With the incidence of lower back pain sky rocketing each year along with a chronic re-injury rate reaching epidemiological levels, it’s time that we set the record straight.
Are YOU struggling to develop your back or do you have nagging aches that bother you? Assuming other underlying issues are addressed, training your back properly can go a long way in promoting a strong, muscular and healthy back.
While proper movement patterning, muscle balance and the like are important, many people are afraid to actually train their backs hard, train extension patterns and push their back musculature as hard as they push other areas. I’m here to tell you that avoiding extension training is a dead end and its not always just the glutes not working that is the only problem. Maybe your back is just weak!
When is the last time you hurt your back? Yesterday picking up a grocery bag? Helping your friend move last month? Getting up off the couch as you were reading the latest Shape magazine? Picking up your girlfriend to twirl her around until you dropped her when you spasmed up?
Well if you answered yes to any of these then you better keep reading this article. If you didn’t answer yes to any of these, you still better keep reading this article because the injury bug is about to bite, you just don’t know it yet. And if you want to get stronger and perform better, read the damn article.
The Reason You Keep Hurting Your Lower Back
Back issues. Quite the common theme these days it seems. I can’t begin to tell you how many people I come across and/or work with who have chronic nagging back issues, sudden back “tweaks,” or just what they describe as “a bad back.”
Many people succumb to the problem and simply tell themselves that they just have to live with it. The low back is almost never the main actual source of the problem.
Assuming serious underlying conditions or serious injuries such as disc herniations, fractures, etc. are ruled out, there are plenty of common patterns that we can usually tackle to make improvements. The muscles of the low back are usually overactive/overworked because of poor movement, inadequate help from its friends (glutes, hamstrings, abs, etc. and yes The Beatles were supposed to enter your head there), poor breathing mechanics, being stuck in sympathetic fight or flight mode, shifts or rotations in the spine or hips, lack of hip mobility or some combination of the above.
You absolutely must look at and address any of the above that are applicable, no doubt about it. However, assuming those things are addressed and the back is now getting by with a little help from its friends, I have some other thoughts on the topic that many coaches and practitioners don’t have the guts to express themselves. Here’s a thought that seems to be missed by many people: Maybe your back is just damn weak!
Don’t Blame Your Back, Blame Your Inherent Weakness
Building upon the initial question above, when is the last time you hurt your back intentionally? I’m going to go ahead and guess that for many of you, the answer to this question is never or not recently. I don’t mean when is the last time you hurt your back as in intentionally injured yourself. I’m asking when is the last time you straight up went to war in the weight room and made a solid effort to train, strengthen and bulletproof your back muscles?
If you don’t know when that time was, then perhaps you deserve all of the aches, pains and injuries that you sustain with mundane little tasks like picking up a grocery bag to get out your fake health food that you don’t need.
More commonly than should occur, I have clients “alert” me that their backs hurt or were sore after certain workouts. Now, “pain” as in bad pain that occurs from a tear or passive tissue injury is not something we want and if this is in fact occurring, the program needs to be modified for that individual or you need to learn how to use proper form. However, muscular soreness from training hard with solid exercises like deadlifts, back extensions, reverse hypers and good mornings is something that we need to push through with.
Now, if your back is completely torched all of the time and you don’t feel much in your glutes or hamstrings, then you should probably reevaluate your technique or program. But if your back is sore or hurting sometimes after a hard training session, then maybe you are building up some tolerance in those tissues where it needs to be built up.
Maybe you are toughening those tissues up so that next time you want to pick up that bag of groceries or carry that piece of equipment across the yard, you won’t curl over and curse your lungs out. Because when it comes down to it, if you never train those muscles and tissues and are afraid to put some positive stress through those muscles and tissues, when you do put some unexpected stress through them, you can easily run into problems.
Building Base Strength To Combat Lower Back Pain
If you look at spine biomechanics expert Stuart McGill‘s work, you will see that back endurance can often be a part of the equation. If your back extensors fatigue too quickly/easily and can’t hold their own during activities, you are more likely to get injured.
If your back doesn’t have enough base strength, then its probably not going to have enough base endurance. I was doing some 45 degree back extensions the other day for sets of 8 with a little over 200lbs added via barbell (assistance work for my deadlift). I thought about how many clients I’ve had over the past 8 years that initially struggle to do a set of 8 with just their bodyweight. Call me crazy but I’d like to think that its going to be a lot harder for someone who can knock out reps with 200lbs to get fatigued during a daily task and tweak their back than it is for someone who can barely do a set with their bodyweight.
Strength, endurance, work capacity; you better believe I’m bulletproofing them suckers. I’m bulletproofing them for:
A. To be able to handle 600+ pound deadlifts and…
B. To hold up with whatever activity might be thrown my way.
Now, there is a tradeoff with this. If your back becomes too much stronger than, say, your glutes and abs, you might have problems but thats left for the previously mentioned tasks that we already addressed.
The bottom line is, if you get stronger and then build up better endurance in the muscle fibers of your back (erectors, QL, transversospinals, etc.) you are going to hold up better with most activities that might come about.
Create Spinal Resiliency, Not Dependency
Does this guarantee that you won’t possibly injure something? No, its impossible to perfectly avoid all injuries from ever occurring. You can be the best prepared human being on the planet and its still possible for something to go wrong depending on which curve balls are thrown your way; however, the better prepared that you are, the MUCH LESS likely it is that things will go south and what can often happen is something that might cause someone with less resilience/preparation a problem will not even phase someone with better bulletproofing. Furthermore, if you do happen to tweak something, you’ll recover a heck of a lot faster than someone who is unprepared.
I feel like too many people are just straight up scared to actually train their backs; scared to train any extension patterns; scared to push their back musculature as hard as they push other areas. While many people do walk around with an extended posture, flared ribs and statically overactive back musculature and we do want to balance this out, these same people also usually don’t know how to extend properly with actual dynamic motion.
My question is: If you are scared to push your back in the weight room, then how the heck are you going to get by when you need to move something heavy in your yard or house, when you need to help a friend change residences, when you get stuck in an awkward position and need to brace yourself to get out of it, so on so forth.
So yes, make sure your glutes are up to speed, your abs are doing their job, your breathing is on point, you hinge and rotate correctly and don’t get STUCK in extension, but beyond that, train your back, get it friggin strong and endurable and put some muscle on it. Iliocostalis, longissimus, spinalis, multifidus, rotatores, semispinalis, quadratus lumborum, lats, trapezius and even the deep little intertransversarii and interspinalis muscles make up just a general summary of the many muscles that make up the lower region of the back (many of which continue up into the rest of the back on up into the neck)
How To Properly Train The Lower Back
Want to be freakishly strong? Better train these muscles. Want to get big and muscular? Better train these muscles. Want to get lots of chicks (or, umm, good looking guys)? Better train these muscles. Want to prevent unnecessary episodes of back pain? Better train these muscles. Train them with a variety of rep ranges.
Start with 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps to build up some general strength and muscle, work to heavier sets when you become more advanced and train sets of 15-20+ reps to build up some general endurance.
Train it with different movements, do some static endurance work and get after it. What exercises should be used? I’m going to show you some of my favorites. An obvious answer is the deadlift and its many variations. When you get to a more advanced stage and are ready for it, you can train this exercise heavier than most in the 1-5 rep range, like this training set for example (pardon this shitty vertical video):
Deadlift variations have been covered in many articles and I don’t want to turn this into a deadlift tutorial so I’d like to show you some exercises other than the deadlift that can give you something different to help you on your quest for a back of steel.
Here are the movements you need to be prioritizing if you want to keep your lower back healthy, and no they aren’t fluffy stretches and breathing drills. It’s time to train the lower back directly with a plan and purpose because it’s clear that the “prehabilitation” program you’re using isn’t working.
45 Degree Back Extension- Beginner Variation
Coaching Notes: Keeping your spine neutral, bend down through your hips. Once you reach end range, drive back up through your glutes until you have a straight line between thighs and trunk. Emphasize the hip hinge rather then just folding and moving through your spine. This allows you to utilize your back extensors in a correct, healthy manner while training them to work along with your glutes and hamstrings. Start with sets of 8 to 10 and work up to sets of 15-20 reps
45 Degree Back Extension- Advanced variation (Band, Barbell, Pauses)
Coaching Notes: This is what I am talking about when I say most people never push their backs to a truly challenging level. You can use strong band tension to challenge these and you can use heavy weight to challenge these; I routinely push these to over 200lbs with a barbell and I’ve seen people go over 400lbs. Adding in 2-5 second pauses can build up some static endurance in the middle of a set. Push from 6 to 10 reps when going heavier on these and make sure to drive through your glutes and hamstrings along with your back. Be sure to avoid any hyperextension (coming up too far) of your low back and stop as soon as your hips lock out.
Coaching Notes: These are a gem that legendary coach and lifter Louie Simmons made popular and if you have access to a reverse hyper machine, you should absolutely be using it. This is another exercise that most people don’t push nearly hard or heavy enough. I routinely go over 400lbs on these for 15-20 rep sets and rep them out for more reps with lighter weight for recovery and extra endurance work.
Whats cool about these is that you are able to train your back without a compressive load or stress on your spine and they actually provide some decompression when you bring your legs through and under you. They have the potential to make your back strong, endurable and healthy all at once. I like using these for 15-20 rep sets on heavier days and 50+ rep sets on recovery days though they can also be used for lower 8 to 10 rep sets. If you don’t have a reverse hyper machine to use, these can be done laying over a glute ham raise or back extension bench, or over a counter top. I used to do these over a counter top with ankle weights back in the day before I had my facility.
Get your trunk in a nice solid position, brace your abs and extend your hips while maintaining a neutral spine. Drive through your glutes and use a controlled swing on the way down. A little bit of controlled flexion on the eccentric phase is ok as this will allow the decompression to happen and make the extension more efficient on the concentric phase.
Coaching Notes: These are a great assistance exercise that work well to A. Teach a proper hip hinge before doing a regular barbell deadlift and B. Target the back, glutes and hamstrings in synchronious harmony. Keep your spine neutral and bend through your hips with soft knees. Just let the handle pull you back between your legs and think of your arms as anchors rather than trying to pull excessively with them. You should feel good tension in your hamstrings as you approach end range. Once your hips stop moving, stand back up and squeeze your glutes. Notice I do not keep bending my trunk once my hips stop moving.
Good Morning (Barbell)
Coaching Notes: This exercise isn’t one I’d necessarily recommend for beginners but once you have a solid hip hinge pattern down, they can be a great way to train your back and entire posterior chain. Hinge back through your hips while maintaining a neutral spine just like the pull through above and then drive back up squeezing your glutes. These can be performed for moderate to higher reps in the 8 to 15 rep range and for the more advanced lifter can be pushed for heavy sets of 3-5 reps.
These can also be done with various bars and even with a band (great for travel workouts). Personally, I really like performing these with a cambered bar as I feel it has nice carryover to my deadlift since the weight is loaded in a lower position.
Coaching Notes: These will hit the deeper Quadratus lumborum muscle along with your obliques and glutes and are a great way to build some solid stability and strength all around your spine. Get your trunk and hips in a solid straight line position while engaging your glutes and abs. Perform 2 to 3 sets of 5 to 8 reps with 3 to 5 second holds. You can add in a breath during the hold to increase the challenge. Be sure that you don’t go into excessive side flexion and try to stabilize that straight lined position.
Don’t Be Afraid To Train The Lower Back Hard, Heavy & With Volume
Another thing that needs to be mentioned is the importance of volume. One back exercise here and there is just not enough to make any significant amount of progress. If someone is just doing a couple of full body workouts per week then one to two exercises each workout is going to have to do and some progress will definitely be made. If you are training 4 days per week and looking to get wicked strong with your deadlift and pack on muscle, etc. then you can easily hit 2 to 3 low back assistance exercises twice a week. Trust me on the wicked strong thing:
Again, any of these back exercises that you do should involve harmonious action with your glutes, hamstrings, abs, etc. We want to promote good patterns of movement and optimal neuromuscular coordination and strengthen our backs in a healthy and smart manner, not just blindly crank things out. We also want to be sure that we maintain a good programming balance with some of the concepts mentioned earlier: balance out these back exercises with abdominal and breathing exercises to get yourself out of extension and to shut down the neural tone in your back once you are done training.
The bottom line is this; If you want to be strong, have a nice looking muscular back, hold up better with any daily activity thrown your way, end nagging aches that won’t let go or just straight up be awesome, then challenge your back with your workouts and reap the rewards.
Deadlift heavy, do your back extensions, perform reverse hypers, do good mornings all morning, row and pull heavy, swing plenty of kettebells and do things like these until you have some nice steaks on each side of your spine. (Of course learn proper form and use good hip drive w/ a good back position) Train each side and get the deeper fibers with side holds, side bridges, cable chops, heavy carries and windmills. Get a little dirty with it. Build a fortress. Get rolling. Have a little soreness? Good!! Get stronger. Build some endurance in those fibers.
The more tolerance you have in the wide array of tissues back there, the easier everyday activites will be, the stronger your body will be as a whole, the more muscle you will build and the more members of the opposite sex you will attract. A strong, endurable, muscular and well developed back is the cornerstone of a fit and strong body (talking mainly about low/mid back in this article but upper is just as important; i.e. do your rows and face pulls:). That goes for males and females. While pecs, arms and abs get all the attention in many “circles,” the back is where its truly at. It is the base for everything else. So train it and reap the rewards.
About The Author
Nick Rosencutter, founder and owner of Rosencutter Ultra Fitness & Performance in Milwaukee, is a strength and conditioning coach, manual therapist, competitive power lifter, martial artist and writer. Since graduating with a degree in Exercise and Sports Science and Strength and Conditioning from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, he has worked with hundreds of clients, ranging from elite and youth athletes to people who want to shed fat and improve their bodies. His blend of experience with both therapeutic and performance modalities along with his years of personal in the trenches experience give him a unique hybrid like viewpoint on the body and its movement and performance.