Don’t Tweak Your Back!
If you’ve ever tweaked your lower back training, you know how bad it sucks to be sidelined for a typically preventable injury. Over the thousands of hours I’ve spent coaching lifters, there is one big issue that results in most of those tweaks. We all love to talk about form or technique, but it’s even more fundamental than that. Of course good technique will reduce the risk of injury, but not if we don’t understand how to lock in a strong midline position before starting a lift.
What is the midline?
The midline is the line that cuts your body in half vertically when viewed from the front. The main feature in the midline is your spine. The spine is happiest when it is in a neutral position, which is a gentle “s” shaped curve. Usually coaches teach athletes to arch their backs when lifting, usually resulting in an overextended lower back. Untrained individuals will often round their back, looking like an angry cat, and ending up in dangerous spinal flexion. Nowadays most athletes’ upper back position is almost universally rounded forward due to lifestyle. Cars, couches, mobile devices, and a lack of education about proper posture all conspire to put a turtle shell on your upper back leaving you permanently hunched forward. This leads back to overextending the lower back to try to find an upright position causing a downward spiral of compromises that ends up with an angry lower back.
So how do we begin to combat these problems in a way that will make an immediate, noticeable difference in your training the next time you go to the gym? Usually people will suggest an intensive stretching routine. That’s not a bad idea, but it often takes time for the benefits to translate into your daily training. So I suggest you do that in addition to the big tips I’m going to give you here.
How to protect your lower back
Midline stabilization is key to safely and effectively moving heavy weights. So how do we lock in a great position? There are 2 concepts to learn and apply to see a better training session today. Learn to breath and brace. Let’s start with breathing. You’re probably already doing it as you read this article. We want to do what most people call belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Your diaphragm is a cone shaped muscle that sits below your lungs and pulls downward to draw air into your lungs. As you inhale, your collar bones, neck, and chest should stay relatively still. I often give the cue for people to expand the rib cage outward as they inhale down into the belly instead of up into the chest.
The easiest way to practice this is by laying on your back with a hand just below the belly button and the other hand at the top of your stomach. Breathe through the nose into the hand below the belly button and continue to inhale into the hand at the top of the stomach. Exhale fully through the mouth until you feel your lower abs begin to contract and start again. Once you learn how to breath, you can start working on how to use these deep belly breaths to brace your midline in a strong neutral position.
Intra-Abdominal Pressurization (IAP) is the other key to preventing back tweaks while simultaneously increasing the amount of weight you can move. I usually just say brace once an athlete learns to create IAP. Using the breath that you just took down into the belly, we want to squeeze the abs. Especially focusing on the quality of your oblique contraction. If you’re having a hard time getting the obliques tight, just poke them a few times to let them know it’s their turn to work. You’ll notice them tighten up considerably as you give them some external cues. Once you get the abs tight, visualize pushing that big full breath 360 degrees through the abs, obliques, and lower back. Then draw your shoulder blades back and down and activate the lats. The simplest cue I’ve learned for lat activation is to do an anti-shrug. Start by shrugging your shoulders up as high as you can, then simply do the opposite and you should feel your lats engage. Thanks Pavel!
Putting all of that together before your next squat or deadlift should make a huge difference! Not only will you be safer with a stable, braced midline, you should see an increase in what you can lift! Your midline works sort of like the transmission in your car. You might have a 1,000hp motor, but if the transmission isn’t working, no power gets to the wheels. If you have 500 lb legs, but a 150 lb midline, you’re only going to move 150 lbs until the problem is addressed.
If you want more hands on work with this concept, either see Coach Brandon or sign up for the next Structural Approach to Powerlifting Seminar that pops up on the calendar!
When he’s not asking why or saying it depends, Brandon is trying to pick up progressively heavier things and recording the disruptivecast, a strength and conditioning podcast. He loves working with athletes 1 on 1 to teach and correct movement, helping them do things they didn’t even know were possible. Brandon is a Precision Nutrition certified nutrition coach who serves clients with a light touch, understanding that making big life changes is tough and having someone in your corner makes a huge difference.