Bulletproof Your Back
How to squat and deadlift without hurting your back.
By Bret Contreras, MSc, CSCS
“After 30 years of box squatting Westside has had 23 lifters squat over 800 pounds, six over 900 pounds and one over a grand. Not one of these lifters or any of the others has had lower-back problems.”
– Dave Tate
We all know that the squat and deadlift are the kings of the exercise world. But countless bodybuilders have written off these lifts, deciding that they’re just not worth the risk to the lower-back region. The squat and deadlift aren’t that dangerous — but the way many bodybuilders squat and deadlift is indeed asking for injury.
The problem centers on the fact that bodybuilders are always trying to target a certain muscle group. While this is an excellent strategy for isolation lifts and a decent strategy for machine-based lifts, it’s a piss-poor strategy for heavy compound free-weight movements. Trying to emphasize quadriceps activity in a leg press or erector spinae activity in a back extension is one thing, but doing so in a squat or deadlift is a recipe for disaster.
Many bodybuilders have such massive quadriceps development and strength that they utilize “quad-dominant” squatting strategies, which involve staying as upright as possible and allowing the knees to jut out considerably while descending just shy of parallel. Furthermore, since many bodybuilders perform deadlifts on “back day,” they see the deadlift as primarily a back-builder, and they typically utilize the erectors dynamically rather than attempting to limit the amount of spinal flexion and extension and utilize the hip extensors for execution.
What happens when an ultra-upright squatter pushes that last rep or goes a little too heavy? His lumbar spine rounds and his pelvis tucks backward, creating deleterious forces on the spine. What happens when the rounded back deadlifter does the same? He fails to keep lumbar flexion in check and his lower back rounds too far, thereby creating considerable insults to the spine.
I’ve had a lot of success re-training bodybuilders’ squatting and deadlifting biomechanics, which has allowed them to perform these lifts pain-free in addition to increasing their strength and subsequent muscle mass. The squat and deadlift are full-body exercises that utilize multiple joints and muscles. The first step in eliminating lower-back pain is to drop down in weight and start performing them correctly, with proper form.
What Entails Proper Form?
First, the load needs to be shared among the body’s joints. The ankle, knee, hip, and spinal joints all contribute to proper squatting and deadlifting, and the load should be distributed properly across these structures. Second, it’s imperative that the powerful gluteus maximus muscles are utilized to their utmost potential. Strong glutes, along with proper form, go a long way in eliminating lower back pain. Bodybuilders need to stop thinking of squats as a quad builder and deadlifts as a back builder and start looking at them as total-body movements that require tremendous core stability while the muscles of the lower body produce the movement. Big quads and back muscles are nice, but so are muscular glutes and hamstrings. With the exception of the glutes, particular muscles should not be targeted; all the muscles need to share the load, which controls the amount of force received by the various joints and prevents any single structure from receiving too much stress.
Which Exercises Should You Perform?
This may sound counterintuitive, but we’re going to attempt to cure lower back aggravation by learning how to sit back during new squat and deadlift variations, in addition to performing two supplemental exercises — the 45-degree back extension and good morning. Rest assured knowing that there will be a new spin on each of these movements. Remember — it ’s not what you do; it’s how you do it! What’s the secret to Westside’s success? Steady diets of box squats and good mornings, which teach lifters how to lean forward appropriately while moving the hips back and keeping the lumbar spine and pelvis locked into place.
Wide-Stance Box Squat
Bodybuilders usually avoid this variation of the squat; it’s usually the sole domain of powerlifters. This is unfortunate, however, because bodybuilders can benefit greatly by utilizing the wide-stance box squat. Though you feel this variation more in the posterior chain, EMG evidence counter-intuitively shows that the quads work just as hard in the box squat as in the conventional squat.
Perform this movement by straddling a box or bench with a wide stance. Break at the hips first and sit far back, spreading the floor with your feet and forcing your knees out throughout the movement. Your shins should stay vertical throughout the lift, making it difficult for many first-timers. It’s imperative that you learn how to squat with a forward lean while sitting back and using the posterior chain musculature to prevent lumbar flexion and posterior pelvic tilt, and it’s equally important that you learn to extend the hips and trunk forcefully.
Arched-Back Good Morning
This is another movement that bodybuilders often avoid for no good reason. With the bar on the upper back, lean forward with a strong lower-back arch while moving your hips rearward. Envision trying to touch your butt to a wall a couple of feet behind you. Don’t allow your pelvis to posteriorly rotate or your lumbar spine to lose its extension. Keep a slight bend in your knees to allow for greater hip flexion so your trunk can descend farther. Lower yourself until your hamstring flexibility runs out and then rise up by contracting your hamstrings and glutes to lockout. This is a very short range movement – you’ll be surprised at how little torso lean you can achieve while maintaining a strong spinal arch.
45-Degree Back Extension
The 45-degree back extension (often mislabeled a “hyperextension”) is an extremely popular exercise in most gyms, but the common method of execution leaves much room for improvement. Most lifters round their spines and try to feel their erector spinae doing the work. This method has the erectors serving as prime movers while the hip extensor muscles act as stabilizers. I want you to flip-flop these actions and utilize the erector spinae as stabilizers and the hip extensor muscles as prime movers. This means that the spine should not lose its arch throughout the movement, which should occur solely at the hips. At the bottom of the rep use the hamstrings to initiate upward movement and then use the glutes to continue to raise your torso to lockout. In fact, done properly this is one of the best glute exercises in existence. Hold onto a dumbbell and explode through the posterior chain.
The American deadlift puts a spin on the more common Romanian deadlift. You set up and descend just like a typical RDL: Starting with the bar at waist height and arching the low back, sit back with a slight knee bend and lower the bar to just below knee height. You should feel a big stretch in your hamstrings. But the American differs in the concentric portion. As you rise, squeeze your glutes extremely hard and posteriorly rotate your pelvis as the bar reaches its top range of motion. It is very important for lifters to learn how to dissociate their pelvis from their spines and figure out how to utilize the glutes to lock out with heavy weight. This exercise will teach you how to do so and will get you accustomed to proper top-range deadlift performance where the glutes move the hips into hyperextension and spare the spine from excessive extension torque.
Remember to start light and ingrain proper lifting mechanics before increasing the load. Perform four sets of eight reps on each exercise. Feel the glutes moving the weight and functioning optimally. I’ve helped many lifters get back to squats and deadlifts minus the associated back pain by using these lifts. Implement these methods and watch your strength rise and your dysfunction diminish.
Bret Contreras has a master’s degree from ASU and a CSCS from the NSCA. He is currently obtaining his PhD from the Sports Performance Research Institute of New Zealand (SPRINZ) at AUT University in Auckland and has a popular blog at www.BretContreras.com.