Bang Legs Without Banging Your Lower Back
- Get the Fitness Geared
Forum App Now!
I have trained for 35 years. It took me 26 years to develop lower back issues to the point of having nine major herniations over five years – the type where if you had to choose between shitting your pants or getting out of bed, you would rather just lie there. I have now been injury-free for over four years as I close in on 50 years old. Out of obligation, I have learned a few things over the last 10 years.
RECENT: Next Level Pec Training
You need to understand something about lower back pain: This isn’t something you just deal with or push through. If this has been your experience, trust me when I say that you have NOT had back pain. The type of pain I am talking about is the kind where you have no choice; you simply are not going to be able to train, and no amount of pain tolerance or discipline is going to push you to be able to do it. You have two main options:
You can quit training and take up something that allows you to not be physically active and turn into a slob.
You can rest the injury long enough to be able to get back in the gym and find a way to train around it so that you don’t reinjure yourself.
Anyone reading this will choose Option 2 because those who would choose Option 1 wouldn’t be reading my articles on elitefts.com.
Over the last 10 years, I have come up with five main things that have contributed the most to not only training around a lower back injury but also helping to keep old injuries from reoccurring. At least in my case, continuing to focus on these five things will keep my back healthy and injury-free into the future.
1. Foot Position
Whether doing squats in a Smith Machine or doing hack squats or leg presses, foot position is crucial. If your foot position is too high or too far forward, this will force posterior tilt of the hips and this puts the lower back in a vulnerable position. The best foot position for any leg-pressing or squatting exercise is to position the feet as low on the platform (close to you) as you can without the weight transferring to the balls of your feet in the bottom position of the exercise. The weight should be equally distributed between the heel and the ball of the foot in the bottom position of any pressing or squatting exercise. If you are in doubt, put more weight on the heel than the ball of the foot.
Extreme variations of lateral foot placement can be risky. Yes, a narrow stance can help hit the quads differently (more lateral head), but if that also comes with an increased risk of lower-back injury; you need to weigh out the risk-to-benefit for you. Someone like myself who has a history of lower-back issues should be very hesitant to use a very narrow stance. The best stance is the most natural stance for the individual, and that is typically just wider than shoulder width and with toes angled slightly outward.
This probably should have been Number 1 because it is easily the most important thing on my list. However, I know all too well that as soon as someone mentions “stretching,” most people tune out. Even if you have just had a chiropractic adjustment, tight muscles on one side of the body will begin working against that adjustment within minutes. Tight muscles will slowly end up pulling the back out of alignment.
I have found stretching to be even more important than chiropractic adjustments because an adjustment fixes some problems right away, but only temporarily if you have tight muscles. If you are stretching consistently, you will not have a situation where your muscles are pulling your back out of alignment. Personally, I have not been to a chiropractor in almost a year and a half because my stretching has allowed my back to remain healthy.
3. Correct Exercise Selection
Forget what you have read in the muscle rags since you were a teenager and understand that you need to prioritize your leg training based on the risk-to-benefit in relation to your lower back. Your leg training should not be dictated by what some ghostwriter says are “king” exercises or exercises that you can’t get big without doing.
Choose the exercises that allow you to smash your legs with as little risk to your lower back as possible. If you can squat and squatting works well for you, then squat. If your back feels better locked into the path that a Smith Machine provides for front or back squats, do those.
The most important thing to note when dealing with a vulnerable lower back is that no matter what exercise you are doing for legs, you only go as deep as your hips will allow. When posterior tilt begins, your descent should stop. The old adage of “ass-to-grass” was well-intentioned, but the reality is it should have read “ass-to-grass-until-any-posterior-tilt-begins.”
Some exercises that I have found to be very beneficial to almost anyone with some sort of lower-back vulnerability are:
A. Pit Shark Belt Squats: The weight during this movement pulls from the hips instead of resting on the shoulders. There is no compression of the spine and there is little to no stress put on the lower back and the musculature that supports the spine. Though this is good for reducing vulnerability for those with lower-back pain or chronic injury. Keep in mind that the majority of the posterior chain is not being worked — relative to regular squatting — where the bar is resting on the traps/upper back.
B. Pendulum Squats: Though the weight rests on the shoulders for this exercise, the angle of the arc or path of the swing arm puts far less stress on the lower back. If you drive your lower back into the bottom of the backrest, you will notice that even though the weight is loaded on the shoulders, a lot of the weight is also distributed across the hips and lower back, as well. This is difficult to explain in text, but if you do this movement and drive your lower back into the bottom of the pad, you will quickly realize how the weight is being supported almost equally between the shoulders and the bottom of the backrest — supported by the lower back and hips — much like a Pit Shark Squat.
4. Elevated Heels
Elevating the heels during squats was an ‘80s thing. Thankfully, it has become more popular in the last few years, again.
When the heels are elevated either in squat shoes, by using a 2x4 wedge or 10-pound plates, two things happen:
A. More stress is pushed to the quads versus hips/glutes/hamstrings, and because we are bodybuilders instead of powerlifters, we want more stress or focus on the quads, anyway. Basically, we want more quad development and less hip and glute development. No bodybuilder wants a giant ass or hips.
B. Elevating the heels helps to guard the lower back because the hips have to rotate less to get to the same depth. To be clear, you will get more quad involvement while getting less glute/ham/hip involvement, and at the same time, decrease the vulnerability of the lower back.
5. Using a Belt
There are two main camps when it comes to the debate as to whether a belt should be used while training. I have spent a lot of years on both sides of this debate, and yet, I still don’t have a definitive answer (and I doubt anyone does — they just have what they feel are solid arguments for their position). I will make a few points that influence why I wear a belt for almost everything I do in the gym these days.
A. Of all of the lower-back injuries I have had over those five years, not even one of them happened when I was wearing a belt. While wearing a belt, I have not injured my lower back, ever.
B. Of all of the guys who wear a belt consistently in almost all movements in the gym — whether training legs or not — the large majority of these guys do not have huge guts. Their waists tend to be smaller on average than the guys who do not wear belts in the gym, regularly. It should be noted that I feel there is a potential connection between lower-back pain and abdominal distention, but that is for another article in the future.
C. Even if the belt didn’t offer more stability (and I believe it does), it also keeps my lower back warm because I never take it off while training. I feel that if the muscles being trained can get nice and warm and remain that way for the duration of a workout, there is far less of a chance of injury.
Adhering to these five main points, I have remained injury-free for over four years after chronic back injuries (and pain) for five years. I am now to the point where my confidence has returned and I don’t feel like my back could go out at any moment. More importantly, though, I haven’t had to shit in my shower standing up. If you don’t know, you don’t want to know. Just Sayin’.
Use code 'Baby1' for $5 off your order