Low Back Power
by Abe Goldberg (1951)
In my opinion, in this enlightened era it is the most important job of any educator to point out past misconceptions associated with our sport. There has been too much of the blind “follow the leader” attitude in the past. Too much old-fashioned advice. Too much acceptance of statements as being facts when there is nothing to substantiate them.
No phase of weight training has been as much misunderstood as that of the lower back. The result is that lifters still suffer with sore and strained lower backs. While many do go through years and years of training and never experience soreness in the lower back, some are less fortunate and run into difficulty periodically. Why? Lifting is intended to help everyone. There should be no dangers attached to it, and there need not be if you train correctly. Only ignorance robs you of the safe and sure. My job in this article is to remove some of this ignorance.
To begin with, the actual power of the lower back has been exaggerated in the past. It is not uncommon to read statements from some instructors in which they declare that the power of the back and hips is 10 or 15 times as great as that of the upper body. You have seen such mention many times and probably never gave it another thought. The hips and lower back do form a powerful muscular combination, particularly when leg action is included, but certainly not 10 or even 15 times as strong as the upper body muscular units. Of the three lower body areas, the combined strength of the legs and hips is the greatest, while the combined strength of the lower back and hips is least. The reason the combined strength of the legs and hips as well as of the lower back and hips must be used, instead of isolated movements for single parts, is that it is impossible to work either he lower back or legs powerfully without hip action.
Any statement that the lower back is stronger than the arms for instance, is ridiculous.
One of the most used examples of back power is the so-called “back lift,” in which the performer sets himself under a platform, and with the combined strength of his arms, legs, hips and lower back raises the platform off supports, just high enough to clear these supports. The load need not be raised more than a fraction of an inch. More than 4,000 lbs. have been lifted in this manner. The argument is then offered - being that it is possible to raise 4,000 lbs. in this style while only about 330 lbs. can be raised above the head in a press with the arms – the lower body is at least 10 times as strong as the upper body.
This is the most flimsy comparison possible, for in one instance only a very partial lift was made, while in the other a rather full movement was accomplished. And even more senseless is the fact that the back lift is used as a gauge of lower back strength. Actually there is practically no lower back action in this movement, the most power being supplied by the hips and legs.
Fro this same reason the dead lift exercise cannot be used as a good indication of pure lower back strength either. The hips and legs do most of the work, and while the pull of the strain is felt most in the lower back, it actually serves more as a link in a muscular chain than the seat of power. If you have ever seen a man like Malcolm Brenner, or Jack Walsh perform a heavy one hand lift off the ground (and each of these men have succeeded with more than 650 lbs.) you would know what I mean. They sink down low, bending at the hips and knees while the back remains practically flat. Then, just before making the lift, they rock back a bit on their heels gaining a little momentum from this and finally strive with their legs and hips to raise the weight. Sure, it is possible to strain the lower back in such a lift because essentially the lower back is weak, and the pull on it is severe. The combined power of the hips and legs is so much greater than that of the lower back that it is surprising it stands up at all under this abuse.
To gain an idea of the fairly local power of the lower back try this exercise, which in my estimation restricts the activity locally as much as is anatomically possible. Lie face down on a flat exercise bench, with upper body completely extended off the edge of the bench so that you will have complete downward motion of it, towards the floor. Either strap your ankles to the bench or else have a training partner hold them firm. Now, with your body lowered as close to the floor as possible, have someone place a light barbell across your upper back. Hold this in position with your hands and raise the upper body to a parallel position with the floor. How much do you think you can use? Probably not nearly as much as you can two arm curl, and certainly not as much as you can bench press. This gives you some idea of the direct strength of your lower back, which actually is not as great as that of your upper body. Even in this movement the hips do come into some play but cannot assist too much, and the lower back shows its weakness. Considering the wide area it covers, inch for inch the lower back is possibly the weakest part of your body. This is a rather strong contrast from what you have been led to believe, isn’t it. But don’t take my word for it, make the above experiment yourself and see.
You can’t discount this on the basis of bad leverage because of the extended upper body. The same condition of overcoming leverage enters into all exercises. In the curl, the weight is carried away from the body; in the squat the thighs are at right angles with the calves at a certain point (which is a bad leverage position); in the bench press the upper and lower arm bones must overcome an adverse leverage position. The lower back just isn’t as strong as your have been told it was, that’s all!
Just as long as the training for the lower back depends on strong action in the hips and legs, this part of your body will never get the direct stimulation that it should, and will always remain comparatively weak. Now don’t misunderstand me, I know, it is compound and often cheating exercises which pack on muscle bulk and cooperative muscle action in movements must be followed for all around power and size. The cheating exercises which build bulk and strength are based on this idea. However, some direct activity must also be included. Only by this will the individual muscle area be encouraged to grow strong and powerful in itself, so that when combined with the other stronger parts the lifter will be free from the possibility of lower back strain.
Now, while it is true as proved above that the lower back is not the seat of greatest demonstrative power in the body, it is just as true that it IS the seat of rugged, virile power. What it may lack in muscle strength it makes up for by supplying the source of powerful life.
Situated in the lower back area is the important “sacro” section of our body. From here originates the strength and virility of the individual. Poor tone or weakness in this part shows up strongly in the lack of strength of the individual. Muscular power in this area strengthens the functioning of all parts of the body.
While we must not neglect deadlifts and other cooperative lower back movements in our routines, we must at the same time make sure that direct action is given to it as well. If we don’t, regardless of how efficiently it might work with other body parts, it will always remain a potential source of danger. As another example let us examine the training of a weightlifter. Today, the majority of weightlifters do practice some bodybuilding movements, but years ago this was not so true. One part of their bodies which was bothering them a lot was their elbows. The reason for this is that they practiced many heavy cleans to the shoulders from various start points, but did little if any direct arm work. The arms, particularly curling power was weak, and the muscular attachments were weak as well. Heavy cleans, especially from positions other than the floor, subject the these attachments to a severe strain and it showed up in strained and sore elbows.
I personally watched several top weightlifters of some years back, all of whom were annoyed by painful elbows, correct this condition through weeks and weeks of steady practice of various forms of the curl, first with light weights and then with heavier ones as the pain subsided and left. By strengthening the biceps muscle they actually helped themselves in lifting and were able to clean more weight to the shoulder with little or no elbow pain.
A similar comparison is possible with the lower back. While the elbow serves as the hinge to raise the weight from the lifting platform to the shoulders, the lower back works as the hinge which works with the legs and hips in raising weights off the ground. If it is weak it may become strained, just as the elbow did. If it is strong not only will it be able to withstand more strain, but it will also be able to contribute to the power of the legs and hips, making it possible to raise even more weight from the ground. Just as it took direct arm action to strengthen the elbows, so will it require direct lower back exercises to strengthen this part. And here are some exercises which will do just that.
EXERCISE 1. Side
Stand with a light barbell held above the head. Twist the body to one side, keeping the knees stiff. Now, bend down to that side, keeping the arms vertical to the head. Lower right to the ground, or as close as possible at first. Keep the knees stiff. Then, still keeping the arms vertical to the head, raise the weight and body again to the starting position. Repeat 10 reps to one side and then after a short rest perform 10 to the other side. Work up to 3 sets over time.
EXERCISE 2. Front Squat Supports.
To tighten and toughen those strands of muscle along each side of the lower back supporting heavy weights is ideal. Adjust your squat racks until they are a few inches below shoulder height. Load up the bar to a heavy poundage. Now, get under the bar and just raise the weight off the supports in a racked at the shoulder position. Hold the weight in this position for a 10 count and then lower to the supports again. Take a few deep breaths and repeat. Perform 10 reps of this. Use a weight that will really make you work and feel how the lower back muscles tighten up. One set of this will be enough.
EXERCISE 3. Good Morning Exercise.
I consider this exercise better than the deadlift for lower back exercise, since the strain is thrown more directly on the back muscles. Stand with the weight held across the shoulders as in the back squat. Arch the back a bit and bend forward to a right angle. Return to the erect position. This movement can also be done with straight legs and a rounded back, however, it should be worked into gradually and less weight should be employed. Perform 3 sets of 10 reps.
EXERCISE 4. Lying Hyperextension.
This exercise is the one I mentioned in my article as being the most direct test of lower back strength. Lie on a flat exercise bench, face down. Have an assistant hold your ankles or strap them to the bench. Have upper body extending over edge of the bench. Place a light weight behind your neck and raise and lower the body towards the ground for 10 reps, 3 sets.
These four exercises will all reach your lower back in a local manner. Incorporate them in your training program, but as advised previously do not neglect your regular back-related compound movements. Just add this approach to your schedule see how much more power you will soon have for the big movements. They will fill in that gap of lower back exercise so often missing in the usual programs, add variety to your training and make your cleans, deadlifts and presses more certain than before. Remember these points:
It is a fallacy that the lower back is one of the strongest body points. In itself it is quite weak, only showing what appears to be power when working in conjunction with the hips and legs.
Because of its weakness, it is a potential danger point, and must be strengthened.
Correct training will strengthen it and tap into an important source of virile powers, which will improve your sense of well being.
Don’t neglect deadlifts and other standard compound lower back, hip and leg exercises for these are still most important, but make sure you add one or all of these localized movements to your routines.