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Bulletproof Lower Back Part 1

For trainees striving to significantly improve their strength, having a strong lower back is an absolute necessity. Those who are just interested in maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle need to give special attention to that area of the body as well. Yet more and more programs that I see for athletic teams and individuals of all ages include no exercises for that critical group of muscles. Whenever I comment on that fact, the coach or athlete typically replies, “I figure that there’s plenty of lower-back work with squats and heavy pulls.”

That might be true if a person happens to train like the foreign Olympic lifters who squat or pull three times a day and hit the weights six days a week, but I don’t know anyone who trains that diligently. Most workouts consist of three sessions a week, and seldom does any athlete squat or pull more than once at each workout. That’s not enough to improve lower-back strength. You need more—in the form of one or more specific exercises.

I believe that the real reason most programs don’t include specific work for the lumbars is that the most beneficial exercises for the lower back are very demanding, and demanding is out of vogue, except for the dedicated athletes who really want to get strong, Easy is in; hard is out.

Just look at all the programs and equipment being hawked on TV. They have the same slogan: Less is better, comfort over discomfort. Putting the body under stress is a no-no. It would be nice if those gimmicks worked, but they don’t because the body has to be pushed to and even beyond its normal limits in order to gain strength.

The attitude of taking an easier course in the weight room often begins with substituting a tamer exercise for a strenuous one. High school and collegiate strength coaches have told me they dropped full squats and replaced them with half squats because the full-range movement was just too difficult for their players. Or they use hang cleans rather than power cleans for the same reason. Suggesting that coaches should insert an exercise like good mornings into their athletes’ routines falls on deaf ears.

I think strength coaches—in many cases football coaches who have a slight grasp of how to do a few strength movements—are the only members of that profession who are swayed by their players to alter a program simply because some exercise is tough. Can you imagine a football coach allowing someone to skip tackling drills because they hurt? I think not. More than likely, the whiner will get an extra dose of the very drill he hates. Let an athlete complain about full squats, good mornings or deadlifts, though, and, bingo, the exercises are history.

I’ve also found that those who set up their own programs tend to avoid taxing exercises. Their attitude: Why squat or deadlift when I could be benching and curling? It’s been my observation that someone who avoids or replaces a tough exercise with an easier one gets weaker—such as doing squats in a Smith machine rather than out of a rack or doing rows in a machine instead of cranking them out with a bar.

Once you get into that kind of mind-set, you’re going to regress. Sure, the workouts are going to be more enjoyable, but there will be no noticeable progress. Isn’t progress the point? Why not put in a bit more effort and attack those movements you hate and reap the rewards? Instead of constantly seeking exercises that let you stay in the comfortable range, select some that test your character. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to make certain exercises harder, since I know that they’ll help me gain better results. So I occasionally do deadlifts at half speed or throw in some shrugs at the end of each rep to see what happens. I’m always trying to find some way to force the muscles and attachments to work harder.

It’s important to keep in mind that our bodies are always trying to remain complacent. Bodies much prefer pleasure over pain. Our physical plants would much rather be lounging on a couch than grinding out of the deep bottom of a back squat. So our minds have to convince us that the rewards are worth the effort to get up off the couch, go to the gym and put out 100 percent. Those with determination can override the dissatisfaction coming from the joints and muscles as they handle a heavy set. Those with less fortitude can’t, and they’re the ones who will always choose the easier route.

To clarify, if a certain exercise is producing acute pain—and I’m not talking about the pain of exertion—then that movement should be eliminated from the program, at least for a while. Just be sure to replace that exercise with one that’s equally difficult, or you’ll start to slip backward.

The reason for my prelude about avoiding difficult exercises is that the two primary movements I advocate for the lower back are typically shunned—good mornings and almost-straight-legged deadlifts. Especially good mornings—without a doubt the most hated exercise in all of weight training. I’ve never heard anyone say he enjoyed doing them; in fact, if I were to hear such a statement I’d immediately recommend psychiatric counseling. Athletes don’t do good mornings for enjoyment. Rather, they do them because they get results, and they endure the discomfort for that very reason. Plus, there are ways to make them less painful; I’ll get to that later.

When I start anyone on a strength routine—young, old, female or male—I use the big three: bench press, back squat and power clean, along with a few auxiliary movements, such as incline dumbbell presses, straight-arm pullovers, calf raises and chins. As soon as the athlete’s form on the primary lifts is good, which usually takes about a half dozen sessions, I insert good mornings on the light day in place of power cleans. I do that for two reasons: First, if this taxing exercise is part of the routine early on, before the athlete is moving big weights in the squat, it isn’t all that demanding. I’ll go into that in depth later, but there’s a weight ratio between the squat and good morning that you must adhere to. If you do that at the beginning, maintaining the ratio is rather simple. Second, whenever you give your lower back direct attention, it responds readily, and having a stronger set of lumbars helps beginners move up the strength ladder much faster. That’s because it has a direct bearing on two key exercises: power cleans and squats.

Many coaches and self-trained strength athletes fail to understand that if their lower backs are relatively weak, they’re unable to hold the proper positioning for a great many useful exercises. Every pulling movement depends on strong lumbars, and the same is true for front and back squats. When the lower back falls too far behind, your form is affected, and if you let your technique remain faulty for a long time, it will be hard to correct.

Recently, a 30-year-old ex-football player who wanted to give Olympic lifting a shot showed me his workout. After glancing over it, I said, “You need something for your lower back.”

He pointed at the paper and responded, “I do back hypers at every workout.”

“I see that,” I said, “but you’re only doing 20 reps with bodyweight. That’s fine for a warmup, but how can you expect to snatch, clean, jerk or squat enough to move up to a national level if you’re just doing a few back hypers?”

“But I hate good mornings,” he grumbled.

“Then my advice is for you to forget about becoming a ranked Olympic lifter and just use the lifts to stay in shape. If you can’t handle the hard stuff—and believe me, cleaning and snatching heavy weights is going to be a lot tougher than doing good mornings—you’re not going to succeed in the sport. Or any other, for that matter.”

Harsh, but the truth. Getting stronger takes a great deal of dedication, grit and fortitude, along with a willingness to do the demanding exercises. Grinding through a set of squats, deadlifts and good mornings is never a walk in the park, yet thousands submit their bodies to that self-inflicted stress because they’ve learned that the results are worth it. Think of it this way: If getting strong—I mean really strong—were easy, everyone would be able to squat 400 and deadlift 500. We all know that’s not the case.

Nothing better fits the category of doing a taxing exercise consistently and with heavy poundage than good mornings. I never allow my athletes to skip good mornings, even if they’re injured. I tell them that if they always include the exercise in their routine, they’ll continue to stay strong, even long after they’ve left the competitive arena. When they finish their sets on that grueling exercise on Wednesday, I remind them that the hardest part of the week is behind them, and they soon understand just how true that is. Getting strong is as much a mental process as a physical one, and once athletes convince themselves that good mornings are a constant, they’re well on their way to a higher strength level.

When I was at Johns Hopkins, every so often coaches would come into the weight room to observe their players during their workouts. If it happened to be on Wednesday, the light day, they’d cringe at the row of athletes handling heavy weights on good mornings. “Doesn’t that hurt their backs?” they invariably asked.

“No,” I’d say. “Why would I have them do any exercise to hurt their backs? It makes their backs and hamstrings stronger, and when done correctly, it’s as safe as any other exercise they do. Sometimes it makes their eyes cross, or they see the White Buffalo, but that’s a good thing. After they learn to do good mornings, you can abuse them during your practice session with as much work as you care to give them, and it will be a breeze.

“Besides,” I’d add, “they didn’t start off using that much weight. They started light and have built up to the level they’re at now.”

That usually appeased them, but I could tell that they would never, ever ask their players to do such a thing. What’s more, lots of strength coaches do not include good mornings in their charges’ routines because they think the exercise is risky. I don’t agree. In 15 years of coaching at three universities, I’ve taught good mornings to probably 3,000-plus athletes, both male and female. During that time only one athlete sustained an injury to his lower back doing the exercise, and in that single case the good mornings weren’t at fault. It was a matter of very poor judgment on the part of the football player. His form was fine since he had done them the previous year during the off-season strength program. It was his eagerness to get a jump-start at the beginning of the next off-season program that got him into trouble. Before their first workout of the new off-season, I caution the players to move back into training slowly—only three sets of the big three the first workout, moving to four sets on Wednesday and five on Friday. The ambitious football player believed he could move faster than that. So on Wednesday, without telling me, he tried to use the same amount of weight on his good mornings that he’d used the previous year at the end of the off-season program. That might have been possible had he been training during the holiday break, but he hadn’t lifted since the beginning of summer camp in mid-August.

While his desire was admirable, his good sense was not. On his fourth set with 205 he hurt his lower back, and it took him several months to recover. The exercise was not to blame. His lack of understanding how the body works was. That understanding is an important factor in the process of getting stronger. I contend that the good morning is a terrific exercise for any strength athlete, as well as those wanting to keep their lower backs strong enough to enjoy many forms of recreational activities. It also helps in rehabbing injured lumbars. But good mornings have to be done correctly, as in absolutely correctly.

The best time to start doing good mornings in any routine is at the beginning: the beginning of the initial time you try a strength program, when you’re starting back after a layoff or perhaps switching from a bodybuilding program to a stint where you’re trying to gain a great deal of strength.

Where to start? It doesn’t matter how much weight you use in the beginning. I’ve started some with a broomstick. Your goal initially is to master the form. Once that’s accomplished, the rest falls into place nicely. Youngsters and women learn the movement more readily than men, mostly because men are less flexible, but, of course, there are exceptions.

You can do good mornings in several ways: with a flat back, rounded back and while seated. I’ve been criticized for recommending the rounded-back version. Critics say that rounding the back is potentially harmful to the lumbars. Well, not if the movement is done right. I base that on the fact that the spine is constructed to bend forward. What it’s not built for is bending backward. I remind those opposed to this form of the exercise that it’s only been a short period of time, geologically speaking, that our ancestors stood erect. Prior to Homo erectus, Homo sapiens did a lot of good mornings with a rounded back.

Still, I let the athletes choose which style they feel more comfortable with. Usually, about half select flat back and half rounded back. I don’t start anyone on seated good mornings but teach that later. That’s because the seated version is much easier.

In a nutshell, here are the key form points for good mornings: Lock the bar into your traps, push your feet down into the floor before starting the movement, stay extremely tight throughout, go low, and work quickly.

Now from the top. Many athletes are bothered more by the movement of the bar than the exercise itself. That’s because they don’t lock the bar into their traps. Take a closer grip than what’s used on back squats, squeeze the bar into your upper back, and do not let it move at all. Your stance should be rather narrow with toes pointed slightly inward to help you maintain balance. Before you begin each rep, grip the floor with your toes, and tighten every muscle in your body, from your ankles to your traps. Keep them rigidly taut during the exercise. Now bend your knees slightly—not so much that it resembles a half squat, but just a bit. Always remember that when you’re working lumbars, your knees must never be in a locked position. That causes a great deal of stress on your hamstrings and can injure them. Once you’re extremely tight and have bent your knees, rotate at your hips and lean over as far as you can. Ideally, you want to touch your thighs with your chest, but it may take a few sessions before you can accomplish that. Contrary to what most people think, the lower you go, the easier the movement. When you go very deep, you get a recoil effect off the bottom. Plus, the deeper you go, the more muscles you bring into play. One of the great things about this exercise is that it not only works the lumbars directly but also hits hamstrings and glutes. A three-for-one-deal, and all the groups are extremely valuable to any athlete.

Remember, once you bend your knees, do not let them bend any further.

They must remain in that starting position throughout the exercise. If you allow them to bend more, you drastically change the benefits from the movement. Each rep needs to be done deliberately, not quickly or slowly but in a smooth, controlled manner. That’s true for advanced athletes as well as beginners. There’s a rhythm to the exercise that you will feel after you’ve been doing them for a few months, and, once you get to that stage, you’re home free because they’ll be easier to do. Not easy-easy, but less stressful.

While you’re learning the form, it’s best to stand up completely straight at the end of each rep, pause and reset for the next one. After you have the form down pat, however, you don’t have to come all the way back up; this is one exercise best done with short rests between sets. Once you get the blood into your lower back, keep it there. Long rest periods will work against you. Most trainees are able to knock out five sets in less than 12 minutes. Besides, working at a quicker pace enables you to get the good mornings out of the way in a hurry.

When starting out on them, do only three sets of eight, adding two more sets gradually until you’re doing five sets of eight. You want eights rather than fives because you need the additional reps to improve your workload. By the same token, you don’t want to move to 12s or 15s, as that would be too great a load for the lumbars. Stay with eights until you reach your target number. Then alternate two formulas: one week do five sets of eight and the next week do four sets of 10. For example, you’ve moved your eights to 205, so use 200 for 10. That small change may not seem like much, but you’ll find that it does wonders. Each week’s formula hits the lumbars in a slightly different manner, and that’s good.

Do good mornings right after you squat on your light day—not before. You don’t want tired lumbars and hamstrings when you squat, even if it is your light day. Plus, the squats help warm up your lower back, which also aids your cause.

I mentioned a weight ratio between your back squats and good mornings. The guideline I use for my athletes is that good mornings need to be 50 percent of your best squat for eight to 10 reps. That’s why I try to insert good mornings into a strength program early on. Let’s say you’ve worked up to squatting 220. That means you have to use just 110×8 to satisfy the ratio. As your squat goes up, keeping the 50 percent guideline intact isn’t difficult.

Now let’s say you’ve been squatting for some time and are handling 415. It would be unwise to try and do half of that right away. Move up to it gradually. Start with 95 pounds and add five or 10 pounds a week until you can handle half of what you’re squatting. If it takes a couple of months, that’s okay—just so you’re striving toward it.

There is a ceiling on the formula. I have the majority of my athletes stop at 225×10, regardless of what they’re squatting. Why? Athletes who attempt to do a good morning with more than 225 have to alter their mechanics in order to complete the lift. Their hips are forced to move backward to counterbalance the weight, and that changes the movement so that it’s no longer an exercise specific to the lumbar region. I also have lighter athletes lower their top-end numbers if I see that they’re changing their form on their final sets.

There are, however, exceptions here as well. If I have an advanced strength athlete interested in power lifting—one of the field events in track or perhaps a strongman event—I let him load the bar and go very heavy using lower reps, fives and threes. Several of my Hopkins athletes in their senior years did more than 400 for reps. It’s not an original idea. A number of strongmen in the 1950s used ultraheavy good mornings as one of their primary strength lifts, Paul Anderson being the most notable.

Next month I’ll cover more on good mornings and go over the form points for my number-two lumbar exercise, the almost-straight-legged deadlift. I’ll also discuss other good lower-back exercises that serious strength athletes and those just seeking a higher level of overall fitness can do.

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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