Erecting Better Totals with Lower Back Training

November 11, 2014 5:56 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

by Joe Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS

While an innuendo laden title such “erect this” or “lumbar erection” would have attracted more attention and likely boosted Josh’s Alexa rating by way of increased traffic, awareness needs to be raised regarding lower back training, especially as it pertains to strength sports, specifically powerlifting.

Is Direct Lower Back Training Necessary?

Early in my career, I immersed myself in the “flavor of the week”. One week, the “experts” would extoll the virtues of core training. The next week, that same group of experts called for the evisceration of core training from programming (no pun intended here as the word evisceration stems from a procedure which entailed the removal of vital organs located within the abdominal cavity). Once I found out that many of these so called “experts” used Swiss balls for other activities aside from valuable stabilization exercises, such as planks, pertubatory movements, and stir the pots as well as surfing (huh?), I began ingesting their sanctimonious and fickly ideologies with a grain of salt…a grain of iodized sea salt.

Swiss Ball Surfing

My first encounter with lower back training was motivated by my determination to one day boast a pair of erector spinae muscles which resembled two cans of coke as they fanned from the common tendon. I had read somewhere that Charles Poliquin, the godfather of modern day strength and conditioning, had mentioned that a strong lower back was one that is more resistant to injury.

Remembering the Master Blaster’s sagacious advice, I immediately plugged in 100+ repetitions of back extensions into every workout I did for a couple of weeks straight.

At the end of the training cycle, I was extremely sore and somewhat soured by the experience, even pledging to forgo direct lower back training, reasoning that it was too tough and my squat and deadlift were stellar, even considered enviable among my fellow commercial gym brethren. However, as time passed and injuries mounted, I realized a bit too late that training the lower back could have potentially spared me the pain and disappointment I experienced throughout my lifting career.

Lower Back Training Basics

Integrating lower back training needs to be done with tact. Anatomy must first be considered.

The erector spinae is collectively composed of three layers: superficial, intermediate, and deep.

The superficial layer is composed of the three groups which most commonly appear on anatomy charts and include: the longissiumus muscles; which are the most prominent of the bunch, the iliocostalis muscles, and the spinalis muscles.

The intermediate layer is composed of the semispinalis group as well as the multifidi and rotares.

The deep or innermost layer is comprised of the tiny interspinalis and intertranversarus muscles which each cross intervertebral junctions and are interwoven with interspinous ligaments.

All portions of the erector spinae originate from the common tendon of the thoracolumbar fascia, which resides superior to the sacrum, and most sharing attachment points along the spine, and some attaching to the ribs, such as the lower iliocostalis muscles, and the thoracic aspect of the longissimus muscle.

Function Briefer

Collectively the muscles of the erector spinae group stabilize the spine to overcome flexion and extension, essentially locking it in neutral. Most people erroneously jut their lower backs into hyperextension when training their erector spinae muscles, which may already be tight, especially if lumbopelvic control is lacking. The end result is usually biomechanically flawed and painful lumbosacral by way of significant posterior shear forces emitted by the lumbar aspects of erector spine muscles.

Tight lower back muscles knock the lumbar spine into extension and dump the hips into anterior pelvic tilt, which closes off the hips and limits hip flexion and extension, two very vital components of squatting, deadlifting, and as it pertains to hip extension, keeping stable during the bench press.

Pulling on already tight erector spinae muscles is a recipe for lower back pain. Individuals who present this issue would be better served activating the gluteus muscles and anterior core to shift the hips into a more neutral setting.

If no muscular imbalances are present, the lower back should be trained, however, only a neutral spine should be achieved, preferentially in conjunction with full hip extension.

Stuart McGill noted that muscular endurance of the lumbopelvic muscles is more important than muscular strength in warding off injuries. It must be reminded that the muscles of the core, which include the lower back, serve a contributory role during activities of sport and daily living. As such, they should be trained in the manner in which they perform. Therefore, heavily loaded core training exercises, which include lower back training exercises, should not be loaded heavily and performed with few repeitions.

It should also be noted that incorporating strategies to isolate the erector spinae muscles, or any core muscle for that matter, are misguided at best. Each muscle is more valuable in integration, rather than isolation. So, instead of forcefully extending the spine during lower back exercises, invest that energy in bracing all sides of the core, which creates an “anatomical weight belt”. Some cues to rev up coactivation of core muscles include the following:

– Pull the the rib cage down (activating rectus abdominus and obliques)
– Pushing your belly button outward (activating anterior core and building up intrabdominal pressure)
– And “filling” the love handles (activating obliques deep lateral subsystem muscles, including quadratus lumborum)

And if the hips are involved, such as in the execution of back extensions, deadlift hypers, and good mornings. The hips should be pushed into extension and capped off with a powerful glute squeeze to prevent the lower back from hyperextending.

Your anterior and lateral core muscles should be firing, much like they should, or hopefully would during a PR.

As such, all lower back exercises that are executed with an extension movement or maintained in an extended position should be done while bracing. Let’s role play here and integrate the aforementioned cues for a number of common exercises which target the lower back muscles below.

45 Degree Back Extensions

– Engage core to stabilize lumbar spine and set the rib cage
– Drive heels through foot plate and begin to contract glutes as hard as possible
– Finish once full hip extension is achieved, which will help to ensure a neutral spine is maintained

Deadlift Hypers

– Grasp barbell with double overhand grip
– Pull chest big while engaging core to prevent rib flare, thus facilitating the ability to achieve a neutral spine
– Drive heels through foot plate and begin to contract glutes as hard as possible, while pulling the bar back towards the torso
– Finish once full hip extension is achieved, which again will help to ensure that a neutral spine is maintained

Good Mornings

– Nestle the bar between the upper traps and the superior border of the scapulae, grasping firmly with a hip width or slightly wide grip
– Push the chest out and engage the core
– Begin driving the hips rearward while keeping the core engaged to prevent hyperextension of the lumbar spine. Do so over slighlty bent knees (10-20 degrees of knee flexion)
– Drive heels through the floor and begin to contract glutes as hard as possible
– Finish movement once once full hip extension is achieved, which will help to ensure a neutral spine is maintained



Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS, hails from a working class section of Philadelphia and is a formerly a manual laborer himself, working in warehouse and landscaping during college to pay his tuition. Joe is an avid Craigslist dater, “swag surfer”, and coupon clipper. He prefers deadlifting and finding money on the ground. He is an extremely private person and does not keep a blog, website, or push products, because he’s not an “expert”, instead he does what he loves – writing, training people, and deadlifting.


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