Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Your Back Is Never off the Clock

by Robert Santana, PhD, RD, SSC | July 13, 2021

tommy suggs set to press in the clean and press

Watching people move under a bar teaches you all sorts of things. Bad habits, bad ideas, and bad genes all encompass the problem that is “bad form.” This has allowed coaches like me to expand our practice beyond working with lifting enthusiasts to helping your parent or grandparent who complains about back pain, avoids bending over, and quite frankly has “zero idea what is going on with his back at any point in time” – a quote I stole from an old Rip article that I am constantly reminded of with many clients.

I extend Rip’s observation of the low back to the entire back, which encompasses all he musculature of the posterior aspect of the torso, and includes, but is not limited to, the trapezius, the latissimus dorsi (the lats), the external shoulder rotators, and the spinal erectors. These muscles span the base of the skull, across the shoulders, and down to tailbone. It’s a whole lot of muscle mass whose role is often ignored.

For as far back as I can remember, the oversimplified case for barbell or “free weight” training is that they “train the stabilizers.” What this really means is that the back, abs, and obliques all must participate in each of these lifts, even though they are not necessarily shortening and lengthening. Therefore, “doing abs” or “training back” is not entirely necessary to building these muscles. They work throughout the day when we walk, stand, and sit. Thus, it makes sense that these muscles respond well to heavy isometric training, and why there isn’t a single machine available that can train these muscles in this way to the extent that a heavy barbell does. This is the reason that you can recognize the back of someone who deadlifts irrespective of whether he rows or not.

It has been my observation that the vast majority of technical errors on all of the barbell lifts result from insufficient back control and most lifters are entirely unaware of this. So, let’s briefly address how this manifests on each lift. Since back control on the deadlift has been beaten to death, and is rather obvious, deadlift discussion will be absent. Read my articles on Artificially Weak Deadlifts for a thorough discussion.

The Squat

One of the most common issues in the squat is a passive, or “lazy,” back on the descent. The lifter incorrectly assumes that simply “going down” is all that he needs to do on the descent. Then the entire thing either turns into a dumpster fire at the bottom position or during the ascent. The back has a job to do much like it does on the deadlift, and the lifter is not exempt from setting the back before, during, and after the descent.

“Bar roll” occurs when the bar rolls up the back on the squat and is often the result of thoracic flexion. This typically manifests as a forward bar path and one of those situations where the coach almost certainly needs to be physically present to identify the error. In a video it may just look like the bar is moving forward horizontally, resulting in an extraneous moment arm. The bar is in fact moving forward and doing so because of a flexed spine. So rather than using traditional hip drive cues to correct this, the opposing “chest up” cue may fix it. Narrowing the grip is also a solution if the elbows and shoulders can tolerate it. There are many cues that a coach can develop to fix this issue, and enough time watching lifters is the best way to learn them.

A soft low back at the bottom is often the result of knees not being out enough and lack of kinesthetic awareness of the low back. This issue and solutions are discussed in the Blue Book, at seminars, and all over the Starting Strength website. Just remember that if your back is comfortable on the squat – meaning not extraordinarily tight – then you are probably squatting wrong.

The Press

The most common error on the press is the bar deviating forward. Sometimes this is the result of simply pushing the bar in the wrong direction, but often the lifter is losing back engagement at the bottom of the lift. This is often because the lifter treats this position as the “resting position” of the lift due to the first repetition starting from this position. This typically manifests with the lifter dropping the elbows behind the bar, extending the wrists, and relaxing the thoracic spine. The bar may even wiggle a bit as he walks it out. The first way to mitigate this is to inhale prior to unracking the bar, which minimizes time spent in shoulder and elbow flexion at the bottom of the press and minimizes any loss of tightness. On a multi-rep sets, the lifter lowers the bar to start position, sets the back into extension, takes a giant breath to reinforce this, then extends the hips and shoulders and drives the bar up.

It is critical that the lifter emphasizes the eccentric component by actively extending the spine and engaging the lats much like he would at the start of a chin-up or lat pulldown. This means that you won’t be letting the bar drop on your shoulders to relax between reps. My cue of choice is “reach up with the chest” as the lifter lowers the bar under control. Similarly, the “chest up” cue is just as important when unracking the bar. This became clear to me when I took a close look at the photo of Tommy Suggs’s start position that has been the graphic on the WFAC meet tees and an image in the Blue Book. You will want to rush this step so you can “get it over with,” but that will just lead to all of the nastiness I described above. Take your time and teach yourself to control the weight because, again, the back still has a job to do.

The Bench Press

As someone who has missed PR bench presses due to power leaks in the back, I am intimately aware of this issue. For years I could mess around with submaximal or even near maximal weights and complete the rep. Then that maximal repetition comes around and the weight leaves my chest only to grind to a dead halt. Video evidence illustrated that the bar stopped moving at the exact moment that my elbows abducted behind the barbell a few inches off of the chest. The elbow flare, like the previous lifts, is the result of a lazy back. Thoracic extension and scapular retraction – functions of the upper back – stabilize the back and shoulders, providing the lifter a solid platform to push from. This, along with “leg drive,” is the most common “aha” moment lifters experience when being coached on the bench press for the first time.

Trained lifters often start out with a fully engaged back and then allow it to relax during the ascent. See a theme here? The back still has a job to do and the most critical point in the lift is the transition from descent to ascent. Keeping the chest up as you drive the bar off of the chest will help keep the elbows in line with the barbell as you complete the rep. Another good cue is “bend the bar” or “reach up with the chest” the entire time. Cues are highly individualized, so treat these as examples and get creative if they don’t work. Once again the back is clocked in from start to finish.

It cannot be stressed enough that there is no substitute for properly performed barbell training. One can argue that muscles can be grown on machines, kettlebells, and all other complicated devices if incremental loading is occurring. However, these alternative means of training lack an effective way of isometrically loading the back, abs, and obliques with incremental increases. Contrary to what your favorite influencer, fitness model, Hollywood actor, or bodybuilder says, stabilizing the spine is the primary function of the muscles that govern our ability to stand, walk, and sit for long periods of time without keeling over. Most of you do those things wrong, and stabilizing the squat, press, bench press, and deadlift with a loaded barbell will inevitably lead to you doing those things right without thinking about them.

Moving a heavy weight through space while maintaining spinal position is the single greatest way to strengthen and grow those muscles and the ever-so ergonomic barbell is the greatest tool for accomplishing this. So, remember to make sure the back stays on the clock from start to finish to ensure that you are doing just that.   

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