Your lower back is one of the most vulnerable areas in your lower body and injuring it will have an effect on everything you do. There is not a movement you perform that doesn’t involve your spine in some way, shape, or form. We recommend following our 5 step process below to help ensure your lower back stays injury free.
Step 1: Examine Your Training Program
The deadlift is a great way to strengthen every muscle in your body, including your lower back. It is the premier hip hinge movement and should be featured in your training program. If, however, you are deadlifting with a straight bar every time you deadlift, there is a good chance you are going to burn out your spinal erectors. Think constant variance when you deadlift. Use a straight bar and a trap bar. The trap bar is a great way to train your hip hinge, and you get the added bonus of placing less stress on your lower back. Think in terms of the hip hinge movement pattern when you are deadlifting. It doesn’t matter which tool you use (straight bar or trap bar) as long as you are getting stronger at the pattern. Switching between these two types of deadlifts helps ensure you make continual progress without getting an overuse injury.
In addition to your main movements, include accessory movements such as deficit deadlifts, deadlifts from blocks, as well as banded sweep deadlifts into your program. Exposing your body to a variety of different stimuli will keep the move interesting and prevent your body from reaching a plateau.
You should also include plenty of glute and hamstring exercises in your training program. The more your hamstrings and glutes activate, during the deadlift, the safer your lower back will become. Try adding in barbell hip bridges, GHD’s, and “good mornings” to compliment your heavier lifts.
In addition to deadlifting, you need to make sure you are doing some core movements. Although squatting and deadlifting will give you a strong core, hitting some isolated core movements is a great way to strengthen the muscles that help protect your lower back.
When we look at the core, it is important to know what movements to perform and why we perform them. Core movements can be classified as flexion, anti-flexion, lateral flexion, lateral anti-flexion, extension, anti-extension, rotational, and anti-rotational exercises. Below are examples of each movement so you get a better understanding of what we are talking about.
Now that you know the core movement classifications, it’s time to pick the ones that will benefit you the most. We highly recommend hitting the “anti” movements. Being able to resist against flexion, lateral flexion, extension, and rotation will greatly improve your core stability. In addition, to the anti-movements, you should also perform some rotational movements. Adding rotational movements will ensure you are mobile as well as stable.
Step 2: Fix Your Technique
Now that we have an idea on how to program for the lower back and core, let’s take a look at your technique. Technique determines success or failure with any training program so knowing how to lift will be the difference between getting stronger and getting injured.
Before we get into the core movements, let’s first breakdown how to perform the deadlift. When you deadlift, think of the following steps when you setup; 1) Feet are hip width with the weight in the heels, 2) Palms are just outside the legs, 3) The bar is right next to the shins, 4) Your chest is up and your back is strong and flat, 5) Your chin is tucked and your head is in neutral alignment.
Proper Set Up
Once you determine that you are set properly, it’s time begin the pull. When you go to pull the deadlift aim to do the following; 1) Take a deep breath in and brace your core, 2) Drive your knees out and your hips forward as you pull up on the bar, 3) Squeeze your shoulder blades together maintaining a strong flat back , 4) Keep your head neutral as you complete the lift.
Proper Pulling Form
Improper Pulling Form
In addition to your deadlift, make sure you are doing your core exercises with intention. Below are some of the common core exercise mistakes and how to fix them.
Plank: Hips Sagging (Improper Form)
Plank: Proper Form
Plank: Hips Lifted (Improper Form)
When you do a plank, the first thing you want to do is make sure your hips are level. Increasing the time on your plank by raising or sagging your hips defeats the purpose of the movement. Be more concerned with the intensity of the contraction rather than how long you are holding the position. You should focus on pulling your abdomen to your spine so hard that your body may begin to shake as you are doing it. A really strong plank that gives you solid core benefits doesn’t really need to last longer than 15 seconds if you are contracting as strongly as possible.
Banded Twist: Improper Form
Banded Twist: Proper Form
When performing a banded twist, make sure you are performing a large movement through the torso. There should be relatively little movement through the hips. Try to pull your abdomen towards your spine as you begin to twist. Also, be sure your arms are straight when you do this exercise, as bending the elbows cheats the movement.
Step 3: Address your mobility and muscle imbalances
Can you lean over and touch your toes without bending your knees? If not, we have some work ahead of us. Being inflexible is not a sign of strength, but rather a display of rigidity and signal that you may have an injury in your future. People who are rigid do not bend; they break.
The reason we become so rigid is that the majority of us are spending too much time sitting, and not enough time addressing our lack of mobility. Some of the common culprits for lower back pain include tight hip flexors, tight hamstrings, and a weak core. All three of these cause an “anterior pelvic tilt”, which means your pelvis rotates forward and places more stress on your lower back. In order to relieve pressure on your back, we recommend soft tissue work, muscle activation for your core, and targeted stretching. We will address soft tissue work in this step, while tackling muscle activation and stretching in steps 4 and 5.
Releasing the hip flexors
Releasing the hamstrings
Releasing the Spinal Erectors
Step 4: Perform muscle activation before you lift
Before you perform your first set, it’s important to get everything firing the way it should. Taking a little bit of time to get the glutes firing and teaching your core to brace is key to keeping your low back injury free. Teaching your glutes to fire will let your lower body assist you with your deadlift instead of just relying on your lower back. Also, muscle activation for your core will help restore balance to the body before you lift heavy. Below are some of our favorite pre-lift muscle activation exercises for the glutes, hamstrings, and core.
Exercise Ball Hamstring Curl
Step 5: Stretch post workout
In order to reap the benefits of your workout, you should make sure you include some stretching when you are done. Performing stretching when your body is still warm will be the best way of increasing your mobility post workout. Below are some of our favorite stretches that focus on the lower back.
Side lying twist
Sit with shoulder look
Downward dog with reachback
We hope you learned something new in this article and can use it to prevent injury when you train. Getting on the right program, performing the right core movements, and staying mobile will keep you progressing towards your goals. We would like to thank you for taking the time to read through this article. For more information about programming, technique, or mobility come try out one of our sessions or ask one of our coaches how we can help you meet your goals.