February 19, 2010

Five Weightlifting Moves That Saved My Back, or How To Torture Yourself More Efficiently

I'm in the middle. That's Attila on the right.

There are five moves I simply cannot live without doing. I'm not talking about the Couch Curl-Up or its more-advanced sister, the Power Nap With Kittehs, nor do I mean the Twelve-Ounce Repeater Swig. I'm talking about weightlifting moves that Attila has me do on a regular basis that have saved my back and made a huge difference in my body.

They're all kind of unpleasant (is lifting weights supposed to be a bed of roses? No? Drat.) and they all have one thing in common: they use multiple muscles, mostly in the lower body. They're not tricky combos like the Snatch-Clean-Squat-Boogaloo; they're very basic exercises.

Herewith, then, the Five Moves I Get Grumpy If I Don't Get To Do:

1. The Good Morning: Friend Penny calls this one the "Good Morning? I Don't Effing Think So." It's a dead-basic exercise that works the lower back, hamstrings, and to a lesser extent, your abs and shoulders.

Put a bar loaded with a relatively light weight on your shoulders. Keeping your knees soft, bend over with your back straight until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Stand up again. That's it. The first set of these (if you've got the weight right) will feel easy-peasy and meditative. The second set will be somewhat more challenging, but still doable. Midway through your third set, you should feel your obliques working and begin to tire out. If you start to tire out earlier, you have too much weight on the bar.

2. That Damn Ball Pass: I hate this one with a screeching passion. Grab a fitness ball and place yourself on your back on the floor or on a step. With your arms and legs straight, pass that ball back and forth by vee-ing up into a bad imitation of what you see on Pilates videos.

I normally do three sets of twenty with an inflatable fitness ball, but my form is suffering and I'm cursing by the end.

This move works your abs, obviously, but also your shoulder girdle and your legs.

3. The Deadlift: This one, again, is for lower back and legs, with the abdominals getting in there toward the end.

Load a bar with enough weight that it feels just about heavy enough to be challenging. Place that bar on the floor in front of you. Bend over, without locking your knees, and grab the bar. Straighten up. Replace the bar on the floor. Again, very simple and very, very challenging toward the end of your sets.

If you want to really knock yourself out, you can add:

4. The Overhead Lift That Threatens The Ceiling Fan: After straightening up from your deadlift, lift that bar overhead. You'll have to use less weight, probably, than you do with a straight deadlift. This one definitely works your abs, along with your shoulders, chest, and upper back. It will leave you gasping for breath and very sore the next day. I love it.

5. Finally, The Squat: You can do this with barbells or with a bar with weights on it. Place the bar across your shoulders (or hold the barbells at your sides) and squat down. Don't go all the way down like you see Belgian weightlifters doing on TV; go far enough to engage your leg muscles and make them work. You want to save your knees, right? Right. Now stand up. Scream if necessary, then repeat.

Squats are one of those exercises that everybody does, and most people do wrong. They either don't go down far enough, thus working only their quads, or they go too far and strain their joints. What you want to feel is all the muscles in your upper legs working without screaming (at least on the first set), and you don't want to feel like you can't get up from the squat position, or like you're messing up your knees.

Squats work the legs, obviously, and also the lower back. They're also fantastic for balance.

I do lower-back and leg work while wearing a pair of Masai Barefoot Trainers, those weird rocking shoes that look like half a basketball's been glued to your foot. I'd estimate that that adds a good twenty percent to my workout in terms of muscle engagement, as I'm trying to lift things while balancing forward-to-backward. I do not recommend trying that, though, until you get the basic moves down to the point that you're not waggling all over the place during maximum muscle effort.

And, as always, do these with a spotter. If you collapse under the weight of a loaded bar, it's kind of hard to get out again without somebody there to lift it off of you. If you collapse under the weight of your inflatable fitness ball, then you really do need somebody there to go get you some Ben & Jerry's and a kitten. (I've had days like that, believe me. Kittens help.)


  1. Sigh. I KNOW I need to start doing squats and deadlifts, but I've always resorted to machines for leg muscles out of fear of screwing up my back. I've been too cheap to spring for a trainer to make sure I have my form right, and I've messed up my back enough to know I need professional supervision the first few times. I generally have the tendency to lift too heavy and sloppy unless I have someone to chastise me.

    Thanks for the nudge!

  2. I'm working up to doing a bunch of squats, sit ups and pushups. That's really about all I can work on. I hurt just reading all of those.
    Maybe for my next goals I'll work on those. Thanks for the ideas!

  3. Okay, first off - ewww! That pic makes me irk.

    I *puffy heart* squats. Sick, right? But they're my favorite strength exercise to do. I'd add these "challenges": one legged squats - step one foot back touching just the toes to the ground so you're doing the squat on one leg; tippy toed - lift your heels off the floor while coming up out of the squat. Oooo that one burns!

    And to check form you can always do squats with a blow up ball against the wall. That keeps your body in line and (should) keep you from going too low.

    And yeah - I loathe those pass the ball v-ones.


    (yes I shouted. yes that is all :))

  5. Wow I'm so happy I found your blog. Thanks for the workout ideas. A lot of that is crossfit stuff, but our crossfit trainers here are hella expensive. Looks like I have no excuse not to do it on my own!

  6. Lots of people think that you shouldn't go all the way down on squats to save your legs, but it's actually better for them if you do. When you stop short, you're putting more stress on your knees. If you have trouble going all the way use less weight because you're using more than you should be anyway. Just google "Are deep squats bad for the knees?" or something to that effect and you'll see pro's agree that they're better than short squats.

  7. Weight lifting gets lost on me. I hate it. O.o A move that strengthens my back, though, is one from Capoeira. Their ginga movement is really great for strengthening the lower back.

  8. Fantastic blog, so glad to find it! Sometimes there’s just too much cheer and pep in the fitness world, and not everyone can stomach—er, relate—to that.

    Thanks for the knockout workouts, too; I’ll definitely be incorporating these into my routine.

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  10. Please, PLEASE tell me the pic on the right is photoshopped. Or I gotta stop drinkin'..... :)


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