Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Back Overextension

by Inna Koppel, SSC | March 26, 2019

cueing back extension

Teaching lumbar extension, even to experienced lifters, is a common focus of Starting Strength coaching. While many men struggle with setting their lower backs into extension, most women do so quite easily. Learning how to contract your lower back muscles into extension, and maintaining normal anatomical position against resistance is important for biomechanical efficiency. It also protects your back; spinal flexion under load can cause disc injuries. Arching your back while the abdominals contract from the anterior side of  your trunk will lock your lumbar into normal anatomical position, with a natural lordotic curve and a spine held rigid in proper extension. Proper spine alignment during lifting ensures that the distribution of forces across the intervertebral discs are balanced. 

As a coach in a female-only facility, I find myself commonly addressing a problem seen in my lifters – lower back overextension. This is due to a lack of abdominal strength and a natural proclivity to extension. Overextension also causes a spinal contortion and can cause compression of the discs. Your abs work as a rigid corset around your abdomen and waist to support the spine, their failure on the anterior side will allow the spine to arch into overextension. Overextension of the lower back at the beginning of the squat or deadlift can become flexion over the course of the lifts as the back is not stabilized by the abdominal muscles, compounding the risk of disc herniation.

A particular risk factor for overextension in females, in my experience, is childbirth. Many of my lifters who have had children have lost the kinesthetic sense of abdominal contraction. When asked to contract, many women will “vacuum” the abs in, thinking that they have contracted them. This does not provide the bracing action we are looking for, and it leaves the abs loose. One of the ways I teach them to “turn on” their abs is to cough hard and have them feel the contractions that the abdominals make at the end of the cough. I have them do it a few times, teaching them that “This is what it feels like to tighten your abs,” reminding them, “When I tell you to squeeze your abs, hard, during your squat, I want you to remember this tight feeling.” Some women like to visualize the motion as the rib cage coming down towards the pelvis as the abs are tightened. Showing them how to do so will cause them to brace their abs and discover the movement by learning visually.

Of all the essential techniques required to execute lifts properly, mastering control over your back muscles is the most fundamental, as it will reduce the risk of injury and promote more efficient force transfer. However, in the case of lumbar overextension, it really is the abs that come to the rescue.

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