When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
What has happened to the posterior chain? Not too long ago, it was all the rage in the strength and conditioning industry, thanks in large part to Louie Simmons and his consistent feats of creating the strongest athletes on the planet. However, with long term athletic development now the new gold standard with today’s athlete, craftsmanship of the posterior chain seems to be a thing of the past—a fossil, forgotten.The pendulum has swung too far in favor of athletes’ ‘show’ muscles over their ‘go’ muscles, says @huntercharneski. Click To Tweet
I am not naïve enough to discount the importance of the anterior chain, as it is the “yin” to the posterior chain’s “yang,” but I do believe the pendulum has swung too far in favor of athletes’ “show” muscles. You win with what you cannot see, you win with what is behind you, and you most certainly win with a powerful set of “go” muscles. Having said that, let us set the mirror aside for now and walk through the progression model I use to aid the development of robust and resilient athletes on the quest for strength and speed.
Who Am I Serving?
Before I detail our plan, I have to preface it with the truth: I do not work with elite athletes. The athletes I am blessed to serve hope to bridge the gap between good and great. I share that for two reasons:
- Athletes aged 8-18 years old can become drastically better with nearly any training method, system, or parameter.
- Piggybacking off that, if you expect a never-before-seen, earth-shattering model for how I progress my athletes’ posterior chains, you will be radically disappointed. We perform the basics, with ruthless attention to detail.
I am lucky to serve a myriad of athletes: hockey, wrestling, tennis, you name it. The one commonality among all the athletes that darken our door is their burning desire for speed. However, they lack the driver (mechanics—specifically, upper body mobility), engine (posterior chain), tires (intermuscular coordination), and pit crew (competent coaches).
My Philosophy and the Plan
Our “philosophy” for the development and layering of the posterior chain may seem underwhelming to most readers, as we liken this model to a postage stamp—we stick to one thing until we get where we want to go. Depending on the quantitative or qualitative prescription, we either build muscle or movement. Particularly with qualitative prescription, it is not the “what” but the “how” that is of the utmost importance to us. The first progression model I detail is that of the dreaded hinge.
Building the Hinge is somewhat of a duality. We aim to cement a foundational movement pattern, as hinging can become bastardized quickly once we apply load. Having said that, we do need to overload the system in order to produce the horsepower needed (initially) for our athletes to go from 0-60 in no time. Fortunately for our athletes, they need not choose between “the ball and the sword,” as we provide both.
|Hinge Progression Movement||Volume|
|Hinge vs. Pipe||4 sets x 8-12 reps|
|Band Pull-Throughs||4 sets x 6-10 reps|
|Kettlebell RDL||4 sets x 6-8 reps|
|Barbell RDL||3 sets x 6-8 reps|
Hinge vs. Pipe
In my experience, athletes (especially youth) have tremendous difficulty differentiating between their hips and lower back. We have found success time and time again with the progression above, and the journey begins with an extremely sophisticated gadget—a PVC pipe.
The pipe provides phenomenal tactile feedback for the athlete, as it’s in constant contact with the head, spine, and coccyx. This allows the athlete to self-teach and correct before and during the movement’s execution, because if the pipe or body strays from the three points of contact, they are sure to fail.
Video 1. The pipe provides phenomenal tactile feedback for the athlete, as it’s in constant contact with the head, spine, and coccyx. This allows the athlete to self-teach and correct before and during the movement’s execution.
While the pipe takes care of everything above the waist, what strategy do we employ if the athlete, despite keeping spinal neutrality, wants to move vertically and not horizontally? We have found the following two options to be successful 100% percent of the time:
- Place a foam roller behind athlete and cue them to “knock” it over with their butt.
- Tell a story (with or without roller) of how they help their parents unload groceries from the car with their hands full of bags, and all they have left to do is shut the car door. Since both arms are full of groceries, how are they going to shut the car door? By pushing back with their butt.
Do not fall for the sucker’s choice and underestimate the value of this Level 1 movement. As coaches, we tend to progress too quickly based not on the athlete’s level of engagement, but our own. Coaches will typically get bored before an athlete ever comes close. Let us take our own advice and trust the process. Athletes typically perform this movement for a minimum of four weeks before we progress to Level 2.Don’t progress too quickly based on your own level of engagement instead of the athlete’s, says @huntercharneski. Click To Tweet
Our Level 2 movement in the hinge progression may seem extremely elementary at first glance, and believe me, I felt the same initially. Most other camps (if this movement is in their repertoire) utilize a weighted cable, but due to my facility’s operational and financial restrictions, we had to resort to an elastic band. Technology is never in short supply in our system (sarcasm).
Athlete after athlete, rep after rep, I began to feel affinity for this movement. Truth be told, even if I did have access to a weighted cable tower now, I would still use the elastic band. Why? The band serves as a form of accommodating resistance, where the “weight” increases (band stretches) as the athlete engages their glutes and extends her hips. Conversely, when the resistance is at its relative maximum, it is easier for the athlete to hinge backwards as the band literally “pulls” her hips. In short, the feedback the band provides makes this movement accessible because:
- The resistance is highest at the beginning or “top” of the movement, allowing the athlete to feel her hips move horizontally, resulting in performing a flawless hinge.
- The resistance is lowest while the athlete is in the hinge position, allowing her to forcefully push her hips forward without having to overcome substantial “load.” A cue that works for us time and time again is for the athlete to “race” the band to the top.
One common issue we see with this movement is that, as the athlete pushes her hips back and perfects the hinge, her toes leave the floor. I don’t know about you, but the ground is a piece of real estate we like our athletes to have a relationship with; it is their personal force-plate—use it!
Having said that, when this happens, we cue the athlete to “curl” their big toes into the ground. This accomplishes two things:
- She feels her whole foot on the ground—
- By curling her big toe into the ground, she also accesses substantially more glute activation while extending her hips. Try it, I dare you—
Video 2. The band serves as a form of accommodating resistance, where the “weight” increases (band stretches) as the athlete engages her glutes and extends her hips. Conversely, when the resistance is at its relative maximum, it is easier for the athlete to hinge backwards as the band literally “pulls” her hips.
Band pull-throughs are timeless, can serve a myriad of athletes regardless of sport or training age, and can be utilized at any point in a coach’s periodization plan. This movement can be prescribed with triphasic applications, dynamic effort, or just “greasing the groove” to cement this pattern. Of course, there is the concept of overload, which is where we progress into Levels 3 and 4.
Kettlebell & Barbell RDL
Only after our athletes display extreme ownership and proficiency in Level 2 will we place an external load in their hands. Enter an “oldie but goodie” with the RDL. This is where the progression begins to shift from movement to muscle, and we begin crafting the engine with Levels 3 and 4. Again, our series is nowhere near revolutionary; we simply overload the athlete to maintain a highly adaptive state.
Our cue quiver varies only slightly with these two variations, but the setups are almost identical:
- Tall and tight (cue them to be somewhere between a “sad dog” and “macho man”).
- “Soften” the knees (unlock).
- Make a “double chin” to keep head in line with spine.
- Breathe and brace.
As the movement begins with horizontal displacement, that is when our cueing begins to differ:
- Drop the bell between the shoelaces.
- (If they want to “pull” or bend their arms.) Our hands are just “hooks.”
- Curl the wrists under (prevents “throttling” of the bar).
- (If the bar begins to stray from their body.) The bar is a paintbrush; “paint” your legs.
To ensure a forceful lockout, we have found success with “squeeze the penny,” an external cue meaning there is a penny between the athlete’s butt cheeks. Hey, we work with kids. External cues (no matter how strange) get the job done.
One common issue we see every now and then (especially with barbells) is the athlete’s spine beginning to resemble the “sad dog”—as the photo above depicts—as the barbell approaches the knee. To rectify this, we have almost exclusively employed a snatch-grip when programming the barbell RDL. The wider hand placement allows the athlete to push his hips back more efficiently, rather than feeling the weight “pull” him out of the groove.
As this process plan goes on, you will notice Levels 3 and/or 4 have the briefest descriptions or rationales. This is because, as I mentioned, it is simply overload at this point in the process, and the foundation (Levels 1 and 2) matters most. A pyramid is only as tall as its base, so let the drill do the talking and the athlete do the walking.
The Hinge Progression’s focus was two-sided, as we aimed to develop proper movement, but also sprinkled in some overload to keep eliciting positive change and build some “go.” The Deadlift Progression’s focus is much narrower: muscle.
|Deadlift Progression Movement||Volume|
|Deadlift Patterning with Band||4 sets x 8-10 reps|
|Kettlebell Deadlift||4 sets x 5-8 reps|
|Trap Bar Deadlift||5 sets x 5 reps|
Deadlift Patterning with Band
We want to build an engine capable of spectacular force production, and Level 1 kicks off that process nicely by teaching the athlete to extend her hips violently, while also subconsciously developing the proper arm mechanics needed for sprinting by driving her hands down, not back. This will create vertical displacement when we get her to upright running. Win.
Video 3. This exercise is a favorite of mine to teach as it requires a high level of interaction between athlete and coach.
The order of cues that has worked when teaching this movement are:
- Sit in a chair.
- Arms like Superman.
- Squeeze your armpits.
- Squeeze the penny.
The band provides excellent tactility for staying “tall and tight” as discussed earlier. After at least a month with this exercise and an upgrade in bands resistance-wise, Level 2 won’t pose a problem. The athlete will be more than capable of moving the weight vertically without straying from the way.
Do not undervalue this exercise. I will say that again, do not undervalue this exercise. The Kettlebell Deadlift is not merely a placeholder between Levels 1 and 3, but a wonderful expression of force around the athlete’s center of mass.
This movement is excellent for developing an intimate relationship between athlete and floor, as it is rare that one of my athletes can execute this movement from the floor on Day 1. Our “to-the-floor” layer is as follows:
- KB Deadlift + two Mats – four weeks
- KB Deadlift + one Mat – four weeks
- KB Deadlift from floor
Now, you don’t need me to tell you that we do not train robots. The nice and neat four-week layers are not set in stone; we rely on the best coaching tool we have—our eyes—when determining whether (or not) to progress an athlete.Do not undervalue the Kettlebell Deadlift, says @huntercharneski. Click To Tweet
The mats serve not only as a mediator between athlete and floor, but also as a source of extrinsic motivation. In my environment, we may have 15 youth athletes at one time, and several have “earned the right” to pull the bell from the floor. A young person becomes extremely motivated by her peers: as the mat provides extrinsic motivation to work towards the floor, she becomes intrinsically motivated to “earn the right” as well. Did I mention not to undervalue this exercise?
The “problem” we encountered with this exercise was determining when to progress an athlete to Level 3—the Trap Bar Deadlift. How do we objectively determine this? I am not sure if we can, but we decided to employ Dr. Yessis’ 1×20 method in order for a young person to bridge the gap from bell to bar. If the athlete can pull our heaviest bell, weighing 88 pounds, for one set of 20 reps at a 212 tempo, he will have “earned the right” to step into the Trap Bar.
My rationale behind this is not sexy. I just fell back to the size principle, in which slower twitch fibers are recruited initially and, as the set progresses and fatigue onset begins, the faster Type IIB fibers are called upon to execute the remainder of the set. If the athlete can prove to me that he can handle a progression from lower to higher intensity, combat fatigue, and maintain focus all in one set, he has my endorsement for Level 3. If you have a better way, feel free to let me know, but this is what has worked for us.
Trap Bar Deadlift
This movement has been catching a lot of flak lately in the S&C community. I am not one to say it is perfect by any means; all I know is what I know. What I know is the athletes in my environment benefit immensely from this final installment in our deadlift progression.
I believe one reason for the flak it has caught is because many coaches and athletes bastardize the Trap Bar Deadlift by making it no different than a squat, with the bar in their hands as the lone differentiator. If properly coached and executed, this movement is hip dominant, leaving the quads out of it. The only argument I can imagine for keeping it quad-dominant is that an athlete’s quads are working harder during acceleration than the posterior chain. This is true, I won’t argue that, but my priority is building more horsepower, not torque.
Video 4. If treated as a hinge and not a knee-flexion exercise, the Trap Bar Deadlift is a valuable tool in any coach’s exercise pool. Unfortunately, it is too often coached and executed no differently than a squat.
Aside from the athlete’s learning curve from bell-to-bar, fatigue is the only issue I have with Level 3. Conversing with and observing the athletes is critical, as any time we use our hands to “grip” something, neural fatigue becomes a very real thing. It can lead to overtraining and possibly injury, as form is often the first to decay. As JL Holdsworth has said, “That which has the potential to do great good, also has the potential to do great harm.”
Knee Flexion/Extension Progression
When I laid out the progression for knee flexion/extension, I had one thing in mind: sprinting (surprise, surprise). As the Hinge Progression focused mainly on building muscle, or the athletes’ engines, we focus our attention now on the tires (movement), or more specifically, the athletes’ intermuscular coordination. More digestibly, the vigorous relationship between the agonists and antagonists.
|Knee Flexion/Extension Progression Movement||Volume|
|Partner CHG (Eccentric Only)||4 sets x 6 reps|
|Val Slide Leg Curls||4 sets x 6-8 reps|
|Seated Band Leg Curls||4 sets x 10-20 reps|
|Sprinting||4 good runs|
In my opinion, and in the opinion of many coaches smarter than me, for hamstring development to best aid in speed, three non-negotiable qualities must be met:
- High movement velocity/frequency
- Violent alternating flexion and extension
- Hamstring is stretched under load of eccentric phase, not concentric
Many in the industry refer to this movement as Glute Ham Raise or GHR, but leave it to me to be the rebel, as there is an important piece that is missing in the common title—the calves! Calf Ham Glute is what we call this partnered exercise. Care to guess why? Didn’t think so.
Video 5. This is about as general as it gets in terms of hamstring development to aid in speed. There is low movement velocity and zero alternation of flexion and extension, but the athlete’s hamstrings are stretched under load during the eccentric. This exercise is valuable in the off-season and for injury prevention.
This exercise’s contraction is eccentric only, not because we are sick and sadistic with our athletes, but because:
- We are building general strength qualities, something they do not yet possess. I have yet to see a novice perform a perfect Nordic curl in our environment.
- The prolonged eccentric re-lengthens and remodels the tissue, having a positive influence on injury prevention.
In order for an exercise to be worthy of our exercise “pool,” it needs to meet the following criteria: safe, economical, efficient. The Partner CHG passes with flying colors on all three, especially in economy. It requires zero equipment, just another organism (I couldn’t help myself; had to throw that buzzword in there), which is never an issue at my facility as it is 100% group training sessions.
For us, as coaches, to consider an athlete’s execution of the Partner CHG a success, three things need to be displayed with optimal proficiency:
- Straight line, head-to-knee (this is not a razor curl).
- Glute performs an isometric contraction—squeeze the penny!
- A 3-5 second eccentric contraction, as the athlete “lets the floor come to her.”
While this may be one of the most “foolproof” exercises known to humanity, even the Partner CHG is not immune to mistakes and errors. If the athlete performing the movement is unable to display any sort of eccentric control, we again utilize an incredibly advanced piece of equipment – the elastic band. The accommodating assistance of the band helps his descent to resemble “falling” into foam, rather than crashing to the earth like a sack of potatoes.
Val Slide Leg Curls
In Level 2, we reincorporate the concentric component, and the athletes are so “thankful” we do so. The Val Slide Leg Curl is our Level 1 turned upside down, as the athlete’s upper back and head are now cemented to the ground, while the legs have more degrees of freedom. The same muscles are recruited (calf, ham, glute), and by dorsiflexing the feet we incorporate the calves, especially during the concentric phase. We call upon the glutes once again via isometric contraction for the movement’s duration. (Level 1 and 2 are great forms of fascial raking, because we “wake up” down-regulated glutes, as our athletes are also students who literally sit all day). Lastly, the hamstrings now move “freely” through all three contraction types, eliciting encouraging adaptation for the trainee.
The only issue we run into with Val Slide Leg Curls is the athlete lacking the general strength to hold himself “up” in order to execute the movement properly. Now, I’m no master of movement, and in my environment one thing you learn to stomach quickly is the question, “What level of imperfection are you OK with?” With that, I have no problem allowing an athlete to drive his elbows into the ground so he can then access the full range of motion needed to execute the exercise.
“Load it…explode it!” is a cue you will hear time and time again as our athletes execute Level 2. We encourage a controlled (not slow) eccentric component, followed by a concentric contraction with some violence to back it up. In the Knee Flexion/Extension Progression, the main focus is to get the athletes moving from slow to fast, as the ultimate goal is the expression of high force at high velocity (i.e., sprinting). This is followed by Level 3.
Seated Band Leg Curls
We now begin to assemble (somewhat) the qualities needed for the athletes to run fast by incorporating high-movement velocity and alternating flexion/extension. At first glance, this exercise may seem easier, or even elementary, compared to Levels 1 and 2. As coaches, we must remember we need to get these youngsters strong first, before they can display their strength quickly (which is essentially what is performed in Level 3).
With the athlete seated on a bench or box and facing the rack or wherever the band is fastened, cue her to forcefully flex and extend her legs by likening it to “flicking a light switch ON and OFF as quickly as possible.” It seems simple enough, right? Often, two key elements of this exercise get overlooked:
- The athlete’s posture: If her back is as crooked as a question mark, you need to address it. Posture is first on my sprinting “checklist.”
- The athlete’s toes: If her toes are lax, or even worse—plantar flexed—cue her to “bring her toes to her shins,” as this will engage the calf in this exercise. More importantly, her ankles will be stiff, not gooey, when she strikes the ground when sprinting.
Sprinting – The Timeless Modality
Newsflash: If you are an athlete at our facility, you will sprint—a lot. I will spare you the benefits of sprinting, as you can surely find that in any other piece I have written and it is beyond the scope of this article. In terms of posterior chain development, is there a better option than sprinting? High force, high velocity, fast alternation of flexion and extension, and it is not bilateral.
While the athletes at my facility will undoubtedly accelerate and sprint during their progression from Levels 1 to 3, it is only to make sprinting more tolerable and decrease their “effort,” as sprinting should be a relaxed endeavor. Al Vermeil once told me, “It is not how fast you can contract, it is how fast you can relax.”
At this stage of the game, we have built an engine, and we have provided an excellent set of tires to “move more freely” with a high RPM.
Upper Body Posterior Chain Progression
|Horizontal Row||Vertical Row||Shoulder Stability|
|½ Kneeling Single Arm Row||½ Kneeling Lat Pulldown||Face Pulls|
|Recline Row||Tall Kneeling Lat Pulldown||Single Arm Face Pulls|
|3-Point Dumbbell Row||Isometric Chin-Up Hold||Double Arm Face Pulls|
I must preface the upper body segment by bringing awareness to the fact that the majority of the athletes we work with are of the team sport variety. You may be wondering what that has to do with anything. This is prudent to note because we aim to provide the optimal, not maximal, amount of muscle.
Again, why does this matter? it matters because the goal is speed, and if we pack on too much muscle, sprinting mechanics will deteriorate because the increased muscularity will diminish the degrees of freedom needed to express high force at high velocity. If the lower body is the engine, the upper body is the driver, and the posterior shoulder’s swing action orchestrates the symphony of projection from the waist down.
Video 6. This is a phenomenal Level 1 movement for beginners. As is often the case with young athletes, the “reaching” portion of the movement gets them out of extension as the scapula glides forward.
Video 7. We employ this movement to not only achieve upward/downward rotation, but elevation/depression as well through reaching. This is a staple in our chin-up progression.
Of course, these are team sport athletes we are talking about, so we do overload and progress the levels in order to elicit an appropriate level of hypertrophy and strength necessary to protect them. To continually overload with reckless abandon becomes detrimental to the athlete for the reasons stated before. Remember, posterior chain is the “go” not the “show,” which is why all but one exercise across all three categories uses the athlete’s own body or an elastic band. The fastest athletes I work with all have great relative strength.
I could dissect each category and level for the upper body posterior chain progression, but that simply wouldn’t be realistic, as 95% of our athlete population never makes it past Level 1 or 2. However, regardless of category, the progression (or lack thereof) from level to level must be done with an extreme amount of discipline and fortitude. The majority of athletes I work with have never seen Level 2 in shoulder stability. Why not? That’s the wrong question—why do I need to progress them if they: a) are getting stronger; b) have hypertrophied; and c) have unrestricted range of motion? Movement > Muscle.
Final Thoughts on Applying Posterior Chain Training
I work primarily with young athletes. What is their greatest need, or want? Ask anyone between eight and 18 years old, and they will tell you they wish to become faster. Speed is king. What problems are they facing? Whether it is their coach, their teammates competing for playing time, or the opposition, the external enemy is easy to identify.
While these external enemies don’t stand a chance, I am more concerned with the internal enemy: the athlete’s confidence, or lack thereof. An athlete shouldn’t have to question herself or her abilities, which is exactly why I take great pride in the crafting of the posterior chain.This #PosteriorChain progression plan gifts the athlete with a powerful set of ‘go’ muscles, says @huntercharneski. Click To Tweet
Is the anterior chain important? No question. Are other training modalities important? No question. Do we take time to address other aspects of training, leaving no stone unturned? No question. But we have been where they are. By giving them this plan, we gift them a powerful set of “go” muscles, transforming them from Ford Bronco to Ferrari on their journey to success, and helping them avoid potholes on the way.