Shrugged Collective

How to build a bulletproof back

My brain works like in the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” Except instead of mathematics and hallucinations, all I can see relates back to strength training.

I’ll be at the mall with my family, assessing random people’s posture, how they position their feet, how they pick things up, all of it. And of course, I watch all of my athletes compete in their chosen sports: Football, Basketball, Wrestling, Swimming too.

I pay attention to every move because that’s what it takes to build strong athletes.


There are a few movements and positions that I always prioritize. Above all, you’ll hear me coaching to keep a flat back on everything from picking up a 20-pound dumbbell to ripping a 400-pound deadlift. But as a Coach, I know this –  Nothing is absolute in sports and competition.

There is NO such thing as a perfect world, or a perfect competition where each part of the body will always be in perfect position. Understanding that is key. How do you program for an athlete that WILL eventually get put into an “Oh shit!” body position?

Through many years of experience, I’ve learned that, even when a position is technically dangerous, we CAN strengthen that athlete both mentally and physically. In the imperfect position, we can reduce chances of injury, doubt, fear, and failure. This is why I love to use odd objects in my training. They put you into many different awkward positions when done properly, but they also require you to remain tight and stable during every inch of every repetition.

Don’t miss Zach on Episode 104 of Barbell Shrugged. 


This is very important to understand – A loose round-back position is much different than a tight round-back position. The key is to train the body and mind to have strength and confidence in that awkward position. I train the round back through lifting odd objects off the ground.

My absolute favorite implements are stones of every size and shape, large medicine balls, sandbags and really big tires. Here’s a little sample of what it all looks like.

Train under imperfect conditions.


It’s important to build big and strong athletes, but they also have to understand just how and why they need to be strong in awkward positions. The secret is to emphasize that the best starting position is always a flat back, using legs and back together to lift, hips down and chest tall.

This is the starting point, but that said, not everyone is ready for sandbags, tire flips, keg carries, stone shouldering and loading. Not everyone has the requisite strength to keep tight and round. In short, you have to EARN the right to perform these exercises by building a strong, flat back first.

Here are my staple movements:

  • Deadlifts of all types. The more variation, the better.
  • Clean and press variations with barbells, but also dumbbells, kettlebells and even stones. Make time to use 1-arm.
  • The more back extensions and glute-ham raises you accumulate, the better.
  • Heavy rowing with free weights, particularly supinate barbell rows.

Your typical ass-kicking strength workout from Zach.


When you begin implementing odd objects that push the body into awkward positions, cycle them in and out of training to avoid the overuse of a rounded back.

As a general rule, push your training for about 3 weeks. Make all the progress you can. Then, take a break for a week and switch to another object. The key is to be strong and bulletproof when the shit hits the fan, NOT to crush yourself in training.

That will only result in injury and shitty results, believe me.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.35.42 AMCheck out Zach’s system, “Underground Strength Evolution.”


Always fight to keep your back flat. But, when the time comes to fight and compete, be prepared and capable of pushing the limits.

If you have questions just leave them in the comments below. I’d love to help you get stronger.

Live the code,



To learn more…

For more great articles from Zach Even-esh…

Mike Bledsoe


  • Love the concept of odd object lifting. As a staff in our collegiate setting we use things like sandbag carries and KB farmer’s walks often at the end of the workout as a challenge set and for mental toughness. Do you try to incorporate the odd objects into the workout, say in a circuit style, or do you typically save it for the end and finish with a couple sets of carries, walks, presses, etc? Just wondering if you have seen it work within the workout as well or if too much odd lifting exhausts the energy system for the end.

    Thanks and keep up the work.

    • I pinged Z. He’ll be on to answer.

      You can finish with it, but you can certainly work strength with odd objects. That would possibly work best if you’re lucky enough to have incremental loads, or adjustable equipment.

      • Buddha Master – TRUTH.

        Some people ONLY have a light tire or a light sandbag….. If that’s the case, it will need to be used for reps or as the “dynamic effort” method.

        I remember training Lehigh this past winter, the Football weight room had lots of tires outside, most were very tall and weighed about 350 – 450 or so.

        That’s not very heavy so let’s say I started a workout like this w/ those guys AFTER a warm up:

        1A) Power Clean + Hang Clean 5 x 1 + 1

        1B) Box Jump 5 x 2

        1C) Plyo Push Ups 5 x 2

        2A) Tire Flips 3 x 3

        2B) Battle Ropes 3 x 15 / 15 (2 exercises at 15 reps each)

        2C) Dumbbell Farmer Walk 3 x 150 ft.

        3A) Bulgarian SPlit Squats 3 x 6 / 6 (holding dumbbells)

        3B) Back Extensions 3 x 15

        3C) Power Curls 3 x 6 – 8

        4) Abs / Grip Finisher

        It changes often, and, not just according to equipment available, but also to what that athlete specifically needs.

    • Justin, great questions.

      It depends on the athlete (s).

      Some athletes are in need of more odd object work for mental toughness so sometimes those athletes go all in for a session with tire flips, keg and sandbag work.

      I am a VERY intuitive Coach, so I never have a problem removing or adding stuff from my “white board” on the fly.

      But, in a nut shell, odd objects can be either:

      – main lift

      – finishers

      Both of the above options work.

      I might even do a podcast answering these questions more thoroughly to help you guys understand more so.

      • Z & Buddha – thanks for the response guys! This is definitely something I am going to try and mix in with some of our turf workouts. Appreciate the time and look forward to reading more.

  • Keep seeing folks recommend barbell rows and single arm/leg lifts. Need to keep these incorporated into my programming. Awesome article, Zach.

    • Yes. ALL lifters and sport athletes MUST use unilateral lifting.

      It is great for creating greater balance, reducing injuries and adds atheticism.

      Sometimes our unilateral lift is our MAIN lift such as a dumbbell clean and press, where you can move some damn heavy weight!

  • Great article. Proud owner of Underground Strength book!

    Why supinated rows? Supinated rows only when doing barbell rows, or mix in consistently with overhand rows on the barbell?

    • The idea is that you probably already use a pronated grip most of the time with barbells. If you don’t train supinated, you’ll have a very weak grip. See Shrugged episode 190 for more information.

    • Yes, MOST people never get away from pronated chins.

      EVERY set of pull ups we do at The Underground gets a different grip. EVERY SET.

      Neutral, pronated, supinated, mixed grip, holding ropes, holding hand grenades, finger tips and more.

      This helps avoid overuse injuries.

      Remember, I train primarily sport athletes, MUCH of their sports movements are repetitive and add stress more and more as each season and year passes by.

      The healthiest athletes are often the most successful!

  • I agree with your belief that you should encourage incorporating diversity and variation in your routine, such as with deadlifts or kettlebells. This not only helps with breaking past plateaus, but also makes training more fun and interesting. Nice article.

  • When I first started getting serious about lifting again a year and a half ago, I did tons of loaded carries and trap bar deadlifts before I tried to deadlift with a barbell. Besides that, mastering intra-abdominal pressure is a big key to lifting heavy without injury.

    • Oh, and as a side benefit, if you hang on to the loaded carry as long as you can at the end until your forearm(s) are just absolutely on fire, your grip strength will go through the roof. I almost never have my hook grip fail on a deadlift.

  • Would you reccommend doing a trap bar deadlift if using high volume of deadlifts in your training to minimise stress to the lower back?

  • I love these methods of training but haven’t Implement them into my workouts since Ive crossfitted way back when. Im mostly into weightlifting. Im coming back from a back injury (auto accident) and found that my back is weak since ive babied it for over year. Now when i squat or snatch I end up with a sore back even with good form. I found tons of bodybuilding workouts online for bigger back, but i believe i would benefit more from this type of workout. Can you give me a few back workouts i can do throughout the week for a stronger back, especially lower.
    Keep up all the Awesome work! Wish id found your site years back.

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