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Erectors, Power Racks and Box Squats

At the Poliquin Strength Institute in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, I have two power racks and two lifting platforms. To me that layout is optimal, but if you’re limited on space and have a large number of athletes using your facility, you have to compromise with the half racks with platforms.

Q: How do I get the kind of erectors Dorian Yates has?

A: You can start by changing your parents, preferably to some whose last name is Yates! Seriously, if you have to pick a role model for erector spinae development, you couldn’t have picked a better one than Dorian Yates.

Yates certainly proved that during his career, when he was packing the maximum amount of muscle on his frame that was humanly possible. Of course, many other pro bodybuilders were also packing on mounds of muscles, such as Lee Priest, Nasser El Sonbaty and Paul Dillett, and others had the total package with amazing symmetry, such as Milos Sarcev, Shawn Ray and Flex Wheeler. What set Yates apart from his rivals and helped him capture six straight Mr. Olympia titles, however, was his back. When Yates turned around in a posedown, it was game over, and among the muscles that stood out from behind was a pair of cable-like, thick erector spinae.

When bodybuilders trained with strength athletes such as powerlifters and weightlifters, they often performed heavy-duty lower-back exercises such as deadlifts. Two great examples were training partners and multiple Mr. Olympia winners Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu. At a bodyweight of just 185 pounds, Columbu reportedly hoisted 780 pounds on the deadlift, which unofficially exceeded the amateur world record at the time, and Arnold had a competitive best of 710 pounds. Currently, with the exception of eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, whom you can see on YouTube deadlifting 800 pounds for a double, most modern bodybuilders avoid the exercise. And it shows.

From a functional standpoint, the erector spinae work with the glutes, hamstrings and other posterior-chain muscles to help extend and stabilize the trunk. As a bonus, as shown by research from East German sport scientists, developing the erector spinae has the positive side effect of increasing strength throughout the entire body. Research also shows that the erector spinae have a mix of type 2—high-threshold, fast-twitch—muscle fibers and type 1—low-threshold, slow-twitch—muscle fibers. So maximum development of them requires a variety of training protocols.

The best approach to training the erectors is to alternate two types of workouts: one that uses heavy loads to work the high-threshold motor units and one that uses lighter loads and longer times under tension to focus on the lower-threshold motor units—and I have just the workouts.

Program A involves a compound exercise performed for low reps and long rest intervals. After doing this program for six training sessions, you switch to program B, which supersets two exercises that involve the erector spinae: a compound exercise and one that’s more of an isolation exercise, involving relatively higher reps and short rest intervals.

Program A

A: Snatch-grip bent-knee deadlifts

5/1/1/0 tempo, 2 x 3, 2 x 5, 2 x 8

Rest 4 minutes after each set.

Do not use a belt when performing this exercise. Do pause the bar on the floor between reps. Also, you need to perform six to eight progressively heavier low-rep warmup sets before tackling the first set of heavy triples. If, for example, your best triple on the snatch deadlifts is 275 pounds, your warmup for your first set of triples might look like this: 135 x 5, 185 x 3, 205 x 2, 225 x 2, 245 x 1, 265 x 1.

Program B

A1: Romanian deadlifts

4/0/2/0 tempo, 3 x 10-12

Rest 30 seconds.

A2: Back extensions

2/1/0/2 tempo, 3 x 12-15

Rest 2 minutes.

Make certain to keep your lower back arched throughout the entire range of motion during the Romanian deadlifts, and maintain a 25 degree bend in your knees. If you reach a point in the lowering portion of the rep—the eccentric part—where you must round your lower back to continue, either the weight is too heavy, or you’re not doing it correctly.

On the back extensions, increase the resistance by holding a loaded barbell across your shoulders. Weightlifters have been known to routinely use more than 200 pounds on the exercise for reps. Because the back extension overloads the erector spinae in the shortened position, it’s very important to pause in that range for the prescribed count of two seconds.

Using those two programs exactly the way I describe them probably won’t give you an edge over Dorian Yates in a posedown, but they’ll pack muscle on the erector spinae surprisingly fast. Give it a shot!

Q: From a strength-coaching perspective, which do you like better: power racks with separate lifting platforms or the new half racks that have lifting platforms attached to them?

A: If you don’t have much space and have to work with a lot of athletes at the same time, the half racks with platforms are the better choice. Half-rack stations have a smaller footprint and save time and reduce traffic flow by enabling athletes to perform all their basic exercises, such as power cleans and bench presses, in one area. The half racks also often have weight holders attached to them, which saves even more space, as they support both the lifting platform area and the rack.

The problem is, setups like that compromise function. First, they often reduce the amount of lifting-platform space, and having the rack attached to the platform can present a safety hazard. An athlete who attempts to save a snatch or clean by stepping backward or loses control of the weight and is thrown backward could hit the rack. Further, the half racks are not really power racks at all but function more like portable squat stands. I say that because half racks usually have safety catches that extend away from the rack about two feet. You have to be very careful not to lift outside that area.

The power rack, or squat cage, was first patented in 1989 by Karl I. Mullen of Portland, Oregon. The basic power rack consists of four vertical posts linked to each other and features adjustable horizontal-bar catches that can be positioned at various heights. If you miss the weight or want to perform partial-range or isometric exercises, the horizontal-bar catches allow for that.

To perform an isometric training protocol on the bench press, you can remove the barbell from the supports and then press against the bar catches set at a specific height. Isometric exercises are not possible with half racks, and partial-range exercises are less practical because you have no precise feedback as to how high you are lifting the weight.

At the Poliquin Strength Institute in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, I have two power racks and two lifting platforms. To me that layout is optimal, but if you’re limited on space and have a large number of athletes using your facility, you have to compromise with the half racks with platforms.

Q: What is your opinion of box squats for athletes?

A: The box squat is a controversial exercise that lifters either love or hate. Let’s start with some history.

The sport that introduced box squats to the iron game was powerlifting. In the ’60s lifters performed them at the original West Side Barbell Club in Culver City, California. Louie Simmons, who squatted 935 pounds at age 52 at a bodyweight of just 235, has coached more squatters who’ve lifted 1,000 pounds than anyone in the world, and the box squat is a key exercise in his program.

One individual who brought the lift to national attention was George Frenn. George, who won the national hammer throw championships three years in a row at a bodyweight of 242, had a best competitive squat—and world record—of 853 pounds. Those were the days without the special squat suits and belts, and those athletes squatted deep. Frenn found that training the squat twice a week was too taxing on his body and that he couldn’t throw well in meets or in practice the day after a heavy squat workout. Also, Frenn had an interesting variation on the exercise: He would squat down, rock back and lift his feet slightly off the floor. Then he would rock forward and slam his feet down, explosively coming off the box.

I don’t use box squats because I see their use limited to powerlifting. The mechanics are different from what occurs in sport, especially with the technique commonly used now, in which the shins move toward the vertical at the bottom. Think about it: In what sport do the shins not travel forward during propulsion? Also, the exercise strengthens the muscles through a shortened range of motion, which changes soft-tissue integrity, especially in the piriformis, a glute muscle. The piriformis is especially important for sports that require you to change direction a lot.

Finally, the box squat can place considerable stress on sacral vertebrae. Taking all that into consideration, unless you’re a powerlifter, I’d avoid that exercise.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most successful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit  IM

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