Protect Your Back While Lifting: Back Extension

Lift with Correct Form

For all standing barbell lifts – squats, deadlifts and overhead presses – we must be able to maintain isometric control of the spine while holding it in normal anatomical extension. Learning “how to set your back” in normal lumbar and thoracic extension will fix your deadlift form, and protect your back while lifting.

Lifting in flexion or overextension (hyperextension) may be dangerous, and is the most common form error we see with deadlifts and squats.

Scapular Retraction is NOT Extension

First, we’ll cover the upper back or thoracic spine. There is a difference between scapular retraction and thoracic extension. Most lifters squeeze their shoulder blades together (scapular retraction) and believe they are extending their thoracic spine, or upper back. Learn how to properly control your thoracic spine without your lumbar spine.

We’ll do this using the superman exercise. Lay on the ground, flat on your stomach with arms out in front of you, legs behind you. Lift the chest and arms, and try to pull the shoulder blades down into the back pockets. This is thoracic extension. Keep your lower back relaxed as you do this, legs on the ground, and only focus on setting your upper back.

How to Set the Lumbar Spine in Extension

While standing, contract your lumbar spinal erectors, located at your sacrum (the bottom of your low back). If you can’t do this, we’ll use the superman exercise once again. If you can, apply it to your deadlift.

During the deadlift, once you complete step 3 of bringing your shins to the bar, you will squeeze your chest up without dropping your hips. This replicates how you set your back when you were standing up straight. During squats and overhead presses, properly bracing of the abdomen and a big held breath (Valsalva) will help set the lumbar spine in extension.

Let’s try the superman exercise again, this time for lumbar extension. Lay flat on your stomach, arms out in front and legs straight behind you. Remember, lifting your arms up off the ground creates thoracic extension. Practice this for 10-20 reps. Then, lift your legs up off the ground – lumbar extension. Practice this for 10-20 reps. Finally, lift both your arms and legs up off the ground at the same time to perform both thoracic and lumbar extension.

Be sure to watch the video to see how to set your back and more safety tips!

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