Deadlift, a compound exercise, has long been a cornerstone of strength training. It harps on the raw strength of the posterior chain. Albeit a paradox, it’s entirely possible to have a formidable deadlift while harboring a surprisingly weak lower back.
“Deadlift is not a lower back exercise — it is a full body exercise,” says Sunil Kumar, a fitness trainer from Bengaluru. “It involves the bigger muscles of the upper back, and the antagonist muscles, that is, the chest and leg muscles. The lower back has a very low number of muscle fibers, Hence, these bigger muscles take over. As a result of this, most deadlifters have weak lower backs.”
The shortcomings of deadlift
The intriguing combination of deadlifting heavy while having a weak lower back highlights the complexity of human anatomy and strength development. Factors like muscle imbalances, technique proficiency, and genetics all contribute to this.
A narrative review on the biomechanics of the lower back during repetitive deadlifts, published in the Journal of IISE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, states that the physiological benefits of repetitive deadlifting training may be overshadowed by the associated risk of lower back injury during training. This is because while performing 75 to 100% of the individual’s 1 rep max (the maximum weight he or she can lift for a single repetition of the exercise), the compressive spinal forces can reach 18 kN (kilonewton) among men and 8 kN among women. The maximum shearing spinal forces can reach 3 kN among men and 2 kN among women. These values are even more concerning when we take into account the injury thresholds for the lumbar spine segments, which range from 5 to 10 kN and 1 to 2 kN for compressive and shearing forces respectively.
Train lower back in all ranges of motion
In the grand symphony of human movement, the back takes center stage. Its significance extends beyond mere aesthetics; it is the pillar upon which strength, stability, and vitality rest. Yet, to truly harness the potential of this intricate anatomical masterpiece, one must recognize the paramount importance of training the back in all ranges of motion.
“The lower back needs to be trained in multiple ways and you must look at activities like strengthening your core, which involves the smaller muscles, the hip flexors, and the hip extensors,” shares Kumar. “All these smaller muscles require more focused training with respect to having a stronger lower back because the musculature is small, and the bigger muscles end at the lower back. A lot of extensions and working on the opposite muscles, the abdominal muscles, are required.”
The back is not a one-dimensional canvas, it is a multidimensional masterpiece, capable of extension, flexion, lateral flexion, and rotation. “If you don’t work your lower back across all ranges of motion, it could limit the movement spectrum,” explains Kumar. “You need to work your lower back with respect to all aspects of movement, including stability, flexibility, and mobility. However, if you limit your training to just one aspect, your back function improves only in that specific area.”
Exercises for a strong lower back for beginners
There are multiple exercises that improve the lower back — and individuals can take different approaches, depending on efficacy. Kumar explains, “Some people may not have a lower back issue but their gluteus muscles might be weak. When you train your glutes and back muscles, the lower back strength also improves.
Here are a few exercises that can take the lower back through a wide range of motion.
1. Jefferson curl
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a light barbell or a kettlebell in front of your thighs with an overhand grip. Slowly curve your spine, starting from the neck and moving down one vertebra at a time. Round your back forward as far as comfortable, while maintaining control. Then, reverse the movement. This exercise improves spinal flexibility and strength.
2. Superman pose
Lie face down on your mat with your arms extended overhead and legs straight. Lift your arms, chest, and legs off the ground simultaneously while squeezing your lower back muscles. Hold this position for a few seconds.
3. Cat-cow stretch
Begin on your hands and knees in a tabletop position and inhale as you arch your back, lifting your head and tailbone (cow pose). Exhale as you round your back, tucking your chin and tailbone (cat pose). Move between these two positions for several breaths to enhance flexibility, mobility, and awareness in your spine.
4. Bridge pose
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart. Push through your heels, lifting your hips off the ground. Squeeze your glutes and lower back as you hold the bridge position for a few seconds.
- Deadlift is a compound exercise that tests one’s strength and power. But even if you can deadlift heavy, you could have a weak lower back.
- The lower back needs to be trained in multiple ways and through its complete range of motion for optimal strength, stability, flexibility, and mobility.
- Exercises such as Jefferson curls, Superman pose, cat-cow stretch and bridge pose help build the lower back.