Advanced Back Training

After establishing form and a firm strength base, it’s time to start adding more specialized work. You divide your back into three segments (upper, middle and lower) which helps in the selection of exercises.

Of the three areas, the lower back is the most important in strength training, so you should insert a specific lower-back exercise into your program as soon as possible. Good mornings are my choice for the very best lower-back exercise. I also consider them to be the most demanding, not so much because of the weight on the bar but because they require a great deal of concentration and effort. That’s the reason so many trainees avoid them or only use very light weights. Like every other exercise for the back, however, good mornings are only useful when you do them with heavyweights, not right away of course, but eventually.

Your entire structure depends on your having strong lumbar. A weak lower back will negatively affect every muscle group, including those of your shoulder girdle. Power generated by your hips and legs cannot move upward into your upper back and shoulders if your lumbar are disproportionately weak. The same idea applies in the other direction as well, although to a lesser degree. All hip and leg work and all the various pulling exercises depend on lower-back strength.

You can perform good mornings in a variety of ways. The method you select will depend on a number of factors. If one method hurts, use another. If doing them with a flat back gets your lumbar sorer than when you do them with a rounded back, then use the flatback style, for sore is good.

You can also do good mornings while seated. It’s an excellent way to work your lumbar when, for whatever reason, you cannot do the exercise while standing. Athletes who are recovering from ankle or knee problems can keep their backs strong by doing seated good mornings, and they can do them long before they’re able to do any other strength work for their backs or legs.

The various styles of good mornings let you build some variety into your routine. Do flatbacks for a few weeks, switch to the rounded-back version, and then try seated good mornings. The change will keep you from dreading them, and the different versions will activate slightly different muscles.

Good mornings fit into the weekly routine on a light day. Just remember that light doesn’t mean easy. In the case of good mornings, the light day may be the toughest of the week. Even though you may have deadlifted 400 for reps on your heavy day and will only be using half that amount for your good mornings, the effort you have to put into doing the good mornings is as great as, if not greater than, what you needed for your heavy deadlift.

There’s a truism in strength training that the more severe the exercise, the greater the benefits. That certainly applies to any lower-back exercise and especially to good mornings, for they’re always taxing. If they aren’t, you can rest assured that you aren’t putting enough weight on the bar.

Keep the reps relatively high for good mornings. You want to restrict the amount of weight on the bar, particularly in the early stages, so your form is exact on each rep. While good mornings look gruesome, they aren’t dangerous when done correctly. None of my athletes have ever hurt themselves on this lift.

In order to achieve the necessary tonnage, you do four sets of 10 or five sets of eight. The guideline is 40 reps total. The amount of weight you use for your final set has to be 50 percent of your best squat. That means that someone who squats with 400 pounds should be handling 200×8 on the good morning, minimum.

One of the reasons I suggest you insert this exercise into your routine as soon as possible is because I want you to achieve that ratio with your squat weight from the beginning. For example, if you can only do a 225 squat when you’re starting out, you only have to use 115 on your good mornings. That isn’t too demanding, and as your squat numbers climb, so will your good morning numbers. If you hesitate about doing lower-back work until your squat reaches the mid-400s, however, playing catch-up is much more onerous.

You should do good mornings right after squats. It’s your light day for squats, but they still warm up your back and get it flushed with blood. If you wait, your back will be a great deal tighter, and the first few sets won’t be nearly as easy.

They should also be performed quickly. Long rests between sets isn’t a good idea, for, again, your back will tighten up. If you bang out the first two or three sets in short order, you can catch your breath before the heavy set or sets. Moving rapidly also allows you to get your good mornings out of the way, for they’re by no stretch of the imagination any fun. The positive aspect of doing them is having strong lumbars, which will enable you to grind through the heavy squats, and if you should break position and lean forward, you have the assurance that your lower back will come through for you. The same goes for any heavy pulling movement. When the bar sticks coming off the floor, you have confidence that if you stay with it, your lumbars will enable you to move it.

I understand that some people just can’t do any form of good mornings, usually because of an injury. In those cases I substitute stiff-legged deadlifts because they also work the lumbars directly and create the desired balance, but only if you work them diligently. In most gyms in the country people do stiff-legged deads with dinky weights. Dinky is fine if you only want to condition your back, but in order to get brutally strong, you have to load up the bar.

As with the good mornings, I have a numerical guideline for stiff-legged deadlifts. Eventually, you should be handling three-fourths of what you squat, for eight reps. That means that if you squat 400 pounds, you’re looking at using 300×8 on stiff-legged deadlifts. The ratio isn’t carved in stone, however, because I’ve found that some people are extremely strong on this movement. I’ve had some athletes who could use almost as much weight on stiff-legged deadlifts as they could on regular deadlifts, while others have great difficulty with the lift.

The main thing to keep in mind is that you have to work your stiff-legged deadlifts diligently. If you don’t even break a sweat on your final set, you need more weight on the bar. The guideline is a gauge to give you an idea of where you should be in terms of numbers. While it may sound a bit formidable to consider doing a 300-pound stiff-legged deadlift, remember that you don’t start out with that much weight. You start out with what you can do using correct form and proceed from there.

A few pointers on this exercise. The name is misleading. You should never completely lock your knees when working your lower back, especially with heavy weights. Your knees should always be slightly bent. You should also keep the bar very close to your body on both the up and down phases of the lift; so close it scrapes your shins and thighs. I have my athletes do this movement with 25-pound plates on an Olympic bar, and I have them stand on the floor, never on a bench. They start out with 90 pounds and work up from there. You can put a lot of 25-pound plates on the bar, and that method is much safer than standing on a block or bench.

Lower the bar until the plates touch the floor. It should be so close that it touches the tops of your shoes. You must perform the exercise deliberately, not fast or jerkily. Bring the bar up smoothly and lower it the same way.

As for the sets and reps, the stiff-legged deadlifts belong on thelight day, and you do them for higher reps, eights, for four to five sets. Many of my athletes like to alternate the two lower-back exercises, as it gives them some variety and each hits the lower back in a slightly different manner.

In addition to the two core exercises for the lumbars, you can add hyper extensions and reverse hypers, but neither should replace the good mornings or stiff-legged dead-lifts. Instead, you can do them as warmups or to provide some extra lower-back work and use very high reps, 50s or more.

Trainees often overlook the middle back, but that’s a mistake, as the area is also critical for the total package. The midback helps you maintain proper position in all leg and back exercises.

The initial foundation exercises are power cleans, high pulls and deadlifts. All hit the midback muscles nicely, but somewhere along the line those groups may fall a bit
behind. In that case you’ll want to add some specific exercises to strengthen them. The two best are bent-over rows and high pulls performed with a wide, snatch grip; however, I like high pulls the best, for they really attack the lats, the lower portion of the traps, which extend all the way down to the middle back, plus the smaller-but-important muscles such as the rhomboids, infraspinatus and teres major.

You do wide-grip high pulls exactly the same way you do the clean-grip version. How wide a grip should you use? On the Olympic bar your ring fingers should be touching the scores on the outside.

That’s the same grip you need for bent-over rows. They’re an excellent movement for working the middle back, but, as with all other strength exercises, you have to work them like a demon. Doing the exercises with light weights doesn’t get the job done.

Most people I see doing bent-over rows are doing them incorrectly. They take the bar off the floor, then wave it up and down toward their chest, doing a partial movement. In fact, there’s a bit of technique to performing them.

First, position the bar away from your body so that when you bring it up, it will touch your chest right where your breastbone ends. Your back has to be locked into a perfectly flat position, no rounding at all. It should be parallel to the floor with your shoulder blades pulled tightly together. Bring the bar up forcefully and always touch your chest on each rep. Then lower it very deliberately, never allowing it to crash back to the floor, which is stressful to your elbows and shoulders. Be sure to set the bar on the floor on each rep. That allows you to get a fuller range of motion, and it also lets you reset for the next rep.

This is one of the few exercises on which cheating can be beneficial. By that I mean you can bring your torso up from the parallel position, just so long as you maintain a flat back. However, you can only do it on the final, heavy sets. I allow this because you’re still working your middle back but from a slightly different angle.

Snatch-grip high pulls and bent-over rows are best done in fives for five to six sets. If you’re on a three-days-a-week routine, alternate one of them with deadlifts on Monday, your heavy day.

An excellent auxiliary exercise for improving midback strength is wide-grip chins. They really work nicely right behind the snatch-grip high pulls or bent-over rows, or you can do them between sets of the core movements.

There’s no contest for the best upper-back exercise. It’s the shrug, or, more specifically, the dynamic version of the shrug. If you’ve learned adequate form on the power clean or high pull, then shrugging will come much easier, but keep in mind that heavy shrugs are one of the most difficult exercises to perfect. That’s because the line is so precise and the stroke so short. Everything has to hit right to make the bar jump, and height is what you’re seeking, for the higher you pull the bar, the more muscles are involved. Your traps extend to the back of your skull, and if you shrug right, they’ll be sore for a day or two.

Shrugs fit best on the medium day. Although you use the heaviest weight on them, it’s an abbreviated pull and not early as taxing as such exercises as high pulls, good mornings, bent-over rows or deadlifts.

Five to six sets of five will get the job done if you load up for that final set.

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