Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Importance of Lower Back Strength - Bill Starr (1997)

Dad-blasted white bucks again. 
Be careful not to drop a plate on one and get slivers! 

Of all the muscles of the body, none are quite as important to serious strength athletes as those which make up the lower back, the lumbars. 

Strong lumbars are not a luxury to the aspiring Olympic lifter or powerlifter or any strength trained athlete, but rather an absolute necessity. 

The lower back is the universal joint of the power plant. If you don't have strong lumbars, the power from your hips and legs cannot be transferred upward into your back and shoulders. Nor can it be transferred downward for the same reason.

Those interested in getting stronger have always understood the importance of having strong lumbars and have spent lots of time and energy in developing them to a high level. They also knew they had to be always kept in direct proportion, strength-wise, to their hips, legs and middle backs or there would be problems. 

Improving leg strength is directly related to lumbar strength. One of the major reasons why squat progress comes to a halt is not because of the lifter's technique or his diligence in working the lift or his routine, but rather he has allowed his lumbars to fall behind. Form suffers and the lower back can no longer hold the proper mechanics when the weight gets heavy. And, the weaker lumbars cannot generate the necessary power to bring the weight through the critical sticking point.

The same is true for heavy, explosive pulling movements like the clean and snatch. It is the lumbars which are largely responsible for elevating the bar through the middle position. If this part of the movement is done slowly, then there will be a less than dynamic top-end pull. 

Weak lumbars also allow the bar to move out of the most optimal pulling position and this, too, affects the conclusion of the lift negatively.

The fact that strong lumbars are beneficial to squatting and pulling is fairly evident to anyone who pays attention to how the body functions, but in a great many instances, overhead lifting is overlooked. The ability to lock out and hold a maximum jerk or snatch is very directly dependent on having strong lumbars. Without them, the body cannot hold the correct positioning and will collapse like an old accordian.

Another prime reason to provide your lumbars with some specific exercises is that this area of the body is the most frequently injured of all. This is definitely true of the general population where eight out of ten adults experience some form of back pain that requires medical attention. The majority of these back problems deal with the lumbars. The highly-conditioned athlete does not have nearly as much trouble with his lower back, but it is still the area of the body that is most often hurt, the reason being that the athlete has allowed his lumbars to fall behind, and the weakest link principle raised its ugly head. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of exercises available to strengthen the lumbars and they do not require expensive pieces of equipment. Most can be done with a barbell. On the flip side, lower back training should not be put in the category of fun training, and this is exactly why so many neglect working them. 

Secondly, they have to be worked hard, not teased. True, you might get a nice pump in your lower back by using light weights, but that's a far cry from making them brutally strong. And brutally strong is what you are after for I have never, ever heard of a person who had problems because his lumbars were too strong. 

Good Mornings

These are also called "tomorrow mornings" for good reason. Certainly they are the most hated of all exercises, but they also happen to be the very best for strengthening the lower back. I wish this weren't true for I, too, admit I am not fond of doing them every week, but nevertheless I do them religiously for I know they are the keystone exercise for all my other strength work.

Good mornings, in order to be useful, have to be worked very hard, which in an odd way isn't really all that bad because the heavy sets are no less troublesome than the warmup sets. 

There's really no way to make good mornings an easy exercise. If you're looking for easy, forget them, but in the process you will be neglecting a most beneficial strength exercise, and it's always been my observation that anyone who honestly seeks a higher level of strength doesn't really mind doing a tough exercise.  

On the plus side, there are several good variations of the good morning, and they are all profitable to the strength athlete. I have my athletes try all the variations and then ask them which one got them the sorest. That's the one they should do the most often, rather than the one which is the most comfortable. Comfort does not lead to a higher strength level.

Good mornings can be done with a rounded back, a flat back, or while seated on a bench. The technique for all three is simple, but extremely important. 

For the standing rounded back or flat back good mornings, take the bar from the rack and lock it tightly to your upper back. This is one of the keys, for if the bar moves, even slightly, it will irritate your upper back and neck and be more painful than the movement itself. Place your feet a bit closer than shoulder width, with your toes turned in slightly. Bend your knees, but not much, just so your knees are not locked. 

The second key to the good morning is to push your feet into the floor before doing the exercise. This helps tighten your legs and hips and helps you control the weight. Now bend forward, leaving your hips in the exact same position as they were when you started. In other words, don't allow your hips to drop during the execution of the movement so that it resembles a partial squat. 

Try to place your chest on your thighs. Do the motion fluidly, not herky-jerky. More slowly than fast. Reset before each rep and don't try to rush through the set. With the rounded back version you will be able to go a bit lower than with a flat back.

When you do them sitting on a bench it's most important to brace your feet solidly or you will tip forward. Try to touch the bench with your chin or forehead. Most agree that these are the easiest form of good mornings. 

Each variation of the good morning hits the lumbars in a slightly different manner, so it is recommended that you incorporate all three into your monthly program. The one thing that remains constant in all three versions is the set and rep sequence. 5 sets of 8, with the final set being heavy. The guideline I use for this exercise is that it should eventually be 50% of a person's best squat, for 8 reps, which means that anyone squatting 405 for any number of reps needs to be handling 200 x 8 in the good morning.

There is a disclaimer for this guideline however. When I was at the York Barbell Club, I had a pen pal in Russia who used to trade Strength & Health magazines for tidbits on what the Soviet Olympic lifters were doing in training. One thing I learned surprised me. Regardless of their leg and back strength, they never used over 100 kilos in the good morning. Why? They found that when they used more than 220 pounds, they had to alter their mechanics so much that the exercise no longer hit the lumbars as directly. It still worked the hips and back, but they had plenty of other useful exercises for those areas. I have utilized this idea ever since. 

But it does raise the question: How does an advanced strength athlete increase his workload on this exercise? 

He does this by doing more intermediate or top-end sets. I've had a few very advanced Olympic lifters who did three sets with 220. One powerlifter was crazy enough to do five sets with this weight. They all assured me, this was plenty.

The lumbars can be overloaded nicely with conventional deadlifts. If a person hasn't done deadlifts in a long time he finds that his lumbars get quite sore after a heavy workout. When this happens, that individual would be wise to include some deadlifting in his routine. 

But the stiff-legged deadlift is the version of this exercise that specifically hits the muscles of the lower back. It also does a nice job of developing the hamstrings as well, so it serves double duty for the strength athlete. In fact, any exercise that works the lumbars also works the hamstrings.

I have always been an advocate of the stiff-legged or straight-legged deadlift, but have been on a lifetime quest to alter the names. No one should pull a bar off the floor with stiff or straight legs. It is potentially dangerous to the lower back, but invariably in all the muscle magazines the models are shown doing the exercise with straight legs. The knees should be bent slightly, as they are during the good mornings. This slight break in the knees relieves the stress on the lower back but the movement still works the exact same muscles, but in a safe manner.

I also discourage the practice of standing on a bench, wench or even a block when doing this exercise. Standing on a bench requires balance, and this is not necessary. And while standing on a bench may not be risky to the lifter, it most certainly is dangerous for the equipment. There is no reason to stand on anything. Instead, plac 25-pound plates on the Olympic bar and do them off the floor. The movement is full range, and complete concentration can be centered on the performance of the exercise, rather than balance.

I've had a few lifters scoff when I put the small plates on the bar, but when I have them keep loading them on and have over 300 pounds on the bar, they quit being sarcastic. 

The form is easy to learn, but the exercise does have to be done correctly or the lumbars will not be worked as well.

You can use straps for these if you wish. Take a standard clean grip and stand very, very close to the bar, which means the bar is tucked tightly against your socks or shins. Close is the key to doing this exercise right. The bar starts close and stays close throughout, both in the up, and down movement. It stays in contact with your shins, passes directly over your knees and on up your thighs. You should also lower the bar in this same manner. I have already emphasized that the knees should be slightly bent, but slightly is sufficient and don't allow them to bend further during the exercise. 

I'm always asked about head positiong during the stiff-legged deadlift. Some like to look down others prefer to look forward or even upward. I really don't believe it matters just so long as the head is not locked in a rigid position. The head should be allowed to relax and float free. Any exaggeration of positioning, either up or down, places an undue stress on the upper spine so needs to be avoided. 

Like the good morning, there is a useful guideline for how much to eventually use in this exercise. It should be 75% of a person't best squat, for 8 reps. So our 405 squatter can plan on using 300 for 8 in the stiff-legged deadlift -- maybe not right away, but in a matter of a few months.

Another useful exercise for strengthening the lumbars is the back hyperextension, but it isn't in the same league as the good morning or stiff-legged deadlift because it is so difficult to use any form of resistance in this movement in general. I discourage the use of weights behind the head because it always seems to result in a breakdown of technique. When the athlete tires, he begins to twist and jerk about. This is potentially dangerous and this fish-out-of-water form of doing the exercise has resulted in many a fine lifter being thrown into the sea by well meaning folk who mistook the poor guy for some kinda damn suffocatin' fish. 

But if a person is fortunate and has a well-padded back hyper bench at his disposal, then he can use resistance. But I only run into a well-padded bench every twenty years or so. Most are designed and made by people with sadistic streaks for they bring tears to your eyes just getting in position to do the exercise. "Designed by Sadists for Masochists. Free ship-and-whip packages available" 

My recommendation for the back hypers is to run the reps up in order to increase the work load, rather than adding resistance. But, as I mentioned earlier, there are really no easy lumbar exercises so when I say run the reps up, I mean WAY UP. Nearly everyone can do 20 the very first time. Start increasing the work load by adding a rep a week. For a couple of weeks you may want to add a couple reps. The 20 will eventually become 50 and then 60 and 70. They you are really attacking those lumbars. 

How can a person do this many? By adding them slowly and systematically. I know the system works because I tested it out on myself. I started doing 20 and they were difficult. Now I am at 72 and they are still hard, but not much tougher than the original 20. 

Back hypers are also extremely useful to anyone trying to rehab an injured lower back. I also suggest that everyone does one set before doing any heavy lifting. They are especially beneficial as warmups during colder weather for they are so valuable for stimulating the lumbars before any pulling exercises. 

The low, low lumbars can be worked with reverse hyperextensions. These have had a recent revival due to Louie Simmons. We used them at York during the '60s for we knew the importance of those muscles for Olympic lifting. 

Roger Quinn even devised an original program around them 


for developing leg strength since his chronically bad knees prevented him from doing squats. He did them in isotonic, isometric fashion while lying on a leg extension bench, having a partner provide resistance. He was able to recover from his heavy cleans without squatting. 

They can be performed while lying across a leg extensions bench like Roger did, or you can invest in the machine. If you are not using the machine and can't add weight, merely run the reps up in the same manner as you do the back hypers. {There's ways to add weight for these that are quite simple.}

Whenever a person goes about developing a plan for strengthening or rebuilding his lower back, he must keep in mind that all the adjoining muscles have to be worked proportionately, in this case the muscles of the hips, middle back and abdominals. It has been my observation that the middle back and hips get adequate work for all serious strength athletes to do lots of heavy pulling and squatting. But the abs are frequently not worked hard enough. The rationale of many Olympic and powerlifters is that they are not bodybuilders so aren't really concerned about how their abs look. But they are critical to overall strength and need to be worked at the same rate as the lumbars.

It's a good idea to incorporate some stretching into your program after you've pounded the lumbars. An even better idea is to hang upside down after the workout. Long before inversion boots were invented, the lifts at York hung from two straps suspended from a chinning bar after a heavy lower back session. Five minutes did wonders. A chiropractor who understands the needs of the strength athlete is certainly a blessing. 

The lower back is critical to strength an overall good health. Every program shoul include at least one specific exercise for this area of the body. You will not only be much stronger, but you will stand much more erect as well. 

Enjoy Your Lifting!



  1. Well, this is news to me. While I was told generous amounts of info about the training of various York lifters from a couple different generations, I NEVER saw or heard that ANYONE did Reverse Hyperextensions. The regular version, yes; but not the reverse style. And, yes, I was aware that Grimek, March and others did hang upside down.

    1. There's some great photos of J.C.G. hanging himself out there. Yikes, that came out morbid and very easy to misinterpret. Doing stuff while hanging from the feet. Reverse hypers? Just me maybe, but once the L. Simmons resurgence and the refining of reverse hyper gear, they were lining up to say they were doing 'em much earlier. This website has some stuff on the r-hyper origins -

  2. Ok, did Grimek start the white bucks trend, or did Bo Ho? Inquiring minds want to know!

    1. I haven't slept since Sunday trying to find out, Jan! The Ghost of Boho from another dimension keeps trying to convince me in 1,000's of loud and chesty words that he started the whole thing . . .


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