Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to round your lower back.
“Lift with you legs, not your back.”
“Keep a flat back.”
“Spinal flexion is BAD.”
In an industry that is very divided in regards to training theory, “not rounding the back” is one idea that is widely accepted among personal trainers and strength coaches. The idea is that by maintaining the natural curve to the spine, one will protect the discs from injury by evenly distributing the compressive forces on the discs.
The idea is valid, and I do recommend maintaining a neutral spine for weighted exercises such as barbell squats, standing overhead pressing, and most deadlift and goodmorning variations. However, the drawback to always training with the lumbar vertebrae in a neutral or arched position is that you will gradually develop stiffness in the lower back and you will likely not have much strength when the back is placed in a flexed position. Being strong in only a limited range of motion and having compromised mobility creates a higher risk for injury than being weak overall but having good mobility. (Trust me, I know from first-hand experience!)
Stiff + Strong = Increased risk for injury
My theory behind this is that while you may have a lot of strength within a small range of motion, if you are forced beyond that range of motion, your connective tissue and muscles will be exposed to a magnitude of tension that they are not conditioned to handle, which is when tears, strains, and sprains occur.
The reality is that most people will round and twist their spines at some point when they are not in the controlled setting of a gym training session. The demands that sports, outdoor activities, manual labor (i.e. all of those activities that you are training for in the first place!) put on the body are unpredictable, so it makes logical sense that one would want to prepare their body for those situations. What does that mean? We have to train the lower back in a rounded position.
What if I have back pain now?
Before I continue, let me state that if you are in the early stages of recovering from a spinal disc injury, doing rounded-back is most likely not appropriate at this time. You have to get through the initial healing process before you are ready to begin doing more aggressive strength training.
On the other hand, if you are someone who is currently experiencing back pain due chronic poor posture or inactivity, the origin of the pain is most likely in the surrounding musculature, not in the spinal erectors themselves. The glutes, quadratus lumborum, psoas, rectus femoris, hamstrings, piriformis, and lats are some of the more common areas of tightness that when loosened, will help to alleviate back pain. I recommend spending sufficient time stretching these areas before doing targeted low-back strengthening.
Incorporating the Jefferson Curl
Now that we have gone over many of the reasons for training the low back in a rounded position, let’s talk about a great exercise to get you started. The Jefferson curl (Possibly invented by the old-time strongman Charles Jefferson? If someone knows for sure let me know!) Is an exercise that targets the spinal erectors, especially the lumbar portion.
Here are the key points to the Jefferson curl:
- Assess your range of motion using your body weight only. If you are very stiff, your focus will be to increase your range of motion before you add weight. Sometimes, however, someone who is very stiff may need a light weight to create a sufficient stretch. Use your best judgment.
- Be sure to emphasize spinal flexion in the cervical and thoracic vertebrae by tucking the chin down and rounding the upper back.
- Keep your arms relaxed and let your shoulders protract. This will help you feel a stretch in the upper and mid back as well.
- Try to not let the hips move backwards as you are curling the spine down.
- Maintain a posterior pelvic tilt with the tailbone tucked under for as long as possible.
- Go slow, especially when you are getting used to the movement.
- Progressively increase the weight as you get comfortable with the movement. A mistake people make with these “injury-proofing” sorts of exercises is never actually getting stronger with them, and instead only using them as a warm-up. I think this is a big mistake and severely limits the usefulness of the exercise. The Jefferson curl can be loaded quite heavy IF you are patient and intelligent with your progression. So far I have worked up to 100lbs for 6 reps but I still have a ways to go. Think about it this way: would it make sense to continue getting stronger in every other exercise while your Jefferson curl weight stays the same?
There are many other effective exercises for strengthening the spinal erectors in a dynamic fashion, but the Jefferson curl is a great starting point if you need improve your range of motion first.
Give it a try in your workouts and let me know how it goes!