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Bulletproof Back Part 2

In PART 1, I went over the many reasons that aspiring strength athletes need to include at least one specific exercise for their lower backs in a weekly program. For young athletes or those just getting started on a strength routine, the lower back forms the foundation of all future progress in the weight room and success in any sport.

A strong set of lumbars enables intermediate and advanced athletes to move to higher levels of overall strength. The number-one exercise in any strength program is the squat, either front or back. In order to handle heavier weights on that lift, the lumbars must be as proportionately strong as the hips and legs and middle and upper back. Otherwise the power generated by the lower body can’t be transferred upward from the lumbars and through the rest of the back into the bar itself.

Quite often lifters’ numbers on the squat come to a grinding halt simply because lower-back strength has fallen too far behind hip and leg strength. In many cases athletes fail with heavy poundages because they can’t maintain a solid upright position throughout the lift. Relatively weak lumbars cause them to lean forward excessively, which spells failure on max attempts. Plus, athletes who don’t rectify the problem but continue to use sloppy technique may develop habits that are hard to break.

Any type of pulling exercise also depends heavily on strong lumbars—whether it’s an explosive movement like the snatch, clean, high pull or shrug, or more static lifts such as bent-over rows and deadlifts. You need strong lumbars to hold a tight starting position. Otherwise your hips will climb upward faster than the bar, and that will take the weight out of the correct line of pull. If the lower back isn’t sufficiently strong, the power generated by the hips and legs won’t be adequately transferred up into the back, shoulders and arms.

Most athletes understand the concept for their squats and pulls, yet a high percentage do not see the relevance of lower-body strength to upper-body exercises. While you may be able to bench-press and dip with weak lumbars, every other shoulder-girdle exercise requires a strong lower body—even inclines and seated presses. The overhead lifts, presses, push presses, jerks and push jerks, along with power and full snatches, directly depend on the muscles of the midsection to help lock out and control a weight overhead.

Even those who train for general overall strength fitness and have absolutely no desire to move big numbers must recognize how important it is to build and maintain a relatively strong lower back. That definitely includes older athletes. I’ll address that group later on. Meanwhile I’m reading that eight out of 10 adults experience some kind of back pain, mainly in the lower back. Just look at all the ads in the print media and on TV offering solutions to lower-back pain—everything from magical pillows to engineered mattresses, exercise regimens and gadgets to the long list of pharmaceuticals.

To be sure, some cases need medical attention. I believe, however, that if people who have an aching lower back would embark on a fitness program with attention to the lumbars, alter their diet to lose unwanted pounds around the middle and consistently exercise their lower back, they could avoid not only a great deal of pain and discomfort but also save a lot of money and the aggravation that comes with navigating the medical community.

So why don’t more people take to a systematic exercise routine and drop some bodyweight rather than opting to lay out chunks of cash for pills or devices to get relief from their lower-back pain? In a nutshell, people are lazy, and working the lumbars is not easy. In fact, to really achieve strong lumbars, they will have to eventually do good mornings and/or almost-straight-legged deadlifts, which rank near the top of the list of most demanding strength-training exercises.

Sadly, many strength athletes avoid those two exercises for the same reason. They find a million and one excuses, from “they hurt my neck or shoulder” to the rationale that they’re getting plenty of lower-back work when they squat and deadlift. If you’re truly serious about getting considerably stronger, however, you absolutely must attack your lower back in a specific manner. I should mention that you can make your lumbars stronger by working on a well-designed reverse-hyper or hyper machine, but they aren’t available to most people. On the other hand, bars and plates are in abundance and, I believe, are more effective for the simple reason that working with free weights is harder than working on any machine and therefore is more productive.

Last month I went into detail on the merits of good mornings and how to do them correctly. As I’ve frequently stated, I consider them the very best exercise for building and maintaining lower-back strength. Let’s briefly review. The weight you use on good mornings eventually needs to be 50 percent of what you handle on the back squat for eight to 10 reps. So if you’re a 400-pound squatter, you’ll do your final set of good mornings at 200 x 8-10. I use eight or 10 reps because I like to alter the set-and-rep count every other week, from four sets of 10 to five sets of eight. The slight variation may not seem like much, but once you try it, you learn that it does change the workout just a bit.

You can do good mornings with a flat back or rounded back or while seated. I have athletes do seated good mornings only when they have an injury that prevents them from doing any standing exercises—such as a problem with a hip, knee or ankle—or when I want to give them some variety in their routines. I allow them to do seated good mornings only occasionally, however, perhaps every six or eight weeks, because that’s the easiest version of the exercise and should not be substituted regularly for the standing version unless there is a valid reason.

Although good mornings are my favorite lumbar exercise, I also believe that almost-straight-legged deadlifts have merit. Once again, though, you have to do them with taxing weights. The final set, or sets, should make your eyes cross. If you’re not exhausted at the end of the session, you need to put more weight on the bar. Staying in the comfort zone just doesn’t get the job done on lower-back work. You can never regard attacking the lumbar muscles as fun. The rewards do not come in feelings of physical pleasure but in knowing that when you improve your lower-back strength, you’re going to be able to handle more weight on your other primary exercises, such as squats, power cleans and overhead exercises. So you pay the price to gain overall results. Those who subscribe to this doctrine experience success in the weight room. Those who don’t fail in their quest for greater strength.

Speaking of quests, I have been on one for more than 30 years to alter the commonly used name for the exercise from stiff- or straight-legged deadlifts to almost-straight-legged deadlifts. Why? It’s potentially risky to the lower back and even more risky to the hamstrings to lift or lower a weight with locked knees (any exercise that hits the lumbars will also involve the hamstrings). Most learn that after a strenuous session on a lower-back movement. They tell me that their hamstrings were sorer the morning after the workout than their lower backs.

Unfortunately, models who demonstrate the exercise in magazines are invariably shown with their knees tightly locked. Risk aside, there’s absolutely no reason to lock the knees while doing this form of deadlifts. By bending your knees slightly, you eliminate the possibility of injuring your lower back and hamstrings, and the results are the same or in some cases even better.

Another common practice with the almost-straight-legged deadlift is to stand on a bench or platform. I don’t like that because balance becomes a factor that does nothing to enhance the exercise. I’ve seen many athletes lose their balance while standing on a bench and instantly drop the bar across the bench, causing severe damage to a rather expensive bar. If you happen to own the equipment, suit yourself. If not, stay on the floor.

I realize that the reason athletes stand on benches or platforms is so they can lower the bar farther and activate more muscles in the process. Makes sense, right? Well, you get the same benefits by staying on firm ground and using 25-pound plates instead of 45s. They’ll enable you to go very low. The bar will touch the tops of larger athletes’ shoes, and that’s certainly as deep as anyone needs to stretch downward.

Whenever I teach an advanced athlete how to do almost-straight-legged deadlifts and instruct him to put a 25-pound plate on each side of the bar, he objects, stating that he can use a lot more than that. I remind him that he needs to start light until he masters the movement, and in due course he’ll have plenty of weight on the bar. After the initial warmup set with 95 pounds, he adds two more 25s, then two more and so on—and soon he’s looking at moving 245 for 10 reps. That’s as heavy as I take anyone first time out, and few get that far if the earlier sets are done correctly. At that point the athletes fully comprehend that when they add enough 25s to the bar, they can end up with a very taxing poundage.

Use straps. Although you may not need them for the lighter sets, they’re most useful for those final work sets. Straps help you concentrate on the movement without having to be concerned with holding onto the bar. Plus they enable you to handle more weight—always a good thing in strength training.

The technique for the almost-straight-legged deadlift is very easy to learn, and for that reason athletes tend to just go through the motions rather than focusing on the key form points. That’s a mistake, particularly when the weights get demanding and the muscles become tired. An improper move on the final few reps of the last couple of sets can cause a minor ding or something more serious, so you must concentrate on doing every rep perfectly, from the first warmup set to the last rep with the heaviest poundage.

Use a clean grip or one slightly wider. I like to start from the top instead of off the floor. That way I can set up the exact line I want more readily than I could if I were moving the bar upward. You position the bar on pins set outside a power rack or on the bottom rung of a staircase squat rack. Set your feet at shoulder width, and plant them solidly into the floor. Take the bar from the rack, and fix it against your thighs. If you start with the bar on the floor, tuck it in against your socks and shins. The key is to start and keep the bar extremely close to your body on both the up and down movements. If you let it wander away so much as an inch, you’ve made the exercise much more difficult—and more risky.

Before lowering the bar, bend your knees—not much but definitely some—to take the stress off your hamstrings. Once they’re bent, they should not bend any further. They must stay in exactly the same position throughout the movement. Lower the bar until the plates touch the floor. At that point the bar should be across the tops of your shoes and against your shins. Don’t get into the habit of rebounding the bar off the floor—something most deadlifters pick up quickly because rebounding helps set the bar in motion more easily. Even though it seems like a neat idea, it’s counterproductive. When you bounce the weights off the floor, you’re bypassing the muscle groups responsible for that action. That means when the weights get heavy, those muscles aren’t ready for the task ahead. In addition, when you rebound the weight, you throw your body out of position so that the bar is no longer in the precise line it should be in.

If you learn from the very beginning to pause just for a second at the bottom on each and every rep, you’ll ingrain this move into the lift and never have any difficulty when you move up to the demanding poundages. You need to do the exercise in a controlled, deliberate fashion, not fast or in a herky-jerky manner. The bar should move up and down in precisely the same line every time, as if you were doing the exercise in a Smith machine. Also, you don’t have to come all the way back up to benefit. You can stop the upward motion at midthigh. At that point the lumbars have already done their job. If you’re more comfortable straightening up, however, that’s okay too.

Head position. It doesn’t matter whether you look down, up or straight ahead, as long as you don’t lock your head in a rigid position. Your head should be relaxed and allowed to float free. Of course, any exaggeration of looking up or down is not advisable, as that places your upper spine under duress.

Whenever I tell athletes that I’m going to teach them how to do almost-straight-legged deadlifts and that they’ll do them instead of good mornings for a time, they’re delighted, figuring that they’re in for a walk in the park. They change their tune, of course, when I explain that I have numbers for this lift, just as I do for good mornings. You need to use 75 percent of what you can squat on the almost-straight-legged deadlifts for eight to 10 reps. That means if you’re squatting 400, you should be finishing up with 300 x 8-10. That’s no walk in the park.

Keep in mind that I’m talking about the eventual goal, to be achieved after several weeks or even months of doing the exercise. Until you master the form, you can stay in the light or moderate range, but once you feel you’re doing the movement correctly, you should ease the numbers up to satisfy the 75 percent. Then, as the squat improves, the almost-straight-legged deads tag along.

Some of my more advanced strength athletes have requested that they be allowed to use more than 75 percent of their squats. I’ve agreed, on one condition: that they be able to do them perfectly. If they started lowering their hips when the weights got extremely heavy—making the exercise resemble a conventional deadlift—I’d have them use less resistance.

Alter the sets and reps each time you do almost-straight-legged deadlifts: five sets of eight with four sets of 10. Use five or 10 more pounds when you do eights. Even though the change is small, it has a positive effect on strength gains.

What other exercises are good for building stronger lumbars? The conventional deadlift is excellent, mainly because you can overload the muscles of the lower back. Weighted hyperextensions are most beneficial. The Russian lifters did them along with good mornings and achieved amazing lower-back strength and development. Some use plates behind their heads, but I prefer a bar, as it can be stabilized more securely. You don’t want to be twisting your torso in the slightest when doing them.

For any type of back hyperextension, do not come up past the parallel position, and make sure your knees are unlocked. In order to use any type of resistance on hypers, you must have a well-padded bench. Otherwise you’ll be more content to run the reps up. Start with 20 and add a couple every time you do them, and eventually you be knocking out 100 or more. John Saxe, who played football, captained the tennis team and lifted on the Olympic weightlifting team at Hopkins, did 150, yet he still got sore from the good mornings.

I have my athletes do one set of hyperextensions as part of their warmups prior to a lifting session, along with an ab exercise, then finish up with reverse hypers and another ab movement. This serves two functions: 1) It ensures that the lower back is warm and ready for the work ahead, and 2) it adds to the overall workload for those muscle groups.

I like reverse hypers because you can do them just about anywhere. I’ve done them on desks, counter tops, tables and situp boards. It’s difficult to add resistance to them unless you have a pair of Iron Boots or ankle weights; the workload has to be increased with repetitions. Reverse hypers and conventional hypers hit the lumbars in different ways, so include both in your weekly program.

Put the primary lower-back exercises in your routine on the light day, right behind squats. The squats help warm up the lumbars and legs and make the good mornings or almost-straight-legged deadlifts a bit easier to do—not a lot, but every little bit helps. Never do either of those lower-back movements prior to squatting. You don’t want to squat with a fatigued lower back, even when you’re just handling light poundages. When your lower back is tired, you’ll resort to using improper technique on the squats, and that often carries over to the following squat workouts with heavier weights.

Nearly everyone can do good mornings or almost-straight-legged deadlifts unless there’s a physical problem that blocks those movements. So, as promised, here’s some advice if you’re not interested in moving heavy weights or even gaining considerable strength but do want to stay strong enough to enjoy an active lifestyle and not suffer from lower-back pain. Maybe you’re an older athlete or haven’t been training for some time and are starting back. Or maybe you’re recovering from a serious illness, accident or surgery and need to rebuild a much weakened lower back.

For starters, forget the squat-weight percentages I mentioned. They’re for younger, ambitious athletes. Start out light, and learn how to do the exercises correctly. You can use a broomstick or a section of metal or plastic pipe. Do only a dozen reps for a couple of sets. The next day add to the rep count, but stay with two sets. Continue to run the reps up until you can do 40 to 50. Then find something heavier, such as a 25-pound bar. Drop the reps back to 12 and start climbing the reps up again until your reach 50. Now you’re ready for the 45-pound Olympic bar. Lower the reps—although you may not need to go back to 12—and add another set.

When you’re able to do 40 to 50 with the Olympic bar, add weight, and stay with 20 reps for four sets from then on. Some trainees advance to the point where they can use 100 pounds, at which point two sets of 20 work well for most. Adjust your sets and reps to fit your needs.

During the time you’re building a base with light weights, do good mornings and/or almost-straight-legged deadlifts three times a week. When the resistance gets taxing, go to twice a week, and on four other days do either reverse back hypers or regular back hyperextensions or both. In the process of hitting your lower back six days a week, you’ll be able to establish a solid strength base that will enable you to do more on your other exercises. And because the overall volume isn’t that big, you should be able to recover rather easily. Pay attention, though, to how your lower back feels the morning after a workout. Should you feel overly tired, skip a day. Move slowly. There’s no need to hurry, and it’s smarter not to overtrain.

Whether you want to get considerably stronger to become more proficient in your chosen sport, are trying to move up in the ranking of Olympic lifting, powerlifting or the strongman events or simply want to be able to take a long hike or work in your garden without suffering lower-back pain for your efforts, you must give priority to your lower back in your strength-training program. After all, the lumbars are called the keystones of strength for good reason.

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 IM

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