THE LUMBARS: KEYS TO OVERALL STRENGTH
by Bill Starr
Of all the major muscle groups, those that form the lower back, the lumbars, are the most neglected. There are two main reasons for that. The muscles of the lower back are rather hard to see from any angle, even in a mirror. It's the old out-of-sight, out-of -mind idea. Second and perhaps more pertinent is the fact that lower-back exercises, when done properly, are always difficult. They're the most demanding exercises in any strength program. There's just no easy way to perform good mornings, stiff-legged deadlifts and hyperextensions - not if you really want to get strong. Token poundages just don't get the job done.
I've also noticed that even those people who initially include some useful, strenuous lower-back exercises in their programs soon begin to hedge. They start substituting easier movements for the tough ones and allow the numbers to slip more and more. It's really quite easy to convince yourself that light stiff-legged deadlifts are just as productive as heavy good mornings, but unfortunately, that isn't true. In most cases, the principle of proportionate strength intervenes. That means injury, and a lower-back problem really puts a halt to progress.
People who train with weights have a lot of lower-back problems - if not full-blown injuries, at least nagging pains in the lumbars. Such problems are almost always the result of a lack of direct work, but often the problem becomes an excuse to do even less lower-back work. Now, it's certainly not a good idea to let your lumbars get too far behind, or you won't be doing much lifting at all.
It's extremely important to keep the muscles of your lower back strong because they're involved in nearly every movement you make. Every athletic movement brings the lumbars into play, and a weakness there always adversely affects performance. It's virtually impossible to run and jump effectively with an injured lower back. The lumbars can be compared to the universal joint in a motor vehicle. The power generated by the large muscles of the hips and legs cannot be propelled upward into the back and shoulders unless the lower back is strong, which directly influences such athletic endeavors such a running, jumping, hitting, throwing, blocking and tackling.
Most trainees understand this concept but overlook the fact that the ability to transfer power downward from upper body to the hips and legs is also dependent on strong lumbars. That's critical in serving a tennis ball, spiking a volleyball, pole vaulting and performing the Olympic lifts.
Not only must the lumbars be strong, but they must also be proportionately strong, for if the hips and legs move too far ahead of the lumbars, you're guaranteed to have strength problems.
That's the reason I prescribe definite ratios for lower-back exercises and leg work that help lifters maintain the critical balance. I don't think I've ever seen a case of a person having lumbars that were too strong. I assume it's possible, but I've just never encountered it.
Every strength routine should include a specific lower-back exercise, and it should be performed no less than once a week. For those who have an obvious weakness in the area, twice a week is better. There are several to choose from, but be advised: None are easy. If you don't get a bit sore from whatever lower-back exercise you choose, you aren't using enough weight or aren't doing it properly.
I must mention that this information is aimed at people who have healthy lower backs. The numbers don't apply to anyone who's nursing a lower-back injury. I'll address that problem later in the discussion.
The best lower-back exercises are good mornings. There are actually a number of ways to perform this exercise. You can do it with a flat back, a rounded back and while seated. The variation that you select may depend on whether one hurts you while another one doesn't. I'm not talking about the pain of exertion but, rather, the type of pain that you can feel is obviously doing you harm.There's a good hurt and a bad hurt, and, trust me, good mornings are going to hurt. Even so, if the pain is white hot and you know you're doing yourself damage in the process, you should make some adjustments.
I start all my trainees on the standard, rounded-back good mornings, for they fit most people nicely. If rounding the back hurts, however, I switch them to a flat-back style. Occasionally, that also hurts too much, in which case I have them use seated good mornings. Unless a person has an injury, one style or the other is going to fit.
You perform the rounded- and flat-back versions essentially the same way , with the obvious alterations for the back positions. If you've never done these, start with a very light weight. Master the technique before you load up the bar. Once you have the form down pat, the numbers will take care of themselves. Take the bar off the rack and lock it on your back as if you were about to squat. One of the most important performance points on good mornings is to lock the bar tightly to your back. Beginners have more problems with sliding bars than any other group - and it's painful. For some trainees that means you need to take a closer grip than you use when squatting. Position your feet just a bit closer than shoulder width. Turn your toes in slightly and grip the floor with your feet, a useful technique for creating a firm foundation. While that isn't crucial when you're using light weights, it's most essential for he heavy poundages, so get used to doing it from the beginning.
Bend your knees slightly. You never want to work your lower back with locked knees, for it puts undue stress on your lower back as well as your hamstrings. Any exercise that works the lumbars also involves the hamstrings. That's a good thing, for while you're strengthenting your lumbars, you get a bonus. The hamstrings are essential to maintaining proportionate leg strength.
Once you're set, slowly lower your upper body until your chest is on your thighs. You may not be able to go that far right away, but unless you have a problem with flexibility, you will. The only thing stopping most people is the fear of falling forward, because that's how it feels. It's the reason you must grip the floor with your feet. Some people can actually go low enough that they can look between their legs. The lower the better, for it activates more muscles.
When you assume the starting position, with your knees slightly bent, you must concentrate on maintaining that position throughout the lift. Don't let your hips drop or your knees bend further so that the good morning turns into a partial squat.
Once you've gone as low as you can, return to the starting position. Use a smooth motion - don't snap out of the bottom or twist in any manner. It isn't necessary to come up completely on each rep, but most people like to do it because it lets them reset for the next rep. Perform each rep in perfect style. When using heavier weights, trainees commonly rush through the early reps in order to get the set over as quickly as possible. That isn't a good idea, as it will actually make the set more difficult. You must do every single rep as perfectly as possible. Only then will you be able to move on to the heavier poundages. Also keep in mind that while the good morning is basically a safe exercise when done correctly, it can cause problems if you use sloppy form because of the stress it puts on your lower back and hamstrings. Of course, that's true of any strength movement - do it correctly and you'll benefit, but get ugly and you'll pay the price.
If, after trying the rounded-back version, you experience a great deal of pain in your lower back, hamstrings or even your glutes, switch to the flat-back version. The principal difference between the two styles is that you can't go quite as low with a flat back. That makes them a bit less effective, but not by much if you work up to heavy weights. Otherwise, the form is exactly the same.
The form for seated good mornings, however, is quite different. They're particularly useful for anyone who has an injured ankle knee because you can still work your lower back effectively. Several of my football players over the years have sustained knee of ankle injuries and were unable to do any heavy pulling movements or squats. Nevertheless, they continued with the seated good mornings while they were recovering and found to their surprise that they were able to hold much of their lower-body strength. These are also useful for variety, and they do hit some muscles that the standing good mornings don't get, so many of my athletes include them in their monthly routines.
If possible, position yourself on a bench with your back to a rack so you can take the loaded bar off the rack while seated. That's most important if you have an injury. If it isn't feasible, take the bar off the rack and sit on the bench.
Perhaps the most important performance note for seated good mornings is to brace your feet solidly against the floor on each rep. Otherwise the weight will carry you too far forward. Locking your feet firmly also helps you to keep the rest of your body tight, and again, remember to pull the bar really tightly to your upper back. How low shold you go? Until your chin or forehead touches the bench.
Although seated good mornings may seem to be more difficult than the standing variety, they're not. They're actually easier, and you can handle more weight on them - as long as you use proper form. If you find that you can perform all three forms equally well and aren't sure which to do, I suggest doing all three. You may want to alternate them each week or do one style for a month or so and switch to another. Which style is best? That depends on the individual, but the best guideline is to determine which one makes you the most sore. When it comes to lower-back work, sore is good. That's the reason it's good to change your style around.
There's one other way to do good mornings, but it's only for very advanced lifters. I call them power good mornings because you use very heavy weights. In fact, they're heavier than what I suggest in my guidelines, but many strength athletes can handle big numbers and these are great for someone who wants to deadlift and squat the big weights. Bruce Randall made these popular. In fact, I believe Bruce is largely responsible for making the good morning a part of the strength-training regimen. Of course, Paul Anderson also used this style to elevate his strength.
The main difference between power good mornings and the standard variety is that you don't go as low in the power version and you set your hips farther back. That's necessary because if you didn't make the adjustment, heavy weights would flip over your head. You're also allowed to drop your hips a bit - just enough that you can control the heavy weight. It should go without saying that you must perform each rep with absolutely perfect form. And you should only be considering power good mornings if you squat in the mid-to-high 500s or deadlift close to 600. Otherwise, standard good mornings will be more productive. If you're ready, however, try them. I have several football players, both high-500 squatters, who have used 350 for 10 reps on this exercise.
I always have my lifters use fairly high reps on good mornings, say, eights or 10s. That ensures that they'll establish a firm base while they slowly increase the weight. As I recommended above, start light. Learn form first, then slowly add the plates. You will easily be able to move up five or 10 pounds a week until you reach your goal, which is 50% of your squat weight. So, if you squat 400, you need to be handling 200 for eight reps on your last set of good mornings.
I have a few freshmen who come in the weight room at Hopkins who can squat 400 but had never done good mornings before I introduced them to the movement. When I told them that they needed to move the lift to 200 for reps, they turned pale, especially after their first session, in which they did 95 pounds and it dusted them. The following week, though, they did 105 and it was easier than the 95. So for the next two months they added 10 pounds to the exercise each week and suddenly realized that they were using 185 and that their goal was withing their reach.
Four sets is enough, although some people prefer doing five so the jumps aren't too large. Start with a light weight and proceed to the heaviest poundage. That may seem obvious, but I've learned not to assume anything when I design a program. I once coached a powerlifter from New York by phone. Since he was squatting 459, I told him to use 225 for his good mornings. He used the weight on all four sets. It was a tad too much. The 50 percent guideline ensures the balance in strength among the lumbars, hamstrings and quads.
The second-best exercise for strengthening the lower back is the stiff-legged deadlift, a name I hate because it promotes bad form. Your legs should never be completely locked when you work your lower back. It's too stressful and not at all necessary. A slight bend in the knees will keep your lumbars and hamstrings from being stressed, and it's just a beneficial. The exercise should be called the slightly bent-knee deadlift.
Many people like to do this exercise while standing on a bench, an unnecessary risk that can easily be avoided. Simply use only 25-pound plates on the bar. You'll be able to go low enough to make the exercise, and it's very safe. When I suggest that to some lifters they frown and say they plan on using more than 300 pounds. That's fine. You'll be surprised at how many 25-pound plates you can get on an Olympic bar.
If possible, start from a standing position and lower the bar to the bottom. I have my athletes take the bar from a squat rack about waist high, which helps them control the bar better and also lets them secure it in the proper position. Two key form points: Always keep the bar extremely close to your legs throughout the movement and set it on the floor after each rep. In other words, don't rebound the plates off the floor. If you follow the first tip and keep the bar close, it will settle on the very tops of your shoes. That's the right spot. The up and down motions should be deliberate and controlled, and, as I said above, you may not want to go to the completely upright position at the top. Some people find that they work their lumbars and hamstrings when they halt at midthigh.
Stiff-legged deadlifts, like good mornings, must be worked hard to be useful. The formula I use for stiff-legged deadlifts is eight reps with three-fourths of what you're squatting. In other words, a man who squats 400 pounds uses 300 pounds for eight reps on the stiff-legged deadlift. Again, that's a goal, not a number to begin with. Four sets is sufficient.
Hyperextensions and reverse hypers are two other very useful lumbar exercises, and I use them
as warmup movements. These are best performed for very high reps. I have several athletes who do more than 100 hyperextensions. The only times that I use either type of hyper as a primary lower-back exercise is when lifters cannot do either good mornings or stiff-legged deads. I have them use resistance, usually a 25o-pound plate for the hypers and manual resistance for the reverse hypers. When resistance is used, I have them do a total of 100 reps per workout.
All of the above exercises may be useful when you're rehabbing an injured lower back or hamstring. I say may because one or more may irritate the injury while another will be helpful. You'll have to try them to find out whether good mornings, stiff-legged deadlifts, hypers or reverse hypers irritate or help your particular problems. Always use a very light weight - say, an empty Olympic bar - and run the reps to at least 20. Do only one set the first time. Then get some feedback the next day. If the injured area feels better, you're on the right course, so carefully add another set of 20 at your next workout. Generally, once you get to the point where you can use 95 pounds for either the stiff-legged deadlift or good morning, you're on your way to full recovery.
In any event, if you're able to do hypers or reverse hypers, do lots of them.
Learning how to strengthen your lower-back muscles is critical to achieving a high level of strength fitness. Once you know how to do it, you'll also understand how to rebuild them should they ever get injured.