Lumbar flexion is a rounding of the lower back when you lift. Flexion of the spine puts it in a vulnerable position with a much higher risk of serious back injury. Often this occurs during a heavy or near max load in a big lift.
What if you experience it even during your lift setup, even while not under a load?
This isn’t uncommon with newer lifters. As you set up for the deadlift, bending to reach for the bar your lower back rounds. Often this is because your hips are rotated to the anterior – the upper portion of the hip shifts backwards creating a rounded lower back.
It can be difficult to consciously rotate your hips to the anterior – shift the upper portion of your hips forward. Here is a tip I’ve used successfully to address this issue during setup, until the lifting pattern is internalized and becomes automatic:
- Instead of simply bending over to grab the bar, treat this first setup step like a Romanian Deadlift: push your hips back and arch your lower back slightly, bringing your chest down as your hips push backwards. Allow your knees to flex as needed to reach the bar.
In addition to this setup tip, there are a couple other things you may need to work on:
- Hip Mobility: If your hamstrings are tight, you will have limited mobility for hip flexion (can you bend over and reach your toes without bending your knees?). Work on your hamstring flexibility.
- Strengthen and Activate your Spinal Erectors: High volume/low weight Romanian Deadlifts, emphasizing flattening or slightly arching your lower back can help internalize the hip pattern for these movements.
If you have issues with your lower back rounding, make sure you have your hips set right for the lift.
To unrack the bar, you get the most power and stability if your feet are directly under your hips (not too wide) and centered under the bar (bar over shoelaces).
- If your feet are too far forward (as in the first video example) you won’t be under the bar when you unrack. Since it will force your lower back to work much harder to unrack, the weight will ‘feel’ much heavier than it has to.
- Second example, the lifter’s feet are centered under the bar. It is ‘over the shoe laces’, and the bar pops straight up.
- If you are too far forward, it will be off balance and the weight will pull you backwards awkwardly once it comes out of the rack.
So Stick Man has been working with me on the BFS Book of Techniques
We were talking about unracking the bar…
I’ve found that the sweet spot to unrack powerfully is with the knees in front of the bar and the hips behind the bar in relative balance. If your knees are under or behind the bar it pushes your hips back, eliminates any help from the quads, and turns the unrack into a heavy good morning.
With your hips too far forward, directly under the bar you have less stability.
By tightening your upper back, and breathing and bracing you turn your entire back into a rigid lever which effectively transfers power from your quads and glutes directly to the bar.
A common mistake to avoid is flexing the lumbar to push your hips forward. The entire back should rotate like a lever.
For a full review of squat technique, check out my squat article in the BFS Book of Techniques.
Knee valgus is a common squat issue, particularly with new lifters. The knees tend to cave in as the lifter ascends. I’ve talked about this a lot, and the catastrophic effect it has on your squat form. I’ve been working with lifters on technique and strengthening approaches to help correct the issue.
When it comes to hip extension, the glutes and hamstrings are the monster movers. We don’t think about the adductors (muscles that adduct the hips – pulls knees in). The adductors’ primary purpose is hip adduction, but they are also extensors, and get involved in driving your hips forward as you rise from the ashes known as your squat. When you think about it this way, it makes sense that when the adductors are engaged in the squat that they have a tendency to pull the knees in.
How do you address this issue?
Balance. Balance the engagement of the adductors with engagement of the gluteus medius. The gluteus medius is also a hip extensor. Additionally it helps externally rotate and abduct the hips (knees out).
I’ve been working with a lot of abduction in mobility and warmups for squats, but being a powerlifter, I thought ‘why not find a way to put a heavy load on the abduction movement?’
Cue the hip thruster (and my lifters’ middle fingers). The hip thruster is like a leg press for the ass. You can load it up with weight and still have relatively low impact on the rest of the body. Now shift to a wider stance. This shifts the emphasis from the gluteus maximus to the gluteus medius – the target muscle group to correct knee valgus.
My rules for hip thrusters:
- Proper execution of a set ends with you rolling into the fetal position with baseball sized cramps in your glutes; with the wide stance the baseballs should be in your gluteus medius.
- Hip thrusters are a high volume, high weight lift; I’ve found sets of 10-15 reps with weights similar to your deadlift working weights to be very effective.
- Make sure you’re getting full hip extension.
- Instead setting the bar in the crease of your hips grinding on your hip bones, set your hands on the bar and push it down slightly to rest on the meat of your quad…it’s much less painful.
I’ve touched lately on the benefits the Bulgarian Split Squat (BSS) can bring to your training. One big drawback of the BSS can be balance – some people just have an exceptionally difficult time maintaining their balance well enough to get good, full ROM reps with the BSS through an entire set.
I happened to catch a guy doing split squats on the Smith Press, and a solution clicked right away. Not only is this an actual productive use for the Smith Press, but it can help lifters who shy away from BSS because they cannot maintain their balance. No more excuses!
- Set the bench a full step back behind the press, so you can get a full rep and a deep stretch in the hips and quads at the bottom.
- Drop into the squat until your rear knee points straight downward or lightly touches the floor.
- Even with the smith press’ stability, keep your core tight for stability.
Your long term goal should still be to move to unassisted split squats, but even the most novice lifter should be able to do Smith Press Split Squats.
I was chatting with a fellow lifter this week about common pain lifters encounter. Back pain is one most lifters (and every couch potato) experiences at some point. Barring an actual injury, there are a couple go-tos I use to alleviate lower back pain:
- Foam rolling the glutes, paying particular attention to the gluteus medius: Tight glutes have a tendency to yank on the hip creating tension that causes lower back pain; loosening them up can give a bit of temporary relief.
- Chiropractic treatment: It’s not uncommon for the hips to shift out of alignment giving the abuse we subject our bodies to under the bar. This forces the musculature to tighten up as it tries to stabilize hips resulting in lower back pain.
I mentioned to my buddy that I typically just use these measures as needed, when the pain flares up, but that I hadn’t really used them since…I changed my warmup protocols.
Proper warmups and prehab measures can, prevent pain?
Two protocols in particular have made a significant impact on pain and preparedness for me:
- Banded Side Walks: I’ve added this to the warmup protocol for any lower body training session. Strengthening the gluteus medius has made a tremendous impact in my stability and has improved hip/knee/foot alignment while squatting.
- Bulgarian Split Squats: I do a handful of short sets, usually 3×5, bodyweight split squats. At the bottom of the squat I pause and stretch, pushing the rear leg as deep into the movement as possible, feeling a stretch in the quad around the knee and in the glutes. This movement helps build hip mobility and it also stretches the quads which drastically reduces knee pain.
The increases in mobility and stability created by adding these two lifts to my warmups have profoundly decreased lower back and hip pain, and increased lifting readiness.
The low bar squat has been synonymous with the powerlifting squat for decades. Why? Because (for most individuals) it allows you to move more weight. Why?
- It creates a shorter lever out of the back
- It brings the hips closer to the line of force
- It shifts some of the workload from the quads to the glutes and hamstrings
All of these things translate to a more efficient and powerful squat.
Now that you know the ‘whys’, let’s talk about the hows:
- Bar Position: Generally speaking, a high bar squat places the bar on top of the traps, a low bar squat places the bar on the rear delts. There are lifters who elect to go as low on the back as they can support the weight. My preference is to lock the bar into the groove between the base of the upper traps and the top of the rear delts. This position helps you keep the bar in place limiting its ability to slide down your back.
- Bar Path: As with any squat, the bar path should follow a straight line up and down over your center of gravity (keep it over your shoe laces). With the bar lower on the back, you will have a flatter back angle, so pay attention to make sure you are still hitting depth.
- Keeping the bar in place: The bar may have a tendency to slide, even when nestled between the delts and traps. To help keep it in place: try to pick a straight bar with good knurling in the center (which will scrape the skin off your back), chalk up your t-shirt where the bar will rest, and wear a snug cotton t-shirt that will stay put on your back and give the bar something to grip.
The low bar position can have a tendency to torque on your wrists and elbows. You may need to adjust your grip out a bit wider to alleviate some of the tension, but make sure you still keep your upper back taught.
You can find a more detailed walk through of the low bar squat in my Brute Force Strength Book of Techniques: BFS BoT – Low Bar Squats
They say a BFS Squat Shirt will add 10% to your squat 1RM…
Well…I say it mostly.
It could be a bit of an exaggeration…
I’d like to pick apart my squats and talk about some key points in a good squat. A good walkout sets you up for a solid squat. When I get new lifters in, I probably annoy them early on with my ‘rerack!’ commands, making them redo the walkouts over and over to get it right.
I was spotting in a recent meet, and wanted to make many of those lifters rerack. Some of them took haphazard steps out of the rack, then shifted their feet for four minutes trying to get them ‘perfect’ (ok, to be fair, since you only have one minute to get the ‘squat command’ I’m sure it was something less than four minutes…)
A good walkout goes something like this:
- Start with your feet directly under your hips. This is a very stable and strong position, and you don’t have to shift the weight much to take a step.
- Bring your first foot straight back. It doesn’t have to be a big step, just enough to clear the rack – heel to toe.
- Bring your second foot back and out to the side into your squat stance.
- Shift your first foot straight out to the side into your squat stance.
You should be able to get into your stance with 3 short steps, and adjust your toes if needed. Even in this video, I counted 4 shuffles to adjust my feet…that is at least 2 too many.
A solid setup makes the bar feel much lighter, builds confidence, and preps you for a strong lift.
An important aspect to deadlifting (and any serious lift, really) is FULL BODY TIGHTNESS. There are a couple of things I look for when assessing a deadlift to tell whether a lifter is really tight as she starts the pull:
– Do the shoulders move: When she starts upward, do the shoulders move downward initially as the body rises, until she engages the weight?
– Is there an audible ‘clink’ as the bar engages with the weight before it breaks the floor?
Both of these things indicate the lifter’s body is not tight, and that the lifter is not tight against the bar.
Cue the cues.
My main cue used to be ‘hips down chest up’ as the lifter rocked back into the starting position. The problem with this cue is that there is no instruction to get tight. It leads a lifter to squat to the bar, which in the deadlift creates no tightness whatsoever in the body, nor tension against the bar.
Contrast that with ‘pull yourself in!’
Now you’re not thinking about squatting down to the bar, you’re thinking about gripping the bar and pulling yourself to it. It creates the mental image of tightness, and guides to a tight and powerful setup:
– Grab the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades downward, tightening your entire upper back
– Pull up on the bar, creating upward tension
– Maintain this upward tension and pull yourself in to the bar; if you do it right, you feel tension grow in your quads and your glutes, loading them like a spring.
Now you are tight and ready to explode off the floor!