by Thomas Kurz
“Young athletes … can reduce their risk [of back injury] by strengthening muscles in the abdomen, as well as hip flexors and other muscles that support the back…. Typically, however, coaches prefer to focus … on muscles needed for the sport instead of on injury prevention.”—Dr. James L. Moeller, chairman of sports medicine at William Beaumont Hospital in Troy, Michigan.1
While the above quote deals with lower back injuries in young athletes, it well applies to prevention of any injuries and for athletes of any age. This is what I have been telling you in several articles and books on sports training.
In the previous article you have learned about the easiest exercises for the abdomen and lower back. Those exercises, especially the lower back exercises, are not enough to build as much strength as it takes to counterbalance the kicking muscles attached at the front of your spine and to stabilize your lower back. They only prepare you for the more intensive and more functional strength exercises for the lower back—such as the good morning and the deadlift. Both these lifts are very similar to movements that happen in everyday life and in fighting. The good morning is similar to taking something heavy on your shoulders, straightening up, and then putting it down—like loading and unloading bags of flour. A deadlift is what you do when you lift something heavy off the ground. In the case of fighting, one of the ways to deal with someone who pulls you down to the ground or has you on the “guard” is to lift up the opponent—a movement like a deadlift and a power clean—and slam him or her to the ground.
Good Morning. Place the bar balanced evenly behind your shoulders on top of your shoulder blades at the base of the neck. (Initially you can use just a broomstick and then an empty bar.) Grasp the bar using an overhand grip. Stand upright. As you are learning this lift your feet should be between shoulder-width and hip-width apart. Later, you can try different widths—from feet together to wider than the shoulder-width.
Lean forward from the hips until your trunk is parallel with the floor. Make sure your whole spine, from the lower back to the neck, feels “straight”—keeps its normal, natural curves just like when you are standing upright—so the movement occurs mainly in your hip joints. Rounding the lower back can overstretch its muscles and ligaments and cause a lifetime of back pain. Do not arch your neck much. Before leaning forward look straight ahead and at the end of the forward lean look at the ground a yard or less in front of your feet.
In the standard form of the good morning you bend your knees slightly—so they are not locked. In the advanced form of the good morning, you keep your knees straight.
Width of feet placement can vary depending on where you want to feel the stretch and tension during the lift.
Good morning lift
Your breathing pattern depends on the weight of the bar. With light weights it is possible to inhale as you lean forward and exhale as you straighten up the trunk. With heavy weights you have to inhale before leaning forward and hold your breath until your trunk is horizontal, then exhale as you raise your trunk.
The “light” weights—those you can lift without holding your breath—can be substantial, more than two-thirds of your body weight. Lifting more in a good morning makes little sense as the risk of injury begins to outweigh benefits of this exercise and further strengthening of your lower back can be done with deadlifts.
To ease yourself into the movement, do initial repetitions in the first set of the good morning by bending your knees as you lean forward so your thighs end up nearly parallel to the floor and your rib cage nearly touches them at the end of the downward movement. This looks like a bad squat in which you leaned forward instead of keeping your trunk up. As you feel warmed up by these “incorrect” good mornings you change to the proper from. Perform the movements at a slow pace to avoid back problems.
Here is a short video with instructions on good mornings:
Good morning lift–the standard form and the advanced form
Deadlift (bending-leg or powerlifting, and stiff-leg). Stand with your feet not more than a shoulder-width apart. Bend your trunk forward at the hips and bend your knees slightly. Your whole spine, from the lower back to the neck, must be “straight”—just as when you are standing upright—with normal, natural curves. Grab the barbell with alternating grip (one hand palm forward, the other hand palm backward). In the lowest position look at the ground in front of your feet and as you raise up do not arch your neck. Keep your head in a neutral position, do not even let your chin jut forward. If you lift your head back, the arched (hyperextended) neck vertebrae will be pulled during the lift by very strongly tensed muscles at the back of your neck and that can cause you neck pains. Inhale, tense your abdomen to support your spine, and exhale as you lift the bar by straightening your hip joints to rotate your pelvis upward, keeping your trunk stiff . At the end of the straightening up, pull your shoulders up and back to counter the hunching of your upper back by the weight of the heavy barbell. After straightening up, lower the bar to the floor as you inhale. Let it hit the floor. Exhale as you lift it up. With very heavy weights, hold your breath during lifting and exhale when you are erect.
Do not round your back—as your pelvis rotates up, a rounded back’s muscles are stretched under a great load, can be strained, and allow the back’s ligaments to get overstretched. It is important not to exaggerate the usual arch of your lower back either. If you arch back your spine before rotating the pelvis you will squash together joints of your lower back (facet joints) and likely get muscle spasm.
Stiff-leg deadlifts and good mornings increase the range of forward flexion in your hips and at the same time strengthen muscles of the lower back, buttocks, and hamstrings. To that end use weights light enough to let you move through the full range of motion.
When you can deadlift in perfect form more than your body’s weight, consider doing it fast, bouncing the bar off the floor. (The floor has to have a springiness in it for this way of doing the deadlift.) For either bending-leg or stiff-legged deadlift you will dive with the weight, slam it into the floor and catch it as it bounces up. Do this to help your back keep its natural curves. If you lower a very heavy bar gently and then lift it, your lower back is likely to round and you can sprain its ligaments. The bouncing deadlift gives the type of strength useful for snatching an opponent from the ground.
Lifting heavy weights (around twice your body weight) in this bouncing method, you may have to change your breathing pattern. In this case you will inhale briefly at the beginning of the way down; then hold your breath for the rest of the way down, during the bounce, and on the way up again; and finally exhale at the top.
You will find step-by-step instructions on deadlifts (and on squats) for both strength and flexibility on Flexibility Express DVD. Here is a short teaser for that DVD:
My rule of thumb for back strength is lifting comfortably at least twice your body weight in the deadlift. Some may consider this excessive, especially people familiar with conditioning programs for grapplers, but kicking is not grappling. A grappler’s back and pelvis are not subjected to such explosive forces as those generated by powerful kicks. When you kick “empty air” the muscles of your lower back and pelvis tense very hard to launch your leg and then have to suddenly stop it. Every time you kick a bag the reaction force comes back to you. If your muscles are not capable of stabilizing your pelvis and lower back as those forces act on them, you become a back-pain case.
Another benefit of good mornings and deadlifts is increasing bone density. Weight-bearing exercises such as deadlifts, squats, cleans, shoulder presses, and overhead presses that involve many muscle groups and direct the force vectors through the spine, hips, and shoulder girdle are the best means to increase bone density. The effectiveness of these exercises for bone building cannot be matched by resistance training on Universal-type machines—see the article “Machines and Gizmos vs. Natural Exercises.”
In all strength exercises increase resistance at such a rate as to perform the exercises while breathing naturally, with calm abdominal breaths, without holding the breath. You are not a weightlifter or a powerlifter and your task is not to beat records at lifting weights. You lift weights to develop strength for kicking and punching.
How much weight should you begin with? With the minimal amount that increases strength. For beginners (either young athletes or adults who never did serious strength training), the strength increase does not depend on the amount of resistance as long as that resistance is more than the minimum required for the training effect. That minimum may start at more than 20% of their personal best. More information on amounts of resistance and frequency of workouts is in chapter 6, “Strength” of the book Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance (Kurz 2001).
Such heavy-duty lifts as good mornings and deadlifts need to be done in only 2–3 sets of 6–12 repetitions, twice a week. Do these at the end of your strength workout, deadlifts before good mornings. After the good mornings you can do abdomen crunches. Sit-ups and other hip flexor exercises fit better before the deadlifts.
Training Tips of the Article
- In the good morning and deadlift both, your whole spine, from the lower back to the neck, must be “straight”—just as when you are standing upright—with normal, natural curves.
- In all strength exercises increase resistance at such a rate as to perform the exercises while breathing naturally, with calm abdominal breaths, without holding your breath.
In the next article you will learn about squats. Squats are the most effective overall strength exercises with great benefits—from strengthening knee ligaments, increasing your whole body’s strength and bone mass, to enlarging the rib cage.
1 Ira Dreyfus, “Training may cause teen stress fractures,” The Burlington Free Press Monday, January 7, 2002, p. 2C Health
This article is based on the book Science of Sports Training: How to Plan and Control Training for Peak Performance and on the video Flexibility Express. Get the book and the video now and have all of the info—not just the crumbs! Order now!
If you have any questions on training you can post them at Stadion’s Sports and Martial Arts Training Discussion Forum