Having a rock solid back is critical no matter what your fitness goals are.
If you can get strong from the your neck to hips then your performance on almost every movement in the gym will improve. Not only that, you’ll be able to avoid a lot of common injuries that could otherwise cut your fitness career short. This is a lesson that I had to learn the hard way.
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I know the importance of a strong and healthy back because, unfortunately, I was born without one. I didn’t know I had Scoliosis and Spina Bifida when I started CrossFit, and there was no reason to think that living an active, sports-filled life for 22 years would lead to Spondylolisthesis. But like a lot of otherwise strong and fit athletes, I discovered this all at once when I got injured.
I fractured my L-5 vertebrae and collapsed underneath the bar during an otherwise routine set of heavy back squats. There were no clear signs leading up to the injury, like pain or anything like that. I was just working hard to get stronger. But in hindsight it’s easy to see that my back was just not strong and healthy enough to handle the amount of work I was expecting of it.
My recovery started with the basics. I knew that I needed to strengthen my lower back, first and foremost, before getting back into any regular training routine. Once I could perform a few key exercises heavy and without pain, I knew I would be able to lift heavy barbells again. What I discovered is that building a stronger back has allowed me to return to competition better than ever.
If you can make your back stronger, you should.
My 5 Favorite Exercises for a Strong Back
Here are the 5 movements that I used during my recovery and journey back to competitive CrossFit. If you have a weak back, or if you just need to get stronger over all, then you should consider adding some of these movements work into your programming. Your overall lifting performance and fitness will improve, and you’ll reduce the risk of getting hurt.
1. Reverse Hyper-Extentions
This exercise is great for loosening up the back and getting blood flowing. It’s also great for cooling down after a heavy training session. That alone will go a long way towards keeping your back healthy.
Using the Reverse-Hyper Machine
Keep the weight light to moderate and perform 10-15 reps per set. Use a strap and place both feet inside. Tighten your glutes and every posterior chain muscle, then get the weight moving. Extend until the legs are in line with the rest of your body. Allow the momentum of the weight to pull the lever down. Maintain control, but don’t resist the downward swing of the machine. This allows that lower back to be loosened up, and gets the blood flowing to that area of the spine.
Using a glute-ham raise
If you don’t have a reverse-hyper machine you can use a glute ham raise. You won’t be able to go as heavy, but you can essentially accomplish the same goal. Lay backwards and face down over the top of the machine with your hips dangling over the pad. Grab onto the foot hold with your hands. You will perform the same motion as on the reverse-hyper machine. Tighten up the posterior chain and extend until your body is in a straight line, then lower your feet. If the design of the machine allows it, let your feet swing under the pad. Just be sure to leave some space between your feet, otherwise you’ll end up with box jump style shin wounds.
Your Rx: I recommend doing these 3x a week for 3-5 sets of 10-15 reps, after your workouts. Keep the weight light in the beginning until you get a feel for it. The movement should never be painful or sloppy, so drop the weight if it gets to that point.
2. Good Mornings
Good mornings are a great way to gain back strength without a lot of direct pressure and loading. You will also get an incredible pump through your hamstrings and butt with this movement, hence the name. You’ll be sore the next day, trust me.
Start with the barbell in back squat position. Keep a slight bend in your knees, push your hips back slighty, then fold forward until you feel the stretch in your hamstrings. Don’t go too deep. If your back is past parallel to the floor then you’re likely rounding over too much. I keep these very light and with higher reps, 8-10 per set. Adding too much weight to these can be too stressful on a weak lower back, so by keeping it light you will be able to gain strength without pain or risk.
Your Rx: Do these 2-3x a week; 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps works well.
3. Box squats
Traditional back squats with a weak or injured back can be painful. I’ve found that the box squat allows you to sit back further, forcing you to drive up with the hips first. If you can keep your butt from popping up you can really reduce the strain on your low back. Once comfortable you can pull the box and get back to some regular squats. This exercise also quickly strengthens the glute and hamstrings, which is incredible for all around performance.
Set up is the same as your traditional back squat, but you will squat down onto a box that puts you at parallel or just below.
Go straight down and physically sit on the box when you reach it, relaxing your hamstrings and glutes for a count of 3 seconds. Drive with your hips and strand straight up to full extension. This will teach your body to activate and fire your hamstrings and glutes quickly, which is exactly what you want.
Your Rx: I recommend only doing these 1x a week, especially when you are in your recovery stage, or just learning. I also recommend keeping the weight light-moderate in the beginning for sets of 5, until you get used to the movement and monitor the pressure on your back.
4. Hip Bridges
You can’t have a strong back without having strong glutes as well. This exercise goes perfectly with all of the current movements.
Start out by lying down on the floor with your knees bent. Raise your toes up until you have all your pressure on your heels, then drive your hips up toward the ceiling. Extend as much as possible. Control your decent back down to the floor and just gently tap your hips before extending up toward the ceiling again.
You can increase the difficulty of this exercises by doing them single-legged, with your heels up on a bench, or, you can add a barbell or heavy sandbag across your waist.
Your Rx: I recommend doing these 3x a week before your workouts, 2-3 sets of 15-20 is effective. This will activate those glutes and low back and warm them up for the remainder of your workout. If you want to do this movement heavy, do it after your heavy lifting for sets of 5-8.
5. Bird Dogs
Sometimes simple is better. This exercise seems really easy at first, but it will quickly show you if you have a weak back and core within just a few reps.
Start on all fours. Keep the spine neutral during the whole movement and never allow the chest to drop, or the hips to elevate. Keep flat. Now, extend your opposite arm and leg into a fully straight position, and then return to the neutral starting position.
Your Rx: I recommend doing these 3-4x a week in sets of 10-15 reps before your workouts. This is a simple exercise that will bring you a lot of great core stability and activation before your regular training.
Go do it
The most important thing to remember when trying to strengthen your lower back is keep a neutral spine. If you go through the motions with poor core position and activation then you won’t be doing yourself any favors. Load is important, but you have to stay in position.
Building a strong back will help you improve performance in Crossfit, Weightlifting, Powerlifting, you name it, but it will also enable you to lead an active, full, pain-free life. Yes, even if you’ve been injured.
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This article is amazing! I have had a spinal fusion from having the same exact injuries as Lindy and have never been able to find any information about working out with this problem. Its so inspiring to see that there is someone else out there who overcame this issue and didn’t stop legitimately working out. I can’t believe she’s able to lift and be so strong with those issues. This article is ridiculously cool! Thanks for all this info!
make it technique wod, please
This is a great article! It can be used by athletes from all backgrounds. The bird-dog exercise was really helpful for my own back injury. A progression I really like for it involves therabands. Take two therabands and make a loop on each end. Place the loop of one theraband around your foot and the other loop around your contralateral hand. Do the same with the other theraband and other foot/hand. Complete the exercise as normal. Of course, proper form should come before using bands or moving up in band strength. Isometric holds at the top are also another way to progress this exercise.
I have a lumbar herniated disk since I was 17 years old (around 2007). It was horrible, I went to the hospital and then the doctor gave me a kind of a corset, so my back was straight. Then, after a month, I had to go to swimming therapies to recover my back and also with a fisiotherapist.
I only run and did aerobic exercises, and I remember when I saw a video of crossfit. It was the 2013 regionals and somehow it was a women event. Then I saw you not dropping the bar and the sports commentator saying “her doctor said you will never squat again” and that’s how I started to like Crossfit.
Since then, I’ve been figuring out how to get into the gym to lift heavy weights just as you did.
Thank you Lindy! Love your article.
You’re a big inspiration for many people, including me.
[…] Lindy has done very well so far in her Crossfit career, despite a big time back injury. […]