Top 5 Lower Back Exercises For Your Olympic Weightlifting Program
All olympic weightlifting athletes know how much a beating the lower back takes. It’s the nature of the sport. There is a lot of pulling from a very low position by the athletes. The snatch grip which lowers the position of the hips and puts stress on the lower back when snatching. The story is the same with the clean and the jerk. The pull puts stress on the lower back when pulling the clean; there is a lot of stress on the lower back when catching and absorbing the force of the weight. Even to the point when overhead in the split position of the jerk, there is stress being put upon the lower back.
On top of the competitive movements in olympic weightlifting, we also know that heavy pulls, back squats and front squats, all of these exercises that supplement the main lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk, can dramatically improve the competitive movements. However, these same supplementary lifts put a decent amount of pressure on the lower back. Couple that with the volume and technical work that comes into play, and we can see how much the lower back is under siege.
Granted there are a lot of things that go into programming to try to prevent the breakdown of the lower back, like volume management, exercise selection and other scenarios of that nature. But still, there are going to be points where the lower back is screaming like the final girl in an 80’s slasher film.
Thankfully we have five key exercises that any program can utilize to increase overall lower back strength to not let the Michal Myers and Jason Vorhees of the world bring the pain.
5. Chaos Single Leg RDL
Here at Garage Strength, when we think about training the lower back, we like to think about a few factors concerning athletes. For instance, does the athlete have long legs, moderate length legs or short legs? We also like to think about how hamstrings typically have much more fast-twitch muscle fibers than the quads, so then if we have an athlete with weak hamstrings, we want to develop those muscles to try and improve the high rate of force production with hip extension. This means factoring in the lower back in conjunction with the hamstrings.
In addition to all of that, we need to recognize that the sport of olympic lifting is typically done in a bilateral perspective. Outside of the split jerk, the sport does not routinely see unilateral displays of athleticism. Still, we need to think about any issues athletes may have from a bilateral perspective--think of watching an athlete favor one side over another standing weight up. And that is why we love the chaos single leg RDL.
The chaos single leg RDL is done with dumbbells with the back foot up on a band. The band is placed in a position just below hip height. When the band is at just below hip height, it gives the back foot a mild amount of support but puts a lot of tension and force on the front leg. This forces the athlete to focus more on stability and balance. These balance issues create more perturbations that lead to better recruitment from the muscles in those areas.
Not only is this movement being done from a unilateral perspective, but the band--the chaos perspective--will lead to perturbations that will help the athlete recruit more effectively, enhancing the weak area. The movement can be done with a barbell on the back, but we recommend using dumbbells for a greater range of motion. On top of that, we always have our athletes first perform this movement with the leg that is not forward in the split jerk. Typically that is a way to help alleviate back pain that an athlete may have in various positions. Do this movement once a week for four to five sets of seven to nine reps on each leg.
4. Snatch Grip Stiff Leg Deadlift
Quick disclaimer: this movement, as we use it at Garage Strength is more a hybrid of the typical stiff leg deadlift mixed in with an RDL.
Again, when we think about why we are using this movement, we are going to the idea of improving the integrity of the lower back. For instance, think of an athlete who struggles to clear their knees, getting them back, off the floor. We want our athletes to have a vertical shin angle when pulling off the floor. Not seeing this in an athlete is a sign of a weak lower back, a sign of weak coordination between the lower back and hamstrings.
It is important to strengthen the lower back and the way it coordinates with the hamstrings. Next thing, the lifter is seen doing a better job clearing the knees off the floor and keeping the bar really, really tight. In this manner, the snatch grip stiff legged deadlift is going to improve technique--but only after the coordination between the hamstrings, glutes and lower back, the entire posterior chain, starts to come together and improve.
Another thing that can be done with this movement is performing it from a platform or podium to create a longer range of motion. We have our athletes keep a very vertical shin angle, keeping it that way the entire pull. As the bar passes the knee, the lifter comes up with the trunk but not changing the shin angle. We like doing this typically one day a week for four to five sets from anywhere from five reps (to improve strength in a quick time frame) or as high as fifteen+ reps if the athlete needs hypertrophy work on the posterior chain.
3. Standing Posterior Twists
This is a movement we have created here at Garage Strength. This exercise can be done utilizing a reverse hyper to use the swinging motion of the apparatus to train this movement. If a reverse hyper isn’t accessible, athletes can utilize a band attached to an immovable object and can get almost the exact same activation.
The purpose of this movement is to correct rotation in the snatch catch. Many lifters favor one side. At the world championships, we found that 73% of lifters caught a snatch and rotated toward the side they lead with the jerk. With that information in mind, we invented the standing posterior twist.
The standing posterior twist does a really great job of alleviating that rotation. That rotation can lead to lower back stress, knee issues and shoulder stress. By targeting the lifters weak side initially with the standing posterior twist being done first, we can put the lifter’s body in a more active state to be more stable in the catch position and less likely to rotate in the snatch catch.
It is important when performing this movement is to just keep it in a ninety degree range with the back arm behind the back, pushing through the back heel that is posted. Athletes will feel this movement in their lower back, glutes and piriformis. This movement can be used one to two times a week for three sets of seventeen reps on each side. Most lifters will do this movement as an accessory movement; however, we believe some lifters need to perform this movement prior to lifting at a very low weight for one to two sets to really wake up and potentiate within the ranges demanded of the body when overhead.
2. Reverse Hyper
This movement is stolen directly from Louie Simmons. Someone we have criticized, in the past. Regardless, we like using this movement because we believe it can really help lifters to train how to pull properly, as well as decompressing the lower back to help with recovery.
This is a movement that we may do twenty to thirty reps, very similar to bodybuilding; it will help with strength endurance. Think of all the pulling and squatting reps in an olympic weightlifting session. There is a lot! The thought process goes that if the olympic weightlifting athlete’s lower back has higher rates of strength endurance because of the bodybuilding style of training being done with the reverse hyper, it will play a role later on in sessions protecting and enhancing the recovery intraset, the recovery inter-set and improving strength endurance.
We will utilize this movement anywhere from two to four times a week. We have lifters who will do one to two sets before they get into their training session. Remember when executing this movement to fill up the belly button, trying to round the back when the legs go down and try to extend when the legs get elevated, but PUSH the belly button into the pad. That will carry over into the pull--like pushing the belly into the belt when pulling a clean.
1. Round Back Glute Ham
We like to have our lifters do this movement with a bar on their back. Typically when beginning this movement has to be done with a training bar, then advance to a 10 kilo bar, then a women's/men’s bar depending on the gender of the athlete.
Performing this movement, there should be a little bit of knee flexion where the knees drop a little bit and the pads are in contact with the quads. Why does this movement work? Let’s think about training the spinal erectors in conjunction with the lower back and hamstrings.
The erectors work in isometric fashion. Athletes are always held upright. Very rarely is there an eccentric rounding into a concentric extension. The erectors are designed through isometric movement. However, with the round back glute ham, when the athlete rounds their upper back and mid back significantly and they arch hard coming out of the bottom, it lights up the erectors, which in turn lights up the glutes and hamstrings. That leads to a little bit of hip extension into the pads. Because there is the longer eccentric movement with the erectors, it signals to the nervous system to really contract and try to contract a lot of high threshold motor units, improving posterior coordination, leading to stronger hamstrings, glutes, erectors and lower back.
Do this once a week for three sets of five to seven reps with more weight and then two sets of seventeen to twenty. It will not only alleviate back issues, but lead to smashing PRs!
Olympic weightlifting requires not only tremendous lower back strength to perform the snatch and clean and jerk effectively, it also requires tremendous amounts of strength endurance in the lower back to handle the volume, intensity and forces at play. The lower back needs to be trained regularly and with care. Making a bullet proof lower back takes time, energy and effective movement selection. Thankfully, having athletes perform chaos single leg RDL’s, reverse hypers, snatch grip stiff leg deadlifts, standing posterior twists and, the big poppa pump of them all, the round back glute ham, will greatly alleviate issues that may arise, as well as work to prevent issues from arising.
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.