Strong Foundations: Building and Maintaining a Strong Low Back
The low back is perhaps our biggest strength when attempting to produce power and precision through any range of motion. Whether you are on the track, on the field, in the pool, or at the gym, the lower back is the key to any sport or activity. This part of the body’s core optimizes both power and strength while protecting us from low back injury in the process. Proper athletic positions require an extremely strong low back.
It is very common to see a weakness or deficiency in the core muscles and the low back in particular. The imbalance that is caused by training only one side of the spine (most commonly the abdominal muscles) increases the risk of injury even more. To better understand the chain reaction caused by a weak link, it is helpful to imagine a strong chain running from the head to the toe, down the spine, where each link is dependent on the links both above and below it. When any link of this chain is off-kilter or weak, the entire chain collapses.
Back injuries among Olympic lifters are especially common due to a weakness in this low back link of the chain. The added strain, weight, and demand placed on this part of the body during a lifter’s range of motion requires a very strong core to make that range of motion not only as efficient as possible, but also as safe as possible for the lifter.
“Those who have strong core muscles have a reduced rate of lower back and lower extremity injuries, greater injury prevention as well as increased force production in the upper and lower extremities leading to improved sporting performance.” -Melbourne Sports and Chiropractic
Sometimes the lack of training and focus on this area of the posterior chain (low back, glutes, and hamstrings to name a few) is simply one of vanity. Too often this region is neglected only because this muscle group isn’t seen as often in a mirror as other parts of the body.
Once you have begun training and have started paying attention to this vital link of the body, you’ll definitely feel the difference a strong low back and core can make. The more proper the form is for the lift, the sprint, the swim, on the field, or during any other functional activity, the more powerful and efficient the movement. The body can lift more, react quicker, adapt faster, and stabilize better. All of these help the body stay healthy.
Below are a few simple ways to strengthen the lower back through dynamic stretching and strength work:
- Gluteus-Ham Developer Back Extensions - An alternative exercise is the "Superman" on the ground.
- Walking Lunges - For the more advanced, weight can be added by carrying it with extended arms overhead.
- High Knees
- Butt Kicks
- Single-Leg Hip Thrusters - My personal favorite.
Focus on keeping the lats (latissimus dorsi muscles)and the core very tight through this progression. Only the legs move (slowly) as they pull (not jerk) the bar from the ground as the rest of the body stays absolutely locked in place. The deadlift is the first pull of the Olympic clean and jerk, and is a great training tool to strengthen the low back muscles in preparation for this lift. The snatch-grip deadlift does the same thing by way of preparation for the other Olympic lift, the snatch.
Squats will help develop the upper thighs, low back, and gluteus (butt) muscles. A proper squat starts with your heels no farther apart than the width of your hips and your toes angled out to no more than thirty degrees. Bend at the waist a few degrees and keep the back as flat as possible. Look forward and not up as you bend at the knees, sitting deep back into the heels. As you rise up, activate the glutes and hamstrings, and be especially careful not to round the back.
The key to building and maintaining a strong low back is to be aware of the low back at all times. Do not neglect the front of the spine either; be sure to train the abdominal muscles as well. Concentrate on every link in the body’s main chain (the glutes, hamstrings, and core) and build each one with the mindset that each one supports the others.
As it is in anything health, training and/or sport-related, consistency is key. Build slowly, properly, and continually. Be patient and make each repetition count. Efficiency and consistency will together develop a faster, stronger, healthier, and more functional body.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.