Here’s the deal, I have seen too many people with bad backs. Every one from a 17 year old kid, to a 70 year old man. To be quite honest, I am sick of it. There is no need for this to occur. The lower back may have its vulnerabilities, but it designed to last. What most people need is a little bit of lower back strengthening. As you will soon find out, lower back strengthening is not what it appears to be. Bodybuilding, or yoga, style programs are not what this article is about. In this post we are going to examine true lower back strengthening.
Most lower back strengthening articles online annoy me. They give a bunch of bogus clickbait junk exercises that do nothing but give the feeling of accomplishment. Different exercises are like tools in a toolkit. You only use the ones you need. So doesn’t it make sense to only use exercises that are going to help you?
Well, lower back strengthening is not simple, it is complicated. There are a lot of forces at play here. It is also a long process. There is no quick fix. Anybody that tells you otherwise doesn’t know what they are doing. With that said, let’s get started.
Why Is The Lower Back So Vulnerable?
The lower back is positioned at a point in the body where it is a stand alone structure. This means that there are no other bony structures in the same vicinity. The ribcage ends after the thoracic vertebrae and the hip bones attach to the sacrum. The lower back has only itself and the muscles around it. That last sentence is worth repeating. The lower back has only itself and the muscles around it.
Plenty of muscles help to maintain stability and function throughout its daily movements. Here is a short list:
- Erector Spinae
- Transverse Abdominus
- Rectus Abdominus
- Gluteus Maximus
- Quadratus Lumborem
- External Obliques
- Internal Obliques
- Latisimus Dorsi
There are more little stabilizer muscles that I could list, but I don’t want you guys to need an anatomy book to read this article. You don’t need to understand what all of these muscles do, you just have to know that they all play some role in the function of the lower back. If any of these muscles are not functioning properly, then there is going to be some effect on the lower back.
Lower Back Strengthening = Core Strengthening?
When most people have back problems they will often hear someone tell them to strengthen their “core”. I agree with that. However, I am concerned by this vague statement of the word “core”. What is the core? If you ask your average athlete, or fitness person, they will tell you it is your abs. Although they may be correct, this is still an untrue statement.
The core is all of the muscles of the trunk and hips. All of the muscles listed above in the bullet points are part of the core. So all of these muscles need work in order to improve lower back strengthening. The idea of the core being just the abs is a marketing tactic to push products. Let’s not forget, telling people that they only have one muscle group to fix sells books much better than telling people you have to fix 9.
The key to strengthening the core is to learn to breathing for stronger abs. Core strength is all in the breath. If you breathe correctly, you core will be stronger and you will be able to lift more weight (more on this later).
The Joint By Joint Approach
Since we now understand what the core is and how it works with the lower back, let’s take a step back and look at the body as a whole. If we look at all of the joints of the body we see that all of them are stacked on top of each other. Therefore, they must all have some relationship with each other. This concept is referred to as the joint by joint approach. It was developed by strength coach Mike Boyle and mentioned in his book Advances In Functional Training.
The key point of this approach is that everything in all athletic endeavors starts in the foot. The foot has to maintain stability through it’s arch. The ankle follows next with mobility, the knee with stability, hips with mobility and lower back for stability. This continues all the way up the body to the shoulders. If any structure is experiencing pain, then all you have to do is look at the structure below it, or above it.
Let’s use knee pain as an example. If the knee is in pain, then this can indicate that there is poor ankle mobility. If there is poor ankle mobility, check the feet, they may be losing stability. The joint by joint approach is a clever way to address movement problems.
Lower Back Strengthening Is All About Movement Not Muscle
When we talk about lower back strengthening, most people get this idea in their head of doing double bodyweight good mornings. They think of getting huge spinal erectors. This is not true lower back strengthening. True lower back strengthening is all about strengthening movements not muscle.
In order to stop pain from occurring in the first place, you need to learn how to move properly. The lower back is not really supposed to have much range of motion. In our joint by joint approach, the lower back primarily provides stability. Too much unintended movement will lead to injury.
Muscles are stupid. They just blindly follow orders that are given to them by the central nervous system. If you keep moving you muscles the wrong way, then you will continue to have poor movements.
Lower Back Strengthening Program
In order to prevent lower back pain, we have to train the lower back and its surrounding musculature to maintain stability. The lower back is supposed to resist moving as much as possible. In order to strengthen the lower back, we must train the muscles around it to maintain stability. It is not about size, it is about function. The muscles around the lower back can be as big as you want them to be. If you don’t learn how to use them properly it won’t matter, you will still get hurt.
You can see this in gyms all over the country with the big dudes walking around after years of training and tell you how much pain their back is in. It is not from having big muscles, but in the way they trained all those years. They never learned how to properly train the core and surrounding musculature.
With that said, let’s get get started on the lower back strengthening program. Below are the most common issues with the lower back along with some solutions. Note that not all solutions are presented here. I am just trying to get you on the right track for the future.
Anytime you are trying to pick up anything heavy off of the ground, the glutes should be playing a very big role. The glutes are positioned at the base of the spine around the sacrum. When the glutes contract they screw the sacrum in place with the hip bone. This essentially holds the lower back in place.
Take the deadlift for example. Most of the time whenever you see somebody with their back all rounded over they are not engaging their glutes. Now you might say “but Tony, there are a ton of reasons why somebody could lift with a rounded back”. Correct! I agree with you. I’m not talking about elite lifters though. I am talking about your average gym goer who is only deadlifting his bodyweight and struggling with it.
There are many glute exercises out there that can make the glutes stronger. In fact, I didn’t even mention the gluteus medius, just for the sake of space. However, we are looking for exercises that work in unison with the lower back. We do not want to isolate the glutes, that would defeat the whole point.
These are a great starting point for many people new to glute training. Donkey kicks teach the lifter how to engage the glutes while keeping the upper body stable and square. Since the individual is in the quadruped position (hands and knees) there is less tendency to round the back or twist the body. This is the primary error to look for.
Although very similar to donkey kicks, bird dogs have one key difference. Bird dogs require both an upper body and lower body limb to lift up, lowering the points of contact with the ground. This takes the glute engagement/lower back stability to the next level. With the opposite arm and opposite leg lifted, the back must fight the tendency to rotate even more than usual.
The hip thrust takes the strength building of the glutes to the next level. We are now lying face up with a giant barbell on our laps. The only way to prevent it from crushing you is to squeeze your glutes as hard as possible and maintain stability in your lower back. This will allow heavy weight to be lifted. Here is a guy hip thrusting over 500 lbs.
We need to teach the abs to brace themselves to prevent the spine from bending too much. The solution is not to do endless sets of crunches, or even planks for that matter. You have to learn how to maintain tension while you are moving either your bodyweight or a heavy barbell. Look at people doing squats. You can tell who is going to hurt their back by their form in the bottom position. If they are hunched over, then they are not bracing correctly and they are going to hurt their lower back.
Breathing For Stronger Abs
I had mentioned earlier that the key to developing a stronger core is to learn to breathe properly. I wrote an article about this a little while ago about breathing for stronger abs. I’m not going to get into too much detail here.
Breathing correctly will signal to the brain and spinal column to increase nervous output. This will allow the muscles to increase force production which will ultimately increase your strength. More strength for the core musculature will equate to more lower back strength.
This is why many lifters will wear lifting belts. The belt helps to provide this core tension for the lifter without his/her conscious consent. However, I only recommend wearing a belt after you learn how to breathe and brace properly. You should also only wear one for your heaviest sets. Don’t be that guy who wears one during bicep curls.
Stability More Than Strength
The whole purpose of the core is to remain stable. This means that doing endless sets of crunches and back extensions will not yield a stronger core. Muscles only get stronger by the movements they perform. It is those movement patterns that the nervous system and muscles get better at doing.
In the case of the core, we want very little to no movement to occur. Therefore, we want stability. The core is the area of our body where our center of gravity lies. The center of gravity determines which direction our bodies will travel.
Take the handstand for example. In order to find our balance during the handstand, we have to make sure our hips (center of gravity) are over our shoulders. If they are not then our hips will pull our body in whichever direction they are traveling and throw us off balance.
Mobility For The Lower Back
The lower back doesn’t need much mobility, it needs stability. However, the structures around it, the hips and thoracic spine do need mobility. If they don’t get any mobility and they start getting stiff, then the lower back will start to compensate. Improving the mobility of the hips and thoracic spine is vital to lower back strengthening.
The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae that are stacked on top of the lumbar vertebrae. These vertebrae attach to the ribcage and consequently, the shoulder girdle. As a result, these vertebrae require a lot of mobility.
If an individual adopts a slouched posture from sitting down too much, then their thoracic spine will start to lose mobility. If this happens, then both the shoulder girdle and lower back will have to compensate for this. Remember the joint by joint approach mentioned earlier?
To counter this, improving thoracic extension is a must for any serious lifter. Failure to do so will only result in setback after setback. We at Barbell Scholar are not interested in setbacks, we are interested in progress.
Another area in need of some serious mobility, even more than the thoracic spine, are the hips. The hip is a ball and socket joint, like the shoulder, and is responsible for a wide variety of movements. These include:
- Internal Rotation
- External Rotation
- Circumduction (moving the leg in a circle)
As you can see, the hip can do a lot. Like the shoulder, if any one of these movements is missing range of motion, either the lower back, or the knees, will have to compensate for this. Reiman et al. have found that restriction of hip mobility will cause movement problems in the lower back (2013). The entire kinetic chain will also be affected as well. With all of the possible movements of the hip, it is easy to see why. Make a serious effort to improve hip mobility not just for your lower back, but for your whole body.
In conclusion, I would like to bring up a quote I like form Joseph Pilates. “If, at the age of 30, you are stiff and out of shape, you are old. If, at 60, you are supple and strong, then you are young.” Bottom line, if you let your lower back get weak and immobile, then you will have the back of an old man. On the other hand, if you really focus on lower back strengthening and maintain it at any age, then you will have a lower back that will last a lifetime. Don’t be lazy and just let yourself deteriorate into oblivion. Although it may be the easiest choice, it certainly is not the wisest.