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This tier list is dedicated to all things spinal. Inspired by the odd-lift rant I went on yesterday, I began to think a lot about risk vs. reward. If it wasn’t for the low back being such a tempermental, irritable shrew of a body part, none of this discussion would need to take place. So how do we get the low back just stupid, cock strong?
Well, I have a tier list for that. Let’s indulge.
Pros – accessible, relatively easy to master, connects with competition, fun to do!, actually gets the back and supporting structures really f—ing strong
Cons – while not ‘technical’ technique matters (bracing and stability more than posture), difficult to recover from when you get good, makes programming a bitch, is a cause of a lot of the injuries to the low-back
The Verdict – I give deads a solid A-tier rating. As much shit as I’ve given BBM for their insistance that rounding doesn’t matter and their fixation on never committing the mortal sin of nociception, which will scare off droves of young, skiddish lifters like so many baby deer….. I agree with most of their points. The population that deadlifts, I believe, will be a healthier and more capable one. Just try to do it while keeping your stomach more rigid than day-old tres leches.
Pros – benefits of deadlifts AND reinforces good habits, direct carry over to deadlift, uses lighter weights
Cons – None that I can think of; might still lead to the odd tweak, especially since it disadvantages the spine more, but the fact of less load being used makes me think it reasonable that it’s less risky than a conventional deadlift
The Verdict – S Tier, all the way. I fucking love RDLs, you won’t find a lower body builder that explodes the body parts that tend to suck on modern lifters while making you better at everything else and coming with minimal risk. Stop, put the phone down. Go do some goddamn RDLs.
Pros – Essentially same benefits of RDLs, can be used to target different areas (i.e. SSB hits upper back) which is part of ‘low back health pie’
Cons – Technically a little more inaccessible, harder to gauge position, takes some commitment to get comfortable enough to work; also unaware (surprisingly) of injury cases but if you are at risk for an episode; not the fucking position you want one to happen in (fear-mongering, maybe but thats the Final Destination moment that keeps going through my head)
The Verdict – B Tier; great developmental movement, ton of potential benefit to those who hang around long enough to get good at them, somewhat versatile; just hard to prescribe to some inexperienced untrained lifters with back issues
Pros- literally anyone can do these; unaware of injuries being prevalent (though can be because so few people push them?), also a gnarly glute and ham developer, good way to teach hinge, easy to progress load, easy to implement when coming back from an injury
Cons – I would say that this is a better developer for the movers (glutes and hams) than the erectors or muscles around the spine; will still work great but won’t give you those fucking Olive Garden bread loaves of erectors you are looking for
The Verdict – A Tier, great accessible developer, only drawback is it isnt quuiiiiite as effective at low back development than some of the heavy hitters. But that trade off brings risk; don’t let perfect be the enemy of good
STONE/SANDBAG/KEG LOADING – “I didn’t know this video would have strongman bullshit in it!”
Pros – Easier to find than ever before, fun and challenging, carries over to anything that uses hip/back, builds endurance and basic goddamn usefulness (which you all need more of) will get turn your posterior into TWISTED FUCKING STEEL
Cons – Very inaccessible, hard to learn, not great for reintroduction to training after an injury, brings some risk to those who are vulnerable
The Verdict – S Tier, while it’s less accessible, it’s worth getting down. I don’t believe there is any movement that simultaneously uses so many different functions of the lower body while still being effective. This is just how the human body is supposed to be used, same reason I think squatting is so effective. If my goal was to get god-tier spine strength and it was between this and deads, no fucking contest.
Pros – Fun and novel, contested in strongman, will help you get rid of some of that pesky height that’s killing your leverages
Cons – Everything; yoke walks suck. Ton of load and general wear without adding anything to general size, strength, functionality. If you have a pre existing issue, yokes will make sure you feel it. All of the years I’ve spent going from shitty to pretty good with these haven’t made me substantially better in anything that isn’t a yoke walk.
The Verdict – D Tier, fuck yokes
Pros – They’re squats, that’s all you need to konw
Cons – Easy to get a good squat with a lagging low-back/posterior, being upright prevents the stress needed to create a developmental stress
The Verdict – C Tier; One of the least effect methods of ‘targetting’ the low back/midsection, it still creates some useful stress; biggest asset would be in someone coming back from an injury, finding that upright movements like squats are the first thing they can do with confidence. Still, squats do a bunch of other really neat things, so don’t take them out because you saw this stupid tier list.
Pros – Train the low back, strengthen the midsection AND get wide as a fucking house?? Take my money! Easy, accessible, teaches good habits; tricks you into training low back, like putting peas in the mashed potatoes
Cons – Few, not targetted so stress isn’t as high, but the time spent bracing bent over makes up for that
The Verdict – S Tier; I think it’s legitimately one of the best upper back exercises you can do and it’s effects over the rest of the body are partly why. Extremely low risk, one of the first things I would scale up when coming back from a tweak, and requires a unique stress for having to maintaing a bent over position under a load while pulling. It’s great.
Pros – easily accessible, low risk, improves Conditioning, teaches the hinge, you can represent your identity as a member of a culty weight lifting sub- niche,
Cons – Weight and stress directly on erectors/midsection isn’t very high, so don’t expect to get a brutally strong back from these
The Verdict – B List, not a great enough developer to rank high BUT can be a damn useful tool to those coming back from injury and those who need to reinforce good bracing habits
D List – Next
Seriously though, it can be pretty good as a tool for building hip strength, but take everything about a deadlift that builds a strong low back and just cut it the fuck out. That’s a sumo deadlift. If you need your low back strength to actually matter in real life, how much you sumo pull is a shitty measure of that.
TO BE FAIR anything that involves holding a weight in your hands and moving it up and down can have a positive benefit. This might be an accessible option for those with chronic issues or who are coming back BECAUSE it takes stress off the back. Eric King, buddy of mine who pulls 700 as a sub-200 competitor, competed through bulging discs and fractured vertebrae; went through phases where he kept is deadlift alive by doing sumo because it was the only thing he could do. Worthwhile in that context.
I’ll settle on C List – not great for low back development specifically, but not without value.
Pros – about the most targetted thing you can do for the low-back, can get a lot with a little weight at first, coaxes flexibility, builds confidence and strength in exposed areas
Cons – extreme spinal flexion with progressing weights over time is kind of unkown territory. Heavy jeffersons make me cringe, might be irrational fear from lack of information or it might be a reasonable fear from decades of paying attention… I don’t know.
The Verdict – A Tier assuming the weight is light/manageable. I think it can absolutely help with some back issues and teach you to accomodate ranges you may not have been able to perform. Heavy… I can’t comment; I just don’t have enough experience on this movement when the weight is pushed.
Pros – Goes out of their way to limit spine movement, great for those who have bulging/herniated discs, might be less degenerative, great for teaching bracing ability, carries over a ton to competitive movements
Cons – Not a huuuuge stress on the musculature
The Verdict – B Tier; I think they are fantastic learning tool for those who need to figure out how to use their abs or who are coming back from an injury. But once you’ve learned how to brace and build a bit of endurance, loaded work is going to make your back truly strong.
FRONT LOADED SQUATS
Pros – Easy for anyone to do, even untrained clients, easy to maintain a neutral spine, may be the most accessible thing coming back from a spine injury, usually hits the abs really hard
Cons – demanding physically, which makes them tricker to wedge into a dedicated competitive program, also not as targetted, so a lot of work to fit them in for secondary benefits
The Verdict – B list; these are viable in the fact that they make lifting with a neutral spine easy and they tend to just hammer the abs. Likely less injurious and, if you can execute a big squat with the weight in front, you likely have a strong ass midsection
Pros – They are in every gym now, one of the most targetted erector movements you can do, doesn’t load the spine, lifters seem to enjoy it as a method of rehab/prehab
Cons – Some controversy as to whether they help/hurt the back. McGill followers believe that the flexion/extension of the spine contributes to wear and that lifters are best off learning how to brace and limit this type of movement, I think that it’s a worthwhile concern but may be overly careful
The Verdict – S Tier; I’ve talked shit about the reverse hyper before but it was actually integral to my back being stronger than it has ever been, and thus healthier and pain free. It usually makes the lifter feel better by virtue of getting movement in and flushing blood, which has value by itself, it actually builds the erectors without placing more load-stress on the spine, it coaxes flexibility and it’s super easy to implement in a program. I haven’t seen injuries being created or worsened with regular use and I’m inclined to rely on that more than studies done with dead cadaver tissue. I still love McGill though.
Pros – Super, duper fucking targetted, flips the spine on its back, kneels on its arms and slaps it in the face repeatedly; if you can do these, your spine/back/midsection is strong and you are flexible as shit
Cons – very inaccessible to most people, requires a ton of flexibility, load with deep spinal flexion is just completely unkown
The Verdict – A Tier IF YOU CAN DO IT; Not S Tier because it certainly isn’t necessary (unless you are APS and your whole game is deep spinal flexion with weight,) but is likely damn effecitve for just that. I would call it C Tier for everyone else because gaining this ability is the fucking LOOOOONG way around to spine health and low back strength