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Lower Back Safety
By Dr. Greg Shepard
Published: Winter 1996

Lower back injuries have caused many, many athletes to miss games and or seasons. These types of injuries have, in some cases, ended careers. Many times a muscle spasm in the lower back will occur just from bending over to pick up a ball. Lower back injuries can happen anyplace and at anytime. Almost all lower back injuries are avoidable and yet they seem to be the nemesis of our American society. When I see an athlete with a lower back injury, two thoughts immediately cross my mind: One, the athlete or coach simply did not know what to do; or two, the athlete or coach refused to do what he was supposed to do. 

Injury prevention of the lower back depends on two factors. First, every athlete must know how to get into a safe, strong lower back position not only in the weight room but on the field as well. This is the most overlooked area of coaching in the 1990's. The vast majority of coaches will never help their athletes with their lower backs. I see it everyday. Don't believe me? Okay, go watch a coach at any level working with kids from grade school to high school. Watch him when he gets the kids in lines to do a wave or shuffle drill. He will say "ready" and they will get into a "hit" or "ready position". Then he will have them shuffle right and then left. You will hear him say "don't cross your feet" but you will never see him fix those many horrible lower backs prevalent in every group of athletes. You must know how to fix an athlete's lower back to be a superior coach! 

The second factor in preventing lower back injuries is strengthening the lower back and abdominal area.  Straight Leg Dead Lifts can have a remarkably positive effect in strengthening the lower back.  Performing Squats, Trap Bar Lifts, and Cleans correctly can add great strength to the lower back.  These exercises can also make the abdominals extremely strong although specific "Ab" work can be done in addition.

Important Tips:  Never twist out of position at any time during any lift.  Twisting can cause lower back injuries.  Do not twist to get an extra rep or twist to get out of a Bench Press like most athletes.  Read your body and make a great decision when selecting a poundage.  If you put on a weight that you are not ready for, the risk is higher for injury.  Never sacrifice technique for a few extra pounds. 


The first step for a coach would be to get all his athletes lined up in a "Ready" or "Hit" position and analyze each athlete's lower back position.  The athletes that look like Luther Elliss in Figure 1 obviously need to be corrected.  (Elliss, 6-5, 300, is a star Defensive Tackle for the Detroit Lions.)

The easiest way to correct this lower back problem is to sit the athlete on a bench or a BFS Squat Box as pictured in Figure 2.  I am pointing at Luther's bad back.  Then, all you have to do is say the magic words: Sit Tall and Spread the Chest.  This will dramatically assist the athlete in locking-in his lower back.  Sometimes you may actually have to mold the athlete into the correct position.  Do not accept anything less than perfect.  It should look exactly like Luther in Figure 3.  Sometimes an athlete will have trouble even after using the magic words and trying to mold him into the correct position.  For these hard cases, kick them out and send them back to mama.  Just kidding!  Tell them to lean forward a little bit with their upper body and bring their shoulders or shoulder blades back.  Mold them into the correct position by pressing in on their lower back and pulling back on their shoulders.  Always continue to tell them to "spread the chest" and to "sit tall".

When the athlete can get his lower back looking great on the box or bench, then he can try the "ready" position again.  Hopefully, he will now look like Luther in Figures 4 & 5.  If the athlete reverts back to a bad back, you must have him return to the box.  However, this time, have him get into a bad position and then say "fix it".  Fix it means spread the chest and sit tall.  If he can "fix it" correctly, now say "bad back" and have him make his back bad.  Then say "good back" and see if he can fix it and make it good.  If this goes well, repeat this process three to five times.  Probably only one-in-a-thousand will still have trouble after all this technique effort. 

A quick method to fix backs can be done with a dowel or bar as shown by Luther in Figures 6 & 7.  This quick method can also be done without a bar by placing "hands on knees" with the elbows locked.  Begin by putting pressure on the knees either with the bar, dowel or athlete's hands.  Now, "spread the chest" and hopefully everyone will look like Luther in Figure 7.  If not, then those athletes will need to use the box/bench technique as previously described.

Every athlete's back should look like Luther's back in Figure 8 when lifting, blocking, tackling, rebounding or doing any power movement in sports.  Figure 9 illustrates the Straight Leg Dead Lift which is a top priority auxiliary exercise in the BFS program.  This exercise will strengthen the lower back.  Detailed information on this exercise can be found in the Hamstring Safety article.

At anytime during any lift if the lower back comes out of its tight locked-in position, an injury is more likely.  Bad position on the rack phase of the Power Clean can cause lower back problems.  I have seen many athletes rack the bar as shown in Figure 10.  Compare that position with the correct rack position of figure 11 where the elbows are up and forward with the bar resting on the shoulders.  Now the athlete can get his hips back with the lower back safely in.

Setting a bar down incorrectly happens literally thousands of times a day.  Look at Figure 12.  New BFS Clinician, Jeff Kirkman, shows his disapproval.  This athlete is asking for trouble.  He has his head down and hips up with no bend in the knees.  Just use the same technique as picking up a weight.  Put it down the same way.  Spread the chest and "squat" it down.

Pictures will be added at a later date.

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