Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Building a Christmas Tree Lower Back - Gunnar Sikk (1990)

Samir Bannout, before and after. 

Ever see a car with a new paint job that is flawless except for a little nick in the door? 
Spoils the whole effect. 

Ever seen a beautiful woman with a tiny zit on her nose? 
You just keep looking at it. 

Ever see a contest ready athlete with a lower back that was kinda fatty? 
Wrecks the whole picture.

Regardless of where the flaw exists, our eyes are drawn to it. It's simply a factor of human nature. This peculiarity of our perception magnifies the flaw even more when we're looking at someone in good shape. At that point everything gets the scanning treatment, as we examine muscle size, shape and the overall level of bodyfat. 

From a cosmetic standpoint, the lower back is the border crossing of the back, separating the behind into upper and lower segments. If this area appears obscured in detail, your eyes get stuck at that border and the visual trip is spoiled. Comparatively speaking, the lower back is to the rearside what the abdominals are to the frontside. They are important areas that set off the middle portion of the aesthetic picture. When they are lacking somewhat the visual appeal of the entire physique is weakened as a result.

If you have a tendency to be thinly muscled in the lower back, or you simply want to bring out more detail to match the rest of your muscles, this article is definitely for you. To further enhance your understanding and appreciation of the lower back, I suggest you read this material while sitting with absolutely upright posture! It's a simple way of testing yourself. By the time you finish, if you find that your lower back is slightly fatigued, they you definitely need to work that lower back of yours harder. If you aren't fatigued then you probably belong in the army or grew up in the fifties when they stressed posture back in school. 

Our spinal cord does not stand in a straight line, but rather in four counterbalancing curves -- cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral. These vertebral curves are not in perfect compensating alignment and must be supported by the skeletal muscles. Handling a large part of that task are the lower back or spinal erector muscles. These thick, column-shaped muscles that resemble compressed slinkies reside on each side of the spine in the lumbar region. 

The spinal erectors don't contract and then typically relax like the other muscles of the body. 

Instead, they act as stabilizing agents to our frames, and are therefore mildly involved in even the slightest of the upper torso movements. Outside of the gym, it's not often that they are directly stressed through bodily movement, but when the lower back is exercised, because of its very design, it is the slowest muscle in the body to recuperate. Sometimes it takes up to a week! 

Let's take a look at which exercises directly and indirectly involve the lower back, and also how to maximum the effects, as well as minimize the potential for an injury. 

When trained correctly, the spinal erector muscles can grow to resemble a freaked-out Rorschach inkblot test. It was Garry Bartlett's fertile imagination that interpreted the muscular formation as looking like a Christmas tree, so credit is due to Gary for coming up with that now famous nickname for the spinal erectors. 

First Class Exercises

Exercises in this category specifically involve the lower back muscles to a total degree of activation. Because of the directness of these movements, you shouldn't push the area hard and heavy more than once a week. On the other workout days, you can train the area lighter and with more reps.

Hyperextensions: There are several important points to keep in mind with this exercise. First, when you mount the hyperextension bench make sure your bellybutton is resting on the padded cushion, rather than above it. When your bellybutton is in front of the board, your glutes and hamstrings will start taking over the workload from those low back extensors. 

Next, as you begin to lower your torso, do not keep your spine perfectly straight and rigid. Bending your spine will activate the low back much more directly. When you make your spine extra firm, you'll actually be bringing into play your hip muscles. I see people doing this all the time at the gym.

Also, there's no need to go to a 90 degree position. After 70 degrees of movement the low back muscles are not working anymore, so you can stop there and come up. When you go to that 90 degree position there's also a marked tendency for you to create bodily inertia and therefore swing back up. This will bypass the spinal erector's involvement substantially. Higher rep schemes, say 12-20 will do the trick.

Good Mornings: Standing with a barbell across your shoulders (start off with an empty Olympic bar), keep your back straight and knees locked. Then simply bend forward at the waist until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Return to your original starting position. 

Please keep in mind that this exercise is done slowly and very controlled. Believe me, there are a lot of physical therapists out there who think you can trash a disc in your back by doing this exercise. If you do it very rapidly they're right; otherwise, when it's done in a controlled manner their fears are all hype. 

Deadlifts: For some reason this exercise was much more popular in the days of Arnold than it is now. Too bad, because it's unexcelled for adding thickness, density and incredible strength to the lower back region. 

The most important part of the movement is the upward pull. As you begin to yank the bar off the floor, it is absolutely crucial to make sure that your back is straight and locked into place, while your head looks upward. This distributes equal stress over the entire length of the spine. If you round out or arch your back during the upward pull, your discs that lie in between the vertebrae will experience unequal pressure, and you could end up like Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame. Also, keep in mind that the initial part of the movement involves the legs driving the weight up before the back takes over. The back should never be positioned over the bar at the start. Do reps in the 8-10 range. 

Seated Cable Leanbacks: Starting off as if you're about to do seated cable rowing, you hold the handles in the outstretched position and begin to lean backwards. If course you'll have to use a relatively light weight, otherwise you won't be leaning back very far. 

You descend until your middle back almost touches the floor and then you come up again. Unlike deadlifts, this exercise permits you to use a higher rep scheme to really burn that lower back. About 14-20 reps is the typical range.

Second Class Exercises

Exercises in this category indirectly involve the low back extensors by subjecting them to a partial range of motion and therefore a limited degree of activation. 

An excellent idea is to combine one or two direct spinal erector muscle exercises with a couple of second class movements at another time in the same week. This will help add thickness and shape, and still take into consideration the slow recovery of the area by avoiding overtraining. 

Bentover Row: While nobody sets out to work the lower back with this movement, it nevertheless sees action -- especially when the weight gets heavy and heaving starts to enter into the motion. Although that's not exactly a textbook way of doing the movement, it's done so often in a looser style by many of the poundage-conscious monsters of the gym that you could  call it a partial lower back movement. However, I'm talking about a slightly loose style, not a nutbar one. 

T-Bar Rowing: Again, inherent in the action is a slight weaving toward and away from the pendulous motion of the weight. This activates the spinal erectors to a noticeable degree, even though it's a short range of motion. 

Seated Cable Rowing: Halfway between the previously mentioned seated cable leanbacks and this motion done in purity lies a partial lower back movement. I'm not advising you to do your reps by leaning back during the exercise, but when you're finished rowing your reps, if you stick a few leanbacks into the end of the set, your lower back will soon grow in response. Sure, they're partials, but you'll feel it, believe me!

Squats: That's right, good ol' squats. Think of it for a moment. If you load up a bar and then place it slightly down the traps, not on your shoulders, and then proceed to squat continuously, how much do you thin, your lower back is working? Plenty indeed! Without those erectors you'd fly apart like an elastic band that just broke. In essence, squats that are performed with the bar slightly down the back are actually similar to the halfway point of good mornings, although with a lot more weight. Mr. Universe, Bruce Randall, did reps in the good morning with 405 pounds! 

Note: Here, from Bruce Randall . . . "I did do one exercise during this time which may have had some influence on my squat. This was the good morning exercise. When I reached over 400 pounds on this exercise I found that I could not do the exercise in the strict sense because I had to bend at the knees in order to compensate for the weight at the back of the neck. I made 685 in this manner with my back parallel to the floor and once almost made 750 but was forced to dump it because of a shift in the weight." 

Still, the point is that powerlifter style squats build the lower back big time. Why do you think your lower back is always so fried when you start going heavy in the squats? That's right. Them spinal erectors are doing some pretty serious erecting during the exercise. Combine this motion in the same week with deadlifts and that low back will look like dual boa constrictors. 

To help you in your quest for an impressive lower back, I've listed a few points that serve to clarify the subject matter: 

 - The lower back muscles aren't really noticeable. It takes about 6% bodyfat to truly see the extent of your development. Off season, don't bother even looking. 

 - Momentum is the single greatest destroyer of lower back growth. Slow reps are the key, do keep all reps fluid and controlled, never jerky.

 - The lower back does not get a typical pump like other muscles. Because of its tightly coiled construction, it instead gets a burning, compressed feeling. That's to be expected. However, if a sharp bite enters the region, stop immediately and check your style . . . or your wallet . . . you may need it. Listen, don't worry, training the back is super safe, I just have a bent sense of humor. 

 - Coming up too high in the hyperextension employs the hip flexor muscles. 

 - Prolonged jogging tends to compress and tighten up the spinal erectors. In effect, it shortens the region of muscles, and tends to jar and bang that lower back as well. Running on sand helps alleviate this, but most people can't afford a plane ticket to a sandy California beach just to jog. The solution? Ride that bike. 

 - Many bodybuilders have low bodyfat but still don't know how to pose the back in order to bring out that Christmas tree effect. To do this, simply press your fingertips on your thighs while at the same time making sure your back is slightly rounded. Have a friend stand behind you and tell you when your "tree" is coming out. Once you've mastered the technique, be the life of any party: go ahead and show them -- especially when the cheese dip runs out and the party is sinking into boredom. You'll be the talk of the town. Go ahead, crank out that tree! 

 - To achieve a truly outstanding lower back takes quite a few months of work. It's not a muscle that grows quickly like the neck or chest. It takes time and lots of hard work. Then someday maybe you too will throw a mugger off your back! 

 - A stronger lower back will enhance the performance of a wide range of exercise movements. This spells increased bodily growth. 

 - Two of the suggested first class exercises are sufficient to start off with. Stay with them for at least three months before you think of changing them.

 - The lower back never needs to be subjected to volume training. It works much better on a high intensity, short duration kind of set/rep scheme. 

Enjoy Your Lifting!  


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