Regardless of my personal love for squats and deadlift variations, there are times in training when the big bang exercises need to be replaced with more back friendly variations.
You may be dealing with a back flare up, previous back injury or the potential risks of the big compound lifts simply outweigh the benefits for you. In these cases, we need to intelligently select exercises and variables such as, sets, reps and tempos that will provide us the best chances to still gain strength and size during these times in our training career.
Although the total amount of work needed will often times be greater, it can certainly still be done. Below is a list of my top exercises for these situations.
Remember, that in order to produce strength and hypertrophy improvements, we need to satisfy a few things:
– Adequate load to stimulate a maximum number of motor units on a given lift
– A full range of motion, multiple angles and planes, in order to minimize imbalances or weakness around a joint. \
– Appropriate time under tension and eccentric control in order to produce muscle damage.
Here is the list of my most utilized exercises. I rotate exercises and manipulate the set/rep and tempos to create back safe lower body training sessions that keep me interested as well as making progress.
*Please note that not all of these exercises are appropriate for all conditions. For example, some exercises are more sacroiliac joint friendly, while others would be problematic if the SIJ was injured. Likewise, a discogenic or sciatic nerve issue, may have different trigger exercises.
Unilateral / Single Leg Exercises
- Reverse lunges
- DB Front loaded or single KB rack reverse lunges
- Rear foot elevated split squat (narrow stance, no excessive lumbar extension)
- Walking lunges
- Sled drag variations
- Single leg RDL’s (with or without back leg stability anchor such as a bench)
- *Kickstand single leg RDL’s
*I believe I first saw these performed by Mike Robertson from IFAST, however I am not sure who originally created the idea- they are great for single leg work with a much smaller amount of instability
Bilateral / Double Leg Exercises
- Goblet squats
- High handle trap bar deadlifts
- Glute ham raises OR Nordic hamstring curls – (GHR’s are my #1 choice here, due to a greater degree of tension possible throughout a full range of motion)
- Reverse hyperextensions
- DB RDL’s (with limited range appropriate to the individual)
- Hamstring slider curls
The above exercises, when selected properly can produce incredible improvements in lower body size and strength. There are many other back safe exercises, however I chose the ones I use the most often and have had the most success with.
To give you an example of how I would set up a training session, here are a few sessions, ranging from a beginner with a long history of back pain, to myself with 22 years of consistent year round training.
Sample #1 : Beginner, history of recurring low back pain, no current flare ups
A1. Bodyweight reverse lunge 4 x 6/leg w/ 3 second isometric hold @ end range
A2. Tension plank hold 4 x Up to 1 minute/set (break into intervals if needed)
B1. DB RDL (3 sec eccentric). 2 x 10
B2. Reverse sled drags 2 x 20-30 steps/leg
B3. Side plank 2 x Up to 1 minute/set (break into intervals if needed)
C. Strict bear crawl 2 lengths of my turf (or 150’ total, resting as needed)
Sample #2 : Intermediate, recovered from lifting injury, 2 years consistent training experience
A1. DB reverse lunge 4 x 6/leg (front foot elevated 2-4”)
A2. High plank w/ shoulder touch. 4 x 6/side (pause each shoulder tap x 3 seconds)
B1. GHR 3 x 10-15 (control tension through full range)
B2. KB/DB suitcase carry 3 x 30 seconds/side
C. Hamstring slider curls 30-50 total reps (constant tension)
D. Bodyweight squat 50 strict reps completed AFAP (tension in full ROM)
Sample #3 : Advanced lifter, no current pain, training concurrently for strength & mass
A1. High handle TB deadlift. Work up to 5RM + 4 x 5 @ -15% of top load
A2. Jump squat 3 jumps squats/deadlift set
B. Walking lunges 3 x 8/leg (heavy loaded, short pause @ bottom)
C1. GHR 4 x 6-10 (weighted if possible)
C2. Suitcase deadlift 2 x 8/side (using elevated farmers walk handle or KB)
D1. Reverse hyperextensions 2 x 45 sec OR 2 x 20 heavy depending on experience
D2. Dead bug w/ deep exhale. 2 x 8 reps/arm. (reach high as you exhale)
Hopefully this gives you some things to consider, and if you are mentally married to the big lifts such as squats and deadlifts like I still am, just remember that they are not the end all be all, and sometimes you have to make smart decisions to move forward!