be the cause. Weak hips can also be the result of pain and discomfort.
The following are my go-to exercises for strengthening the hips:
Lateral Box Push
Grab a jump box. Put the edge of your foot flush with the box and push it sideways. It's a simple but effective movement. Dumbbells can be added for additional resistance. Be sure to keep your leg as straight as possible. The more you bend your knee, the more the quad will get involved.
Four-Way Hip Extension Machine
The four-way hip extension machine is a great tool for developing strong hips; however, most gyms don't have one.
Another exercise I love is belt marching with an ultra-wide stance. Load the belt squat machine with 50% of your body weight and walk in place for time. Do your best to remain wide and fight the urge to go narrower.
Lower Back Exercises
The following are my go-to exercises for strengthening the lower back:
The lower back contains a ton of connective tissue, which gets less blood than muscle. For this reason, connective tissue takes much longer to respond to a training stimulus. We can work around this by pumping the lower back full of blood with ultra-high repetitions with exercises like the reverse hyper.
Choose a weight you can do for 25 to 50 reps and perform 4 to 6 sets. You can do this every day.
Back Attack Machine
The Back Attack Machine and 45-Degree Back Extensions are excellent ways to bulletproof your lower back.
SSB Rounded Back Good Mornings
My all-time favorite exercise for developing the spinal erectors and the posterior chain is a rounded back good morning with the Safety Squat Bar.
When performed correctly, this exercise is brutal. The safety squat bar changes where the weight is placed in relation to your center of gravity, forcing your back and abdominals to overcompensate. The bar rests high on your shoulders and when bending over into a good morning puts you at a mechanical disadvantage.
Round your back slightly when bending over. On the way up, drive your back into the bar extending back to an upright position.
Go heavy for 4 to 6 reps.
Header image credit: Meana Albersworth
Chuck Simons is an Army veteran. He lives in Pinellas Park, Florida. As a strength coach, he works out of the Tampa Bay area and holds a Westside Barbell Certified Special Strength Coach certification. Chuck is a competitive powerlifter in the APF and a part of Barbell Barbell.