During my first year of acting school, I had a professor who had a bad back. He was legendarily fat and hobbled about, despite being just over 50.
As an alum of the program he now was a tenured part of, his headshot and photos of his glory days were easily found with a little digging. In his glory days, he was an absolute stud. Picture a jacked Burt Reynolds, or a slightly less beefy Reg Park with God-level acting chops. We got to talking one day, and with grave words of warning, he told me that it was lifting that had wrecked his back, leading him down a slippery slope. His words stayed with me, so I think it’s time we discuss how to bulletproof your back.
There are a lot of reasons to give your back the attention it deserves. A healthy back allows for optimal posture, which is positively correlated with good mood, injury prevention, and appearing your best. A well-developed back is a cornerstone of an impressive physique, and on men and women alike, is incredibly attractive. But most of all, a bulletproof back protects your spine from harm, allows you to realize the potential of your body, and prevents you from turning into a hobbling shell of what you are now.
The Causes Of Lower Back Pain Are Legion
I’m not here to tell you how to fix each of them. I’m not a doctor and cannot offer medical advice. However, there are volumes of evidence-medical and empirical-that speak to the benefits a healthy back has on eliminating back pain and improving quality of life.
Maybe you’re currently experiencing lower back pains and aches, or perhaps to you want to take preventative action and guard yourself against such a hindrance. What can you do? Read on.
Generally, back pain is caused by forcing your back to move contrary to it’s natural inclinations.
This can be chronically (hunched over at a desk, etc.) or through a one-time event (trying to move a pull-out sofa in a less-than-optimal stance, poor deadlift form, lifting with your ego and not with form, etc.).
A less obvious culprit could be your sleeping position. We spend about a third of our lives in bed (for better or for worse), so pick your position carefully. Avoid positions that place undue stress on your neck, shoulders, and back (they are all connected, literally and figuratively). Stomach sleeping depresses your spine’s natural curve, and forces your head to the side, cranking tension on your neck.
If this is you, combat this by putting a pillow under your pelvis to keep your spine from flattening. If you sleep on your back, put the pillow under your knees; on your side, pull knees toward chest and have a pillow or part of the comforter in between your knees. The goal make natural the position of your spine while still allowing you to be comfortable for a slumber.
There are a few key accessory lifts that will do wonders for the musculature and strength of your back (in this instance, I am defining accessory as any lift that is not one of the big 3/4/5).
Chief Among Them, The Back Extension.
Notice that I said the back extension, not back hyperextension. Drive your heels into the platform, and hinge your torso from its folded position up to a neutral spine-and no further. This acts as a reverse sit-up/crunch on your spine. Every lifter worth their salt knows that sit-ups and crunches are garbage for developing six-packs, but a lesser known factor of their worthlessness is their damaging effects on the spine.
Remember, your back gets damaged when is forced to move against its nature.
“Many times, however, there are different types of loads acting at once to cause a mixture of stresses on the structures of our body. The two primary ones are bending loads and torsion loads.
When I say bending you probably immediately think of bending over. That’s good. Specifically, think of bending or rounding the back, otherwise known as flexion. Bending loads produce tensile and compressive stresses. If you bend a stick or pencil with both hands you are actually creating a compressive stress on one side and a tensile stress on the other.
Similarly, when the spine flexes, the intervertebral discs undergo compressive stress on the anterior side and tension on the posterior side, as the illustration below shows. Repeated cyclic compression-tension loading and unloading of the lumbar spine is a great way to get a messed up back, as I’m sure most of you have heard.”
Such movement is caused by back-hyperextension, and by crunches.
The back-extension is a great exercise because it targets your erector spinae. The irradiative effect (ripple effect) of enhanced erector spinae on your body is tremendous: you reap the benefits of improved form on the squat and deadlift, but it less obviously impacts any exercise where you rely on core strength and stabilization (spoiler alert: this means every exercise).
In order to totally develop these muscles through this movement, explore using bodyweight, resistance (through holding a plate, or through bands), altered rep tempi (vary eccentric and concentric speeds), and different angles.
One barbell counterpart of the back-extension is the good-morning. This should be a staple in every glute-day (you do have a glute day, don’t you?), as it strengthens your back and warms up your hamstrings and glutes.
Which brings me to my next point…
Bulletproof Your Posterior Chain
If your body is a temple, then the Posterior Chain is the foundation on which that temple is built. Your spine is the mortar.
The posterior chain is the group of muscles that are linked all up and down the backside of your body: calves, hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, rhomboids, traps, and posterior delts.
Don’t neglect any of them. Even if your purposes for lifting are solely aesthetic, your calves are still a part of your body (and once you get an advanced looking-arms, you don’t want little soyboy calves. That’s just embarrassing, bro).
Train your posterior delts because they’re essential to 3-dimensional cannonball boulder-shoulders, but also because they balance the development of the pecs and keep you from hunching over….
Which keeps you from placing undue flexion tension on your spine…
Which keeps you in good health…
Everything is connected.
However, there are above, all else, two ways make your lower back stronger.
1). Use proper breathing technique when lifting.
When I discovered how to breath while lifting, it revolutionized my training. I had previously been under the “breathe on the way down and out on the way up”.
Then I started holding my breath from the top of the rep, releasing it only once getting past the infamous sticking point.
This, more or less, is known as The Valsalva Maneuver. It is a reflexive action your body takes to prepare for handling literal stressful loads. Essentially, it creates pressure in your abdomen to protect your spine as you exert force.
In my experience, this enabled my to start concentrating on form and stimulation, rather than merely surviving the stress of a set. Among other things, I saw improvement in my form and a rapid increase in strength.
Which leads me to point number 2:
2.) Work slowly, steadily, and perfectly on your squat and deadlift.
In order to execute a rep with perfect form, the muscles of your back must work in harmony. Suffice it to say that as you introduce progressive overload to all muscles and systems involved in those movements, said muscles and systems will get stronger accordingly. For your 135lb deadlift or squat to grow to 185, 225, or 315 lbs, your back will have to get stronger to accommodate what your demands.
The best way to cure or prevent lower back pain is to strengthen your lower back. The lower back plays a major role in the heaviest and most demanding of compound movements. It is these movements that build total body strength, and as such, force your back to grow as strong as possible.
Develop your form with an eye for detail and the highest of standards, and your low-back will repay you in kind with a body that is equipped to enjoy life.
Lift with your ego, and pay the consequences.
Develop a bulletproof back, and live free of back pain.