The Squat & Deadlift Trick To Save Your Spine and Crush Your Legs
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
I’m not going to lie. I was a bit hesitant to post this as it does look somewhat insane. But before you write today’s Muscle Morsel off as a deranged act of madness, allow me to explain what’s happening here and why it’s not as crazy as it looks. Oh, and yes, this may be the first and only time you’ll ever see me wear a weightlifting belt.
As most lifters can attest to, squats and deadlifts are some of the best lower body movements for building a strong and functional lower body. Unfortunately due to the nature of axial loading, most squat and deadlift variations particularly barbell versions cause the low back and spinal stabilizers to fatigue and give out well before the lower body does. As a result, the low back can become inflamed and the legs don’t receive adequate stimulation for inducing significant gains in strength and hypertrophy.
However, eliminating barbell squats and barbell deadlifts is not necessarily the answer either as axial loaded movements represent some of the best exercises for building functional strength and hypertrophy not just in the legs but throughout the whole body. Yes, strengthening the core and spinal stabilizers is a key factor for eliminating these issues but regardless, some athletes will always tend to have low back issues when going heavy on axial loaded movements.
For instance many advanced lifters and athletes have the ability to squat well over 500 pounds with their legs but unfortunately once they begin loading significantly more than 300 pounds on the bar, their low backs begin to act up. So instead of eliminating exercises like squats and deadlifts, a simple solution is to apply direct lower body resistance to axial loaded movements. Although there are a number of ways to make this happen, one method that’s actually quite simple is to wear a traditional weight lifting belt and slide a resistance band on each side of the hip. Then simply attach the ends to the bottom pins on a power rack or heavy dumbbells on the floor and perform squat and deadlift variations as well as lunges and split squats.
Although the resistance to the hips is slightly variable due to the nature of the bands, the tension I’m using shown in the videos is approximately 200 pounds at the top of the movement and 150 pounds at the bottom. In a scenario such as the barbell back squat where I have 225 on the bar, the total load when combined with the direct band tension is well over 400 at the top and just under 400 at the bottom. Because nearly half of the tension was directly loaded to my legs, this particular combination crushed my lower body while keeping my low back and spine quite fresh.
In other words it allowed me to overload my legs with significant mechanical tension and muscle damage, while minimizing spinal loading – a win-win for any lifter. However, I was still able to accrue the benefits associated with traditional barbell squats and axial loaded movements (i.e. full body tension). Simply put I was still able to incorporate traditional barbell loading while deloading my spine and crushing my legs.
On a side note, a similar setup can be used with the Keiser Squat Rack. However these do cost upwards of $7,000 so unless you're willing to shell out that much for a piece of equipment the method shown in the videos is a more practical option.
Although the principle of direct band loading is similar for squats, deadlifts, and lunges, performing deadlifts in this manner provides another unique benefit by teaching proper hip position.
When performing deadlifts, many lifters make the mistake of bending over too much from their waist and not setting their hips and lower body in the proper position. In addition, many athletes will allow the hips to shoot up at the beginning of the pull which not only deloads the lower body but places undue strain on the spine.
Using direct band loading to the hips essentially pulls the lifter into the proper starting position for the deadlift. In addition, this direct loading ensures the lifter doesn’t shoot the hips up too soon as they’ll be punished with excessive tension from the bands. Simply put this direct band-loading method teaches the lifter how to drive with their hips and legs during deadlifts rather than relying on their back.
Why Front Squats?
You may be asking why it’s necessary to use the direct band loading method for front squats as most lifters don’t typically have low back issues during these. However, this method is just as applicable if not more effective for front squats as it is back squats. Here’s why.
A majority of lifters who perform front squats end up assuming an overly upright position with excessive anterior knee shift rather than setting the hips back and hinging as they should. Besides the various coaching miscues and misnomers constantly perpetuated by self-proclaimed “performance experts”, one of the main reasons this movement aberration commonly occurs is because many lifters don’t have ample core and spinal stability.
Simply put if your core and low back are weak and dysfunctional the most common compensation is to assume an overly upright position on front squats. Besides being potentially devastating to the knees, hips, and ankles, this also ingrains faulty squat mechanics that can wreak havoc on muscle function, joint health, and performance over time. Just like any other squat variation a proper front squat involves significant hip hinge with a moderate forward torso lean (although it will be slightly less than barbell back squats). Applying direct band tension to the hips allows the lifter use a light enough load that they can lock their front squat mechanics in and blast their legs without the issue of their core and low back being the limiting factor.
Lunges and Split Squats
As previously mentioned lunges and split squats also represent another exercise that’s very conducive for applying direct band loading. When performing heavy barbell lunges, the upper back, shoulders, wrists, and low back can become excessively fatigued and oftentimes go slightly numb as a result of the extended time under tension needed to complete a full set of lunges on both sides.
Applying the direct band tension to the lower body allows the lifter to emphasize lower body activation in the quads, glutes, and hamstrings while simultaneously minimizing stress to the upper body and spine. In addition, the degree of stability and balance required to lock this lunge protocol in is quite challenging due to the pulling nature of the bands. As a result motor recruitment and activation in the legs is quite significant making these highly effective as a functional strength and mass building movement.
1. Is this optimal depth in the squat video?
Yes, this video represents optimal squat mechanics that will be similar from human to human. Read more about squat depth here.
2. What's with the sudden snap you perform in the bottom of each squat?
The sudden snap at the end of each eccentric isometric (the quick snap at the very bottom of each rep) illustrates intense eccentric co-contraction of agonist and antagonist muscle groups for the sake of creating greater reciprocal inhibition on the concentric phase. Simply put, as I get closer to the bottom 90-degree position I squeeze my antagonists harder and harder until I snap into the optimal stopping point. This is very natural and not forced.
For the squat that means I’m squeezing my hip flexors and hamstrings to get more activation and eccentric elongation in the glutes and quads. This is something that naturally occurs over time from focusing on proper mechanics not so much from intentionally trying to squeeze these muscles. Simply put by focusing on optimal body mechanics you’ll naturally achieve optimal eccentric co-contraction although it is good to understand these subtle intricacies of the body so you can feel these muscles automatically contract when training.