"Back" to Basics
A big, strong back forms the base for strength throughout the entire body. This article will discuss the main muscles of the back and their importance in each of the three power lifts. It will also describe a few of our favourite exercises to train for a strong back.
Training the rest of the body while neglecting to train the back is kind of like trying to build a house without building a proper foundation. It will look okay for a while, but eventually it will be obvious something is missing. A weak back will always end up being the limiting factor to lifting more weight with the rest of the body, so it would be inadvisable to neglect it in your training. The main muscles of the back that we will talk about here include the traps (trapezius), lats (latissimus dorsi), rhomboids and spinal erectors. They are all very important to overall strength and good posture.
Strong traps are the beginning to a good arch of the back, and a strong position for the shoulders. If the upper back is not strong enough, the upper back can start to round, and may cause a domino effect down the spine.
If the traps are not strong enough or held tight enough during the unracking of the bar for squatting, the bar can feel heavy and may roll slightly out of position. This may cause the squatter to drop their chest during the performance of the lift and lose the weight out in front of them.
The traps help to maintain the shoulders in proper position during the bench press. They assist in keeping the chest up throughout the lift, resulting in a strong base from which to push, as well as a shorter bench stroke. This is not only advantageous to lifting more weight, it also protects the shoulder joint by preventing extraneous movement that does not contribute to the completion of the lift. This will help to prevent injury that can be caused by unnecessary movement.
During the deadlift, strong traps help to prevent the rounding of the back that can start at the top and continue all the way down into the lower back. This helps protect the spine from injury resulting from rounding. The less unnecessary movements that happen, the less chance there is for injury.
Our favourite exercise to focus on the traps is barbell shrugs. To perform this exercise, set the bar up on the safety pins in the power rack, at just below the height the bar would be at while just standing and holding it in the hands. Use wrist straps. Grasp the bar just outside of the legs and try to shrug your shoulders up to your ears. You can use your legs a little bit if you have to. Tara tries to shrug more than she can squat or deadlift. You just make sure that there is zero forward motion of the shoulder because if there is, that motion is not caused by the traps, and therefore not beneficial to their development. The shoulders should move upwards and possibly slightly back. The traps should be trained using higher reps, since they are a very strong, higher endurance muscle. We usually stick to the 15-25 rep range.
The lats help to maintain a good position during the completion of the squat, bench and deadlift. The lats do not really produce any movement themselves during any of the three main lifts; they are mostly there to maintain good position for the squat and deadlift, and during the pressing part of the bench press.
They help to maintain a "big chest" during the squat, which helps to keep the chest from dropping and subsequently falling forward. They help to provide a solid base of support for the bar by contributing to the general tightness and solidarity of the thoracic region.
The lats are very active during the bench press. When the bar is taken out of the rack, the bencher should be actively flexing the lats by attempting to "pull" the bar out. The motion is almost like a straight arm lat pulldown. Once the bar is being lowered, the lats should still be pulling; the movement should be like that of a row. When the bar is being pushed upward, the lats should still be held tightly to help keep the chest up high. This provides a solid base for pressing, and keeps the bench stroke shorter by not allowing the shoulders to come up during the completion of the lift.
During the deadlift, the lats help to keep the bar close to the body. This is extremely important to the successful completion of the deadlift, since it reduces the amount of strain on the lower back. If the lower back has to hold too much of the weight, it is very likely that the back will begin to round and the lift will be unsuccessful.
One of our favourite exercises for the lats is wide or close grip pulldowns. To do a lat pulldown, grab the bar, lean back and look at the cable. Stick your chest out. Pull the bar down into your chest; do not push it down in front of you. Try to almost push your chest out to meet the bar. You can cheat a little bit by leaning back to get the bar moving, then make sure you still stick your chest out to meet the bar once it’s close to your body. We like the 8-15 rep range, although every once in a while we will throw in a big strip set which will usually end up being around 100 reps.
The rhomboids are a postural muscle located between the shoulder blades. One of the main functions is to retract the shoulders, which basically means to pull the shoulder blades together. This is important to the successful completion of the three power lifts as well as good posture.
During the squat, you want to keep the shoulder blades pulled together in order to keep the chest out. This will help to keep it from dropping and putting unnecessary strain on the lower back muscles, which will often result in the lifter losing the weight out in front of them.
For the bench press, it is important to keep the chest up as high as possible. This shortens the distance that the weight has to be moved, and also provides a more mechanically advantageous position for the pressing muscles - the pecs, front delts and triceps - to push from.
Before beginning the pull in the deadlift, it is important to hold the shoulder blades together. If this is not done, the rounding of the upper back can cause a domino effect on the spine. The rounding may continue down to the lower back which can result in a missed lift as well as injury.
The Kroc row - named after pro powerlifter Matt Kroczaleski - is our favourite exercise to work the rhomboids. This exercise MUST be done with a good arch of the back. You have to stick your chest and butt out. Injury is a very likely result if you fail to do this, due to the higher weights that can be handled and the fact it uses your whole body. Start with the dumbbell on the floor and use a wrist strap! Stand over it, as if the handle is the handle on a lawn mower pull starter. Squat down while keeping your back arched, use your legs to start the weight moving, and then pull the weight up until it touches your body. Control the weight on the way down to avoid injury. We like to do 10-30 reps for this exercise.
The spinal erectors are probably the most important muscle group to train. They are usually the muscles that ultimately limit the weight you can lift in the squat and deadlift. They are also extremely important to keep strong and healthy in order to prevent injuries to the spine, especially in the lumbar and sacral regions.
During the squat, the erectors need to be held as tight as possible to hold the arch of the lower back from the time the lifter ducks their head under the bar until they re-rack the weight. The arch must be held before picking the weight up off the rack because you will never be able to get the arch as tight if you try to get your arch while bearing the weight on your back. The erectors need to continue to be held tight for the rest of the squat, for if they are allowed to loosen the squatter will end up losing the weight forward.
We will take this opportunity to discuss one of our pet peeves when watching people squat. Almost everyone will push their hips forward at the top of the squat. There are a few reasons for this. Number one is they feel they need to stand up straight to complete the lift. This is not the case and should not be done for the sake of the health of your spinal structures. You only need to straighten the legs to complete the squat. You lose the arch in your lower back by bringing the hips under, which results in unnecessary pressure being placed on the soft structures in the spine. The next reason people may push their hips forward is because CrossFit tells you it’s not a complete rep unless you do this. That may be their rule but its terrible form for the reasons described above. The last reason, and probably the most common in the strength training world, is that people are trying to complete the lift as fast as possible. It is true you need to lift as fast as possible as this can help you get through your sticking point (the part of the lift where your leverage is weakest), but this is generally somewhere in the mid-point of the lift.
Therefore, you should be trying to be as fast as you can from the bottom of the lift, until you are through your sticking point. However, lots of people will try to “snap” the bar at the top. When you do this, you lose your arch, and also put yourself out of position for your next rep if you are doing more than one. We have never seen anyone get the bar almost to the top in a squat and then not be able to stand the rest of the way up, so there is no reason to try to carry so much speed at the very top of the lift. Doing so is just asking for sore and irritated joints, tendons and ligaments.
The erectors contract to arch the spine during the bench press. This provides a strong base to press from and transfers the force from the drive from the legs.
The deadlift requires the erectors to be held static. If they cannot handle the weight, the lumbar region will lose its arch. If the lower back rounds too much, the lifter usually will not be able to complete the lift. Even if they could complete the lift, it is not advisable since the arch of the lower back protects the structures of the spine from injury.
Our next pet peeve after the loss of the arch during the squat is the hyper extension of the spine at the top of the deadlift. The erectors need to be held as tight as possible, but there is no need to squeeze them at the top of the lift to the point that they cause your shoulders to be behind your hips. People generally do this to try to lock out their deadlift. It is hard on the soft structures of the spine and usually causes the knees to bend, which in competition would result in a red light. If you just lock your knees at the top, this will result in the locking out of the lift. Boom. Done. It is almost impossible to stand up with your knees locked without your hips being locked out, which is what we are attempting to do to complete the deadlift.
To train the spinal erectors, we like good mornings. Start with the same position you would use for the squat. Keep the knees slightly bent, have the weight on your heels, and attempt to push your butt back. You should be trying to keep the bar moving straight up and down. The bar should be kept over your ankles throughout the lift. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings. You only need to go down to about a 45 degree angle. You want to come back up before any part of your back starts to round. Do this for between 5 and 15 reps. We do this in place of squats as a main exercise every few weeks.
We really like snatch-grip block pulls to train all of the muscles that have been described in this article. They are one of the few that hits the mid-back really well. By mid-back we mean the area starting around where the scapula ends and then extending a few inches down the back. It is one of those areas that are really hard to get at with most exercises. To perform a snatch-grip block pull, set the barbell on blocks so that the bar is just a bit below the knee. Use wrist straps and grab the bar outside of the power rings. Set your feet like you would for a conventional deadlift. Lift the bar up just like a regular deadlift. Use between 6 and 15 reps for this exercise.
There are two categories of people that this article is written for: those that want to increase the amount of weight they can lift and those looking to improve their posture, body mechanics and prevent injury. Now some people may be thinking, "Well, if the back is working so much during the squat, bench and deadlift, why would I waste my time training it on its own?" This way of thinking is somewhat backwards. Your body is only as strong as its weakest link. You need to train your weaknesses using special exercises, like the ones described in this article, to improve your weakest areas and therefore improve your overall strength.
Those of you who are unconcerned by how much weight you can lift should still be very concerned about your back strength. Everyday life gives us bad posture by shortening muscles like the chest, rounding the shoulders and sticking the neck forwards. Think about how much time you spend in this position; any time you are on the computer, sitting at a desk and even driving. This causes our bodies to move in a way that we were not meant to, which can lead to injury. Strengthening the back can reverse these changes and help to prevent injury.