Do total body training that includes multi-joint (a.k.a. compound) lifts like deadlifts to build a stronger back and bullet-proof abs. The deadlift can also prevent low back pain because it is one of the most effective exercises for strengthening the lower back.
A recent study compared electromyographic (EMG) muscle activity in the lumbar and thoracic erector spinae muscles of the lower back during the following exercises:
a deadlift performed at 70 percent of the 1RM,
a lunge with 70 percent of the 1RM,
a back extension,
a single leg bodyweight deadlift,
a single leg body weight deadlift on a BOSU, and
a static supine bridge on a BOSU.
Results showed that the deadlift was by far the most effective exercise at working the lower back. Average EMG activity was 88 percent and peak EMG activity was 113.4 percent for the lower back muscles. The back extension and lunge exercises also provided significant muscle activation, whereas the supine bridge on the BOSU elicited the least—only 29 percent activation. The back extension produced average EMG activity of 58 percent, and the lunge produced 46 percent muscle activity.
Along with providing near maximal activity for the lower back muscles that stabilize the trunk, deadlifts are awesome because it’s a highly functional movement. Plus, deadlifts work so many muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, and some provide stimulation to the trapezius.
Of course, anyone who already has lower back pain will need to perform neuromuscular training to eliminate dysfunction prior to deadlifting. For instance, one recent study used young basketball players with structural imbalances of the spine. They demonstrated spinal asymmetry that causes trauma to the intervertebral joints, and over the long-term, will likely cause lower back pain and injury.
Researchers had athletes do unilateral neuromuscular training for 8 weeks to improve firing of muscles on the non-dominant side of the body.
Results showed that the asymmetry of muscle activity decreased from an average of 56 percent to 23 percent, which improved their movement patterns in a squat by 35 percent. The researchers suggest that once structural balance is improved and the asymmetry is reduced, the players can perform more traditional strength training (such as deadlifts and squats) to build strength throughout the whole body.
Take Away: Strengthen the lower back and abs by training the whole body with “global” lifts. If lower back pain is present, it’s ideal to start with neuromuscular training and progress up to deadlifts, back extensions, lunges, and other traditional lifts once a client or athlete is pain free.