You may not have heard of the anterior chain, but you’ve probably tried to work on it before—particularly if you were looking to sculpt a six-pack. This group of front-of-body muscles allows you to perform many types of exercise as well as everyday activities. (It’s the counterpart to the posterior chain, which runs along the back side of the body.)
It’s very common that people have tight hip flexors and upper quads and weak abs, says Mathew Welch, MS, CSCS, ATC, USAW-1, an exercise physiologist at HSS Sports Medicine Institute West Side. “Stretching is often a short-term solution that does not yield long-term benefits. This is why it’s important to improve both flexibility and strength in both the front and back sides of the body–everything works together.”
Depending on your daily tasks, the positions you put your body in will lead to tighter muscles in the anterior chain. “If you sit for eight to 10 hours a day for your job or have a long commute, those muscles are going to be really tight on the front side of the body because they're always in that shortened, contracted position,” he says. And make no mistake; just because they’re tight doesn’t mean they’re strong, he adds.
The muscles that make up the anterior chain are:
“Working these muscles will give you the biggest bang for your buck when you’re looking to prioritize your training and get results,” says Welch.
The anterior muscles help build core stability, control the knee position, and improve stability at the hip so you can keep proper form when doing squats, lunges, or jumping. Strengthening the foot and ankle muscles helps with a variety of activities like running and sprinting.
The quads in particular are crucial for running and changing direction. “The quadriceps allow you to decelerate and move laterally,” Welch says. (Think of running backward on a soccer field and changing direction quickly.)
So why strengthen the anterior chain? You want to build strong core muscles and improve their function because they're crucial for stabilizing the pelvis in the front, and also working with the erector spinae muscles on the back side of the body that stabilize the spine, Welch says.
Any exercises where you’re descending into knee flexion and hip flexion—meaning your hips are moving down—will build strength in the anterior chain muscles, Welch says.
These anterior chain exercises can be incorporated throughout the week.
Here’s a sample routine he created.
This exercise is good for someone who needs to learn how to control or improve their mobility while also strengthening both legs.
Advanced move: Do this exercise with the front foot elevated two to four inches on a bumper weight plate, step-up box, or a thick, sturdy book pushed against a wall to really work your quads.
This exercise is a very isolated ankle dorsiflexion where the foot raises toward the shin, says Welch.
Note: Some gyms have a piece of equipment called a tib bar with a T-shape, where you attach weight plates to either side and use it from a seated position. You can also use this to strengthen these muscles.
You can either keep your knees bent at 90 degrees or just softly bent to allow the abdominals and hip flexors to pull your legs up and swing the feet forward. Use weightlifting straps so that your grip and shoulders do not fatigue as quickly, Welch says. This anterior chain exercise works the front abs and hip flexors.
Variation: You could do this on a Captain’s Chair with armrests while driving up with the knees.
This classic core exercise builds ab strength.
Advanced move: Once you can work up to doing a plank for two minutes, you can enlist the help of a trainer or friend to add a weight plate to your back to increase the intensity.
This sit-up variation creates even more of an activation in the abs, says Welch. You can use a regular exercise ball if you don’t have a Bosu, or just do regular situps on the ground.
This ab exercise is great for strengthening your core muscles. If you don’t have access to TRX bands, an abdominal wheel rollout is a good substitute. Use a towel as your “wheel” on a smooth surface if needed.
Another variation on this intense ab exercise would be the ab wheel rollout.
Many people use bands to work their glutes, but they’re also a great tool for building strength in the hip flexors, says Welch.
Another variation is to use an ankle weight and do this with one leg at a time.