Let's be clear from the get go. If you've got a bad back because you're currently injured, then none of this should pertain to you. Rest is the magic word. A 'Bad Back' is a little vague mind, so let's get some specifics hashed out.
Previous back injury such as a herniated disc?
Constant dull ache in the low back region?
Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction?
Previous surgical procedures such as Discectomy?
Twinged after wrestling a particularly badass grizzly bear?
This kind of stuff. You're not constantly debilitated, you can do most things most of the time, but you're always weary of twinging it and being set back for a week. In this case, it makes sense to gravitate towards lower body exercises which minimise shear and axial forces on the spine.
Straight bar deadlift? Not ideal, nor even remotely necessary.
This is short term of course, longer term we aim to hash out the why behind the owie and rectify accordingly. Take the Sacroiliac joint as an example. Sometimes this region simply 'moves about' more than it should because ones contralateral strength sucks balls.
Simply put, the transfer of forces via muscular tension from the back of the right leg/hip up to the left lower latissimus fibres. If this is lax or weak, you lose out on a great big dose of stability in the region. When a region loses stability, pain sensitivity can go up, plus your muscles tighten up to compensate which leads to back ache.
It looks like this.
So with this in mind, we want to fix that cheeky little number don't we? Something MRI Scans can't really help you with. Rather carefully selected resistance training to develop the region is going to work absolute magic. I can call upon my amazeballs client Isabel to wax lyrical for this approach.
With all scenarios the goal is always to build resiliency and strength in positions and ranges of motion which are accessible without pain/agitation. Whilst it is highly desirable, the goal is not always about getting ourselves back to good as new. This can be an unrealistic target.
Bonus points if you get there!
I'll never get back to how it used to be.
You've a herniated disc history or indeed a discectomy. Fine. You can do most things without issue. Fine. Let's look at those top shelf lower body strength exercises which pose the lowest risk.
Barbell Hip Thrust
Marvellously demonstrated by Jenine Hutchison training ahead of the European Championships. We see the hip thrust in action.
What does it do?
Primarily it smashes the crap out of your glutes. But you'd be unlikely not to experience the burn happening throughout the legs and core musculature. There's an additional bonus to this exercise especially if traditional deadlifts and squats are totally off the cards. The peak force production of the glutes is much more linear.
Squats and Deadlifts have their peak from the ground to about halfway up. After this, the forces required to complete the hip extension phase drop off dramatically. Check out this graph for a better visual with credit to Bret Contreras.
Yeah, yeah. I know you're not going to fully replace the benefits of squats and deadlifts without squats and deadlifts. Keep your hair on. For those with limited options, this is a brilliant substitute. I'd argue it is the glutification of the glutes which people really need anyway. 9/10 times a client begins training with me, their biggest energy leak is hip extension via the glutes.
The hamstrings are doing all the damn work. Cramp anyone?
Why is it so good?
The most distinct advantage is zero compressive forces on the spine. Then there's injury prevalence which is impressively low. Ok so I don't have any meta data type statistics to hand, though I read one of Eric Cressey's blogs whereby he has had his fair share of injuries under the roof of Cressey Sports Performance over the years with squats and deadlifts. But he has yet to have just one injury whilst hip thrusts are being performed.
I'm not just talking about him being injured, any clientele too. This is a facility which has been open since 2007 with hundreds of athletes coming in and out of the doors. That's a fairly impressive feat as far as a heavy barbell exercise goes.
Last but not least, glutes. They need work and boy does the hip thrust work em'.
Weighted Static Lunges
Demonstrated to a T by my super cool client Abi.
What does it do?
Calfs, quads, hamstrings, glutes and eyebrows. Personally I much prefer getting my clients to master the stationary lunge, I also get more success with it. It's already challenging enough for people to get into the right positions, maintain balance and form throughout the set. Particularly as it gets tough towards the end.
Add walking into the mix? You have to ensure you nail your foot in the right place every single time and re-stabilise yourself. This just makes hard even harder. Since most people's lunges need a lot of work, I'd say you're far better off working the static variations.
Why is it so good?
I like lunges for two big reasons. One, you can maintain a much more upright torso angle. I still like to nudge people into a little bit of forward lean in order to maximise the work of the glutes. Though nothing quite like what is required for standard squat and deadlift shenanigans.
Number two, being in a split stance position means your hips get locked into a very stable position with much less wiggle room for going into excessive anterior or posterior tilt. You still need to make sure you own the right positions, though it is far easier with a split stance comparative to a bilateral squat stance.
Wrapping it up.
Yeah. Pretty much it really.
It should go without saying. If you're in pain, or any movement causes pain, this is not for you. If there's anything you're remotely unsure about, message me personally for help. It's also worth getting clearance from your GP before any strenuous exercise, not to mention hiring a professional to take you through the movements safely.
This means bracing the core to lock the spine and hips down. It means stacking your ribs and hips on top of one another for optimal alignment through the torso. It means not like this.
Know what really, really grinds my gears in the gym? Personal Trainers allowing their clients to yank heavy loads off the floor with a rounded/moving spine. Standing there with their arms folded looking like they're "Really thinking, um'ing and ah'ing" Like their mind palace is on fire. Do not disturb my zen right now.
So for those of you making a choice on your trainer, this is a good litmus test. If they let their clients lift with poor spine/hip positions, stay away.
I also tend to stay away from people who say stuff like "Tony Jaa isn't that great." Or "Ip Man is rubbish." Avoid these types, too. Only after you've Sparta kicked them in the chest of course.