When in doubt…

…train your back(side).

"Backs are to lifters what biceps are to bodybuilders"

The famous IronMind poster is more than just an end-goal. It signifies the process of successful lifting. The back can collectively start at the upper traps which flow down into the spine of the scapula (the sideways ridge on your shoulder blade). The middle and lower traps (attaching all the way down to the last thoracic vertebrae) flow up and attach along that same position as well. Then, the rhomboids hold the medial (inside) border of the scapulae to the spine. The rear deltoids could be considered part of the back as well, and they attach along the spine of the scapula over the important external shoulder rotators (which are primarily located along different aspects of the scapula). However, it’s the middle/lower traps, lats (which attach anywhere from the iliac crest — rear hip area — to the mid thoracic area and funnel into an insertion on the medial aspect of the proximal humerus, or upper arm bone), and erector spinae muscles (i.e. spinal erectors) that attach along the vertebral column.

What It All Does
That collection of musculature has the primary of function of holding the trunk in proper alignment and posture during lifting. The upper back muscles maintain good thoracic extension during squatting, pressing, and deadlifting and they hold the scapulae together and maintain shoulder position on the bench. The lower back muscles hold the pelvis in place to allow for a stretch on the hamstrings during squats (specifically the low bar variation), deadlifts, RDLs, rack pulls, and other pulling movements. The back and hamstrings are so finely integrated that many movements train both at the same time. However, this area of the body is largely neglected because it can’t be seen easily in the mirror.

Training Inclusion
Most training sessions, especially for less experienced lifters, should include a squat, a press, and a pulling movement. If you are worry about your back and hamstring strength or development, then it’s already too late. This should be the proudest area of your body as it will set you apart from others, balance your physique, and so effectively contribute to your lifting that most of everything else will improve along with the front of your physique. If you don’t currently include RDLs or a horizontal rowing movement, sprinkle them in your training week (this advice applies to any general strength trainee as well as powerlifters that aren’t tapering for a meet).

Other Indicators of Back/Hamstring Weakness
Some glaring indicators of requiring improved strength and musculature in the back and hamstrings include, but are not limited to dropping the chest in any movement, the torso tipping forward out of the bottom of a squat or at the start of a deadlift, a weak second pull in the Olympic lifts, and the knees scooping forward under the bar on heavy deadlift lockouts. While you may be able to get by with these inefficient mechanics, sooner or later you will reach a point that is too limited by your lack of back or hamstring strength that it must be addressed before progress can continue.

Short on time?
Lastly, if you are ever limited in your training time then make an effort to train your back, even if you neglect squatting. The back and hamstrings sometimes are so limiting for some trainees that accumulated work is necessary over time to develop them to improve the foundation lifts (squat, press, bench, and deadlift). Using RDLs as opposed to squats or deadlifts will be a good substitute when feeling overtrained, coming back from sickness, or easing back into training after a rough travel or work schedule. Furthermore, by getting the upper back musculature stronger and thicker, all upper body movements are reinforced and subsequently strengthened.

Making the upper back and hamstrings strong doesn’t have to be a soul draining experience. Lifts that improve these areas are easy to add into existing programs and might even need to maintain priority on those constrained training sessions. Rest assured, if you’re already doubting the strength or size of your backside, then you’re already in a deficiency — but it’s never too late to start.

Here are some more videos from the Australia trip that have nothing to do with building an impressive back.
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30 thoughts on “When in doubt…

  1. “this area of the body is largely neglected because it can’t be seen easily in the mirror.”

    Truth. Same goes for why people drive $40k cars that would perform like a tin can in a crash instead of a Volvo, but I digress.

    What do you think of the relative benefits of bent over barbell rows (I think sometimes called Pendlay Rows— these ones http://www.davedraper.com/pmwiki/uploads//PmWiki/row3.jpg) vs. RDLs?

    I don’t know what you’re asking me since the barbell row is a mid and upper back movement while the RDL would have a focus on the hamstrings and a bit on the low back. The posterior chain stress from the row would be either significant or very small.

    I currently do the former once a week (on TM volume day) but never do RDLs. I’ve always thought of the BBRow as the reverse of the bench press, so I do it when I bench with the same grip width. I’m up to 220 lbs on that (bench is 250lbs)

    Excellent informative post.

    And RDLs can be a game changer for a lot of people when done correctly.

    –Justin

  2. I definitely feel myself drifting forward in the hole. Any other movements for improving hammy strength for the squat? Wide stance box squats perhaps? Or just stick to RDLs?

    No, not the squats you mentioned at all. Specifically targeting the hamstrings to extend the hip from the proximal end is the best thing you can do, and that’s what RDLs do (when they are done correctly). I wouldn’t recommend wide or box squats for any raw lifter, especially those who are in the standard experience level that view this site.

    –Justin

  3. Justin, what’s your take on the value of GHRs?

    I’d prefer the RDL over them since the upper portion of the GHR is kind of a distal hamstring thing, but they aren’t bad. Also reverse hypers are quality, and they would be used before GHR but after RDLs if the lifter was healthy. If back problems were present, reverse hypers can help quite a bit with that.

    –Justin

  4. @tescott I started doing GHRs a few weeks ago and already feel a significant improvement in my squat/hamstring strength. The key is doing them correctly and not cheating. Elitefts has good videos on how to do them properly. Definitely curious about Justin’s opinion on them tho.

    Yeah, like I said, they aren’t bad. Any hamstring work is better than no hamstring work. There’s a specific reason I’d prefer RDLs, and I’ll talk about it in a later post (will probably need to do a video since it goes with a drawing).

    –Justin

  5. I have a friend who boosted his squat 50 lbs by doing GHRs. My gym doesn’t have a machine though. Anyone have this issue and found a good way to do them?

    Doing them on a bench with someone sitting on your lower leg (above the foot) is one way. Hooking your heels or ankles underneath a portion of the rack. There are various Macgyver methods.

    –Justin

  6. “Start the reactor, QQQQQUUUUAAAAAIIIIDDDDD!”
    Maslow, I have seen some caveman style GHRs whereby you anchor your heels under a railing, put a towel under your knees and get to flexin’.

    http://youtu.be/vBh01L9MlkY

    Try to ignore Maxwells all around goofyness as he is a pretty stout bodyweight athlete, BJJ master, and owner of a hot younger wife at an advanced age of 55.

  7. Another variation for dat ass…(no, literally in the posterior chain sense of the word.)

    http://youtu.be/Wfu_cqHZBGs

    Yeah, this is what I was talking about Maslow. I will point out there is proximal calf stress in this movement as well. And, to reiterate, I’ll point out that this is largely distal hamstring work which won’t help with squatting or the second pull in the O-lifts as much as a proximal hamstring strengthener. But for most, some hamstring work is better than none, blah blah.

    –Justin

  8. http://www.westside-barbell.com/westside-articles/PDF.Files/03PDF/Training%20The%20Back.pdf

    The Article is “Training the Back” by Loui Simmons.

    http://www.westside-barbell.com/westside-articles/articles2008/lowerback_june08.pdf

    Then “Lower Back Training.”

    It seems like the vast majority of supplemental and assistances exercises done at westside are for either the back or the triceps. Say what you will about high squatting in multi-ply suits, but those boys can Bench and Deadlift like nobody’s business.

  9. I want to second Maslow. I am doing the Lascek Strength and Conditioning program and have substituted the Power cleans with Bent over rows. Are these helpful for back strength?

    I just wrote a post on them, bro.

    –Justin

  10. Penn, do we look like we have time to read a bunch of incoherent bullshit written by Louie “Bakbakbabkbak” Simmons? Crickey.

    Also, good article Justin, I think I needed to read this. Should RDLs be done heavy enough to require a belt and/or straps?

    If you need a belt for RDLs, then you’re doing them wrong. Could probably say the same for the straps, but they will be more comfortable with straps. Nobody here (with a few exceptions) should really be doing 225 on RDLs unless they had been doing them for at least a month, and not many people will be getting in the 250, 275, and 300 lbs region. Reference the RDL post — too much knee flexion defeats the purpose of it.

    –Justin

    –Justin

  11. “You’re a cunt, that’s a good one.” lol

    @ Jake Briskin – is your criticism of Simmons simple trolling or is it legitimate? I have heard Simmons criticized by several people and I was curious why…

    He’s typically criticized for kind of rambling, and he writes how he speaks. Since he trains exceptionally strong and experienced powerlifters who are usually taking drugs, the specifics usually don’t apply. However, there are concepts that you can take and apply into lower forms of training (like you can do with any coach or system).

    –Justin

  12. @ Jake Briskin, yes. You’re posting on the internet at 2:37 in the afternoon during the work day. I would guess that you do have time to spare. And I thought maybe someone might be interested in the kind of back training that has produced 18 800+ pound deadlifters.

    You can see in this video that Even Ben Claridad isn’t afraid to test the waters and box squat with one of Loui’s pupils, Mark Bell.

    It never hurts to read more material. Considering Jake studies literature, he probably finds the writing of Louie soul draining, and I can’t really blame him for that.

    –Justin

  13. Justin –

    Do you think you’ll be back in California again this year for a workshop, or probably not?

    Yes, if someone will have me.

    –Justin

  14. I’ve been tipping in the squat out of the hole for ages and doing so with relatively light weights. With a 500 deadlift I never thought the limiting musculature was on my backside. Recently I started doing more RDLs and GHRs (on a GHD)and added a yoke bar to the mix and am finally making progress on the squat. I’m a fan. Besides, without ample back training, how does one put together a decent T-Nation avatar? It’s science.

    I lol’d.

    –Justin

  15. I never really had a complete grasp on how to do a proper RDL and why it was different from a Stiff-Legged Deadlift until Rip posted this vid on the Starting Strength site.

    http://startingstrength.com/index.php/site/platform_the_rdl

    Now it all makes sense.

    I recently completed my first powerlifting meet and I felt very slow out of the bottom of my squats, so I’m gonna put more emphasis on hamstring work. I’m working RDLs in as support work on Squat day and Good Mornings on Deadlift day.

    I didn’t watch the whole video (it’s long), but it is comprehensive.

    –Justin

  16. the older russian oly programming stuff I have is a big fan of good mornings, standing, seated on bench, and seated on floor. Interesting concepts, but they all seem to help. I like RDL’s a lot though, some of the more modern programming has a lot of them as sort of a rehab exercise at the end of a session, with 70-80% of C&J used.

    That’s not really rehab weight. For me, that’s about 120, which is 264. If I were to progress quickly beyond 110kg, it wouldn’t be very effective.

    –Justin

  17. also, the older russian stuff has a lot of btn snatch grip pressing, both standing and in a squat (sots press). These exercises produce next level upper back soreness if you never have tried them before, especially when in a squat.

  18. Justin where’s this barbell row article? Can’t find it boss! Is it something you just wrote and haven’t posted, or something you just wrote and posted recently making me a complete idiot for not being able to find it?

    What are you referencing and what are you looking for?

    If you search “pendlay rows” online you can find how to do them, if that’s what you needed. I haven’t written a post or done a video yet.

    –Justin

  19. I just got home from the gym and did 3×5 RDL’s with 135lbs and my hammies are burnin! I’m going to try to get these in once a week and just progress slow and steady with them. I have really long arms, so the weight touched the ground a few times, but other than that I think I did a pretty decent job with them for my first time trying.

  20. Hey Justin I was referring to this:

    “I want to second Maslow. I am doing the Lascek Strength and Conditioning program and have substituted the Power cleans with Bent over rows. Are these helpful for back strength?

    I just wrote a post on them, bro.

    –Justin”

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  23. Doing the S&C program; when would you incorporate RDLs? I’m leaning forward on my squats out of the hole. Thanks brah

    Opposite end of the week from deadlift. Tuesday would work.

    –Justin

  24. hey, it’s nathan from CFM

    so my back injury is doing better, i’m lifting close to my old PR’s (237 clean on monday)

    anyway, my back still hurts pretty good from day to day so I don’t train any pulling outside of the classic lifts twice a week . I’ve experimented with RDLs but they seem to make my back health worse

    What do I do :(((

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