Lower Back Strength Training - Keys To A Bulletproof Back
Many people go through their entire lives with serious back pain. (Up to 80% of American adults complain of back one or more times per year). If you are one of them, you are not alone! The following exercises can strengthen the muscles around the spine reducing the stress on the discs that are frequently linked to pain. For those of you who strength train regularly improving mobility, especially in the hamstrings and piriformis, can be the key to building strength and reducing pain.
There are a couple of contributing factors for back pain for people specific to athletes. Poor trunk control or trunk stability, a weak lower back in general, and limited mobility around the piriformis are some examples. Pelvic tilt (either anterior or posterior) along with the struggle to coordinate the lumbar spine in conjunction with the glutes and hamstrings can lead to injury. Sometimes tight ankles leads to knee pain which has a cascading effect of lower back pain as well. It goes deep.
In this article we provide five key exercises that can be utilized to target different positions to build strength in all regions of the lower and mid back. Some of these movements will be pretty advanced. This isn’t about diagnosing back pain or how to perfectly treat it, but instead give exercises that can be used inside of a training program to help alleviate back pain and improve overall strength training.
5. Posterior Twist
We created this movement for our throwers because there is a lot of torque on the lower back and a lot of deceleration with compression on the decelerative side. That is where this movement comes into play.
This movement is performed with a reverse hyper. It can be done with a cable on a machine or with an anchored band as well. The outside arm reaches across the body and grabs the reverse hyper. We then twist and come up. This will let us figure out if the QL or piriformis is a little tight. The ideal thing is posting up the back leg and driving through the heel as we rotate and drive back up.
This is great for moms or aunts or dads or uncles or grandparents who reach over to pick up small children. The movement will be felt throughout the lower back. Do the movement for two to three sets for ten to fifteen reps to each side. It can be done as a warm-up. It also helps to put it into the programming to use more weight. Throughout time it will help secure up the protective mechanisms to support and engage the lower back whenever doing sports activities.
4. Reverse Hyper
A key factor is to engage the abs with a little bit of lumbar flexion when starting the lift. Think about pushing through the belly button. We love the reverse hyper because it helps coordinate the erectors, the glutes, the hamstrings, and then when rounding at the bottom when fully flexed inside the hip and lumbar spine trying to extend at the top to really flex and contract those muscle groups.
Start with just the legs and perform the movement with no weight and get a contraction in the lower back. As we get stronger and more engaged through the abs and posterior chain, we can load up the weight. Multiple plates can be added on to get a heavy load once strong enough. We can cheat with the heavy load and get more of a swing.
The goal of this movement is to strengthen the lower back. Have back pain? Don’t put a whole bunch of weight on but do the movement four or five days in a row. Over time, load it up and try to strengthen the lower back and how it coordinates with the posterior chain. Two to three sets for ten reps is a great place to start.
We dedicated an entire video on the research behind the reverse hyper exercise and the force production generated by this exercise. Use this during a warmup to increase lumbar activation, or as an accessory exercise to build muscle in the posterior chain.
3. Isometric Dumbbell Row
This exercise has an isometric contraction or an isometric muscular action with a little bit of a load. People with back pain will want to start without using dumbbells but just hold the position on the GHD isometrically, feeling the lower back and the coordination between the glutes, back, and hammies. Over time it will help develop intramuscular coordination. Isometric action in the lower back is pivotal because it tends to be a slower twitch muscular area.
People who are stronger and want to strengthen the position can grab dumbbells and add a nice little row with the dumbbells. Perform a slow eccentric as well. The slow eccentric from the dumbbell will create more tension on the lower back and force better coordination from the upper body through the trunk for dynamic trunk control which will lead to better coordination with the lower back. To advance the movement even more do the row with a single arm at a time. Complexity can be added to the movement to help bulletproof the back.
Perform two to three sets for ten reps.
2. Hanging Knee Raises
We believe this movement (from anecdotal evidence) can alleviate some back stress. It lengthens the lats, decompresses the spine a little bit, alleviates some stress off the lower back, is an open chain so is easier to control, and it improves trunk control as well. Have a little dorsiflexion in the feet to help with the firing of the abs and less hip flexor work. The hip flexors will still be used.
Hang from the bar and try not to swing as much as possible. Put the dorsiflexion into the ankle joint, bring the knees up, and try to control the eccentric. Repeat the movement over and over again. At the top, squeeze the abs and try to push the belly button into the knees to feel the abs fire a little bit more. Consider super setting this movement with reverse hypers because the movements in tandem hit the target area from both sides, anterior and posterior.
It also leads to a little bit of decompression and superior trunk control in the abs. Hanging on a bar alleviates a little bit of pain in the lower back as well. Do this movement for two to three sets of ten reps. This movement does really well as part of the training routine with the other movements.
1. Banded Single Leg Good Morning
This movement is more advanced. It is a unilateral movement. For people who are consistently injuring one side of their lower back from favoring one side over the other, we can now start to see which side tends to be weaker.
Stand on a single leg and bend at the hip, lifting the nonsupport leg in parallel with the torso. The torso needs to go down and come back up. Try to focus on stability and balance as the non-support leg is brought through into a hip-lock Feel the hamstrings throughout the movement. As we get warmed up and feel the hamstrings and glutes, we need to be feeling the glute pushing through the heel into the ground.
The band goes around the foot. We stand on the band and loop the other end around the neck. From there, we bend over and perform the good morning. Feel the lower back fire a ton into the hamstrings. As we come through we squeeze through the hip all the way through the glute.
A band does not need to be used for this movement. It can be used as a warm-up or a cool-down. Perform two to three sets of the movement on each side for five to ten reps.
The lower back is pivotal to generating power through the body. It isn’t necessarily the driving factor like the legs, but it sure does contribute to dynamic trunk control and the transfer of that power through the body. The lower back is also one of those areas, in general, people tend to experience pain, discomfort, and body aches that just seem to ruin a person’s well-being. Life doesn’t and shouldn’t be lived that way. Instead, utilize the movements listed above and start to take control of mitigating that irritation through activity, exercise, and a can-do attitude. And just to restate, this is not a diagnosis from a doctor or medical professional, just some exercise suggestions from people who make a living strengthening peoples’ backs and other muscles.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.