You Aren’t Made of Glass: Strengthening the Lower Back

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Article written by Matt Mills
In strength sports, the lower back is a very common area of injury, and many times it can put an athlete down for months, if not more.  If you feel this is a weak point for you, and if you have had multiple back injuries, then this is DEFINITELY a big weak point for you.  In the few studies that have been done on the sport of Strong(wo)man, the number one injury is to the lower back.  This shouldn’t come with much of a surprise considering we have up to 3 different variations of a deadlift in a competition (Deadlift, farmers, stones for example).  Without getting into the anatomy it’s very simple, a stronger muscle is much less likely to get injured then a weaker one.  Look at anyone who is considered strong in strength sports and they have a wide thick back, with especially big erectors.

Here are our top 5 favorite movements to build a big, strong, injury-proof lower back:

Deficit SLDL
I won’t get into too much detail here, as Alanna has already gone over them in her article on targeting your weak points for the deadlift here.  I love doing these right after I pull my heavy sets on the deadlift.  I like to keep these in a higer rep range of about 8-15 reps.  When you do these after deadlifting just be ready for a big back pump!

Seated safety bar goodmornings
For those of you that have completed the Ajax Method, you know these are another favorite of LBEB with good reason.  With a good morning, the low back, glutes, and hamstrings all work but with the seated version the hamstrings and glutes are taken completely out, with all the stress put on the low back.  The movement is generally the same as a typical good morning, but you will be sitting down to a box, or a bench will work if you don’t have access to a box squat.  I set the height right where I would perform a box squat, where my thighs are just about parallel.  In the video I am performing these with a safety bar, but you do not necessarily have to use this bar.  A straight bar will work just fine, but just be careful of not leaning forward too far as the bar can slide up to your head.  I like the safety bar as it sits more comfortable on your back, and you don’t have to worry about it moving.  Sit back like you normally would to perform a box squat, and keep your upper and lower back as tight as you can.  As you lean forward do your best to keep a tight arch.  With that being said it is ok to lose some of your arch as you descend, but do not round your lower back at all.  As you can see in the video it is perfectly fine to round the upper back.  As you come back up contract your lower back, and your shoulder blades together hard to get some extra upper back work as a bonus.

 

Suspended good mornings
I’m going to warn you that these are extremely hard, and are usually grinders to get the weight moving.  Again I prefer the safety bar here as the shape of the bar makes it more difficult to stay upright.  I like to start these at a fairly low position, but this will depend on your flexibility.  Here you want to be extremely tight off the bottom of this movement just like you would in a deadlift.  Another benefit to the movement is that it will greatly help with strength off the floor in your deadlift, and coming out of the bottom of the squat if you have a tendency to lean forward and miss the lift.  Using safety straps or chains are ideal for this. as it is easier to get in position in between reps.  You don’t want to turn this into an Anderson Squat, so make sure you push your hips back to get into position with a slight knee bend.  Get some tension on the bar by driving into it a little bit, arch the low back tight, and contract your lats hard.  Just like a deadlift, you want to make sure you stop completely on the safeties and reset.  I like to keep the reps a little lower on these, in the 3-5 rep range.  Just start light and build your way up because these can be very humbling.

Reverse hyper
If you are lucky to have a reverse hyper at your facility, I highly suggest you start using it if you haven’t already. I feel this movement is the single best exercise to do to prevent injury to the lower back.  I have been lucky to never have seriously injured my back during strongman and powerlifting, but whenever I have had a minor injury I make it a point to do the reverse hyper at least twice a week.  When I first got a reverse hyper at my facility about 4 years ago I remember barely being able to move 50lbs on it for a few reps.  I couldn’t believe how weak I was after watching many videos of powerlifters moving hundreds of pounds with ease.  Steadily I increased my weight each week, and steadily my deadlift increased alongside it.  Some lifters like to warm up with this movement, but I like to put it at the end of either my squat, or deadlift day.  3 sets of 15-20 reps will be effective, but again be ready for your low back to get extremely tight and pumped up, which is a good thing.  Start the movement by gaining some momentum as you will see me do in the video below.  Keep your legs fairly straight here as a common mistake is to bend the knees a little putting more stress on the hamstrings which we don’t want.  As you get to the top arch your back hard, and try to hold it for a second.  You won’t be able to hold the top if you have enough weight, but try to.  Also you will notice I move my head with my legs, this is just to exaggerate the top of the movement as I bring my head up just as I would when locking out a deadlift.

Back extension/row combo
This exercise may not be isolating the lower back completely but it does hit the entire posterior chain, and it is one of my favorite combos to build muscle for your back.  You can perform these in either a 45 degree back extension, or a glute ham raise.  One thing to be careful on is not to hyperextend.  I know sometimes a 45 degree back raise is often referred to as a hyperextension, but this is completely wrong and putting a lot of stress on your low back in a bad way.  To initiate the movement, concentrate on pushing your hips into the pad to come up.  You will feel your glutes quite a bit, and as you come up row the bar right into the lower part of your chest and hold the top for just a second contracting your lower back, and lats as hard as you can.  You don’t need a lot of weight here, nor will you be able to move a lot of weight anyway.  I like to finish my deadlift workout with these, 3 sets of 12-15 is all you need.

Now you have all the tools to build a strong lower back, and start adding pounds to your lifts.  Choose your accessory lifts wisely here.  Do not just add in all 5 of these exercises off the bat, because your low back will not be able to recover from extremely high volumes, like biceps or calves for example.  Choose one or two to start with and see how your big lifts increase.  Like any accessory work you must only do what you need to do to get stronger.  Anything else will be a waste.

  • Question: What is the advantage of doing straight-leg deadlifts from a deficit? It seems to take some pretty good mobility to keep the lower back straight, even without a deficit. I’d think the deficit would encourage people to round their back as they’re trying to get lower.
    Thanks!

    • The goal is to keep the weight off the floor, so by standing on a plate, it lets you go just a little bit lower without touching the ground.

  • Matt Mills

    Hey Daniel, sorry for the late response. Yes you are correct, doing them from a deficit is only for those that have the mobility to do so. If you are especially tight then do them just from the floor.

  • TaargusTaargus

    Daniel – all of the videos in this article seem to be linking to the Back Extension/Row Combo video.