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Strengthening the lower back

Your good morning better not be bad

The emergence of modern fitness has sprouted countless new gym-goers, slaving away religiously at their squats and pulls. While I'm a fan, I find that many modes of exercise, like Crossfit or body building, tend to inherently favor the legs over the back (and hips). This sets corresponding athletes up for strength discrepancies that over time become a problem - regarding both performance and injury. In this article I'll share my thoughts on the matter, and provide some ideas on how to address lower back weakness.

photo by @wearebru

Let me clarify previous examples of strength-discrepancies between the legs and back, and start with Crossfit. It is a dense discipline that requires a broad range of qualities of its athletes. However, the strength-building work largely consists of weightlifting and its derivatives (like overhead squats) that favor upright-trunk squatting movements. This naturally builds super strong legs, but the lower back is left with just some secondary development through a handful of deadlifts.

Many body builders struggle with an underpowered back for similar reasons. 'Leg day' usually consists of the 'bread & butter' squats, leg presses, leg extensions, leg curls, and calf raises - exercises of which only the first is bound to provide some lower back training. Then on 'back day' itself, usually only upper back exercises are performed, with the lower back being lucky to get some stimulation from just three or four sets of deadlifts.

The problem with having an underpowered lower back is twofold. Firstly, the spinal tissues poorly withstand forces outside of their neutral position, and therefore require great muscle strength to be stabilized in order to avoid injury. Secondly, a lack of spinal stability means that power of the legs is inefficiently transferred through to the barbell, causing force to be lost along the way. By now, I hope it to be clear that any type of program with a high reliance on leg-dominant squatting and olympic lifting can benefit greatly from some targeted back building. But how to best go about this?

It starts with heavier barbell work that removes the legs out of the equation, and finishes with lighter accessory work. While deadlifts are a great back builder, they are executed with incredibly high weights, and demand much from other structures like the arms as well. When dealing with lower back weakness, I therefore use them sparingly, and rely a lot on good mornings. The good morning movement pattern is remarkably similar to that of a deadlift, but overall load can easily be up to 50% lower. Lower weights means a higher tolerance for volume, and therefore a possibility to train more and recover more easily. Can you feel your back strengthening already?

My current favorite Good Morning variation

I personally use a range of good morning variations in order to satisfy the body's need for novelty. While regular straight barbells can be used, I often choose the safety squat barbell because it doesn't roll forward in the bottom position, and challenges the back extensor muscles more. Then, after picking a barbell, I will decide on what technical variation to use. This could mean a close stance, wide stance, starting in the bottom position (off the pins), or with added elastic bands either at the top, bottom or front - all depending on what weakness specifically needs to be addressed.

I have found good mornings to work best with medium to heavy weights, performing about 5 to 8 repetitions, because both very heavy and light weights make it difficult to maintain proper form. However, the lower back muscles also need higher repetitions in order to build work capacity and muscle mass, so this is where simpler movements with lower technical demands come into play. Think exercises like back extensions or reverse hypers, performed for about 60 to 100 total reps (over 3 or 4 sets).

Alright, that about sums it up. Treat your back with the same respect as you do the other primary muscles, and you will soon be sporting a sexy pair of titanium baguettes on either side of your spine, and have the pulling strength to back it up. No pun intended.


Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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