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Building Strong Lumbars

7206-mind1Last month I stated the many reasons that it’s so important for every strength athlete to have a strong set of lumbars—and then I went over various form points for good mornings. I consider them to be the very best exercise for building and maintaining the lower back. Now I want to cover the specifics of another exercise that will strengthen the lumbars—the almost-straight-legged deadlift. It’s an excellent substitute for good mornings and is perfect for those who are unable to do good mornings for whatever reason.

While conventional deadlifts do work the muscles of the lower back, the almost-straight-legged deadlift is more beneficial because it hits the lumbars more directly. The exercise is also excellent for anyone who wants to improve his or her hamstring strength. Keep in mind that any exercise that works the lumbars will also strengthen the hams. It’s a terrific two-for-one deal.

I’ve been advocating the benefits of the straight-legged deadlift—also called the stiff-legged deadlift—for many years. I have also been on a lifetime quest to alter those names. No one should be lifting a weight off of the floor with knees locked. In fact, no exercise that involves the lower back should ever be done with the knees completely locked. It’s too stressful to the hamstrings and is not at all necessary. Instead, you should bend your knees slightly and keep them that way throughout the exercise. A slight bending of the knees relieves the stress on the hamstrings yet still works the target muscles safely. Hence, the name I prefer to use is the almost-straight-legged deadlift.

Also, it is not necessary to stand on a bench or block of wood while doing this exercise. I know that many athletes do it—to get a fuller range of motion and so activate more muscle fibers—but you can accomplish that without standing on anything at all. The reason I don’t like standing on a bench, in particular, is that when you use heavy poundages, a great deal of balance is required and the movement can be risky. I have seen quite a few expensive bars damaged in that manner. Plus, having to deal with balance is much harder than doing the exercise on a solid base.

You can reach optimum results by standing on the floor or a lifting platform. Just use smaller plates. For most trainees the 25-pound plates serve the purpose, and others find that 10-pounders work even better. The smaller plates give you a full range of motion, so you focus fully on technique rather than balancing the weights.

I use the almost-straight-legged deadlifts in my athletes’ programs as a change from good mornings. I alternate the two lower-back exercises weekly. If athletes cannot do good mornings, usually due to some injury, I have them do almost straight-legged deadlifts every week.

Whenever I have them start off with 25-pound plates, they quickly inform me that they can do a lot more than that. I tell them to be patient. I want them to hone their form from the onset, and the lighter weights will enable them do that. Then I have them add two more 25s on each subsequent set: 145, 195, 245 and, finally, 295 for the fifth and final set. At that point they’re no longer complaining about the smaller plates, since those last couple of sets are very demanding.

The technique on the almost-straight-legged deadlift is easy to learn, yet it’s critical that you do each and every rep perfectly. As with any other exercise, the more precisely you do it, the greater the results. That means paying very close attention to every rep from start to finish and not just banging out the sets to get them over with.

Use straps on these. Although you will not need them for the first few sets, they will be most useful when you get to the heavier poundages. Straps will help you concentrate on the exercise itself rather than have to deal with gripping the bar firmly. By the way, a standard bar is equally as effective as an Olympic bar on this exercise.

A clean grip is best, although I have known some athletes who like a slightly wider grip. If possible, start from the finish position—standing erect with the bar tucked against your thighs. Take a shoulder-width stance with your feet planted solidly into the floor and your arms straight. Take the bar off the bottom rung of a staircase rack or a power rack at midthigh.

Now bend your knees slightly and keep that same degree of bend throughout the up-and-down movement. As the weight gets heavy, there is a tendency to increase the bend at the knees, and the movement ends up looking like a conventional deadlift. So once you set your knees, keep them in that same position for the entire set.

The bar needs to be tucked in close to your body, and it must stay that way all the way down to the floor and back to the finish. At the very bottom of the movement the bar will be touching your shins; then it will climb up directly over your knees and on up your thighs until you are erect. Some prefer not to come fully erect on any of the reps but the last one. Whichever you feel is working you more, do that method.

The position of your head is important. Some like to look down, and others like to look forward or upward. All of those are okay just so long as your head is not locked in a rigid position. The head should be allowed to float free and be relaxed. The best way to accomplish that is to look straight ahead and not lock your head in an exaggerated up or down position.

I mentioned that I have guidelines for how much should be used on the good mornings. I also have them for this lift. I recommend doing five sets of eight and the amount of weight on the final set should be 75 percent of your best squat. That means anyone who squats 405 for three or five reps needs to be using 300 for eight on the almost-straight-legged deadlift. That will keep the lumbars in proportion to hip and leg strength.

Since that is a considerable amount of weight to lift correctly, it will take some time to achieve that goal, but most trainees are able to do it in just a month or so. From then on it’s not that difficult to keep your numbers in line with the 75 percent ratio.

Here are the most important form points for the heavier sets: Do each rep deliberately and smoothly, like a piston moving up and down, and don’t lower your hips when the weights get taxing (by berry). The bend in your knees must stay the same throughout all the sets, including the heavier ones.

There is no reason to rush. Take your time and concentrate on mastering the technique as you slowly but consistently add weight. An increase of 10 pounds every two weeks—or even every month—will gradually add up.

About half of the athletes I start on almost-stiff-legged deadlifts come back to me at their next workout and tell me their hamstrings got sorer than their lumbars. That’s a good thing, as it indicates that their hamstrings were lagging behind, strengthwise. Anytime you can identify a weak area, it’s a big plus—especially when it’s clear that there is an exercise that will help make the weaker area stronger.

Again, I need to stress that combining good mornings and almost-straight-legged deadlifts in a program will bring greater lumbar strength than a steady diet of the latter. Next time I’ll go over some other useful exercises of an auxiliary nature as well as other disciplines that will benefit your lumbars.

—Bill Starr


Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www


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