I mentioned that my son was my new workout partner in another article and I also mentioned that he got injured just a few weeks after we started working out and the he needed to take a week off before coming back to workout.
The injury my son has was a pulled muscle in his back and it is an issue that lots of people run into.
Heres what happened.
Jaiden was using a full machine type squat. So this is a squat in a rack where the weight will go straight up and down so that you don’t have to worry about balance. Using a very low weight he did a set, had a bit of tightness in his back, and then on the next set something pulled and he had to stop.
As you can imagine, when I got home with Jaiden my wife was pretty mad. Immediately blamed me for letting him do too much weight, but really something seemed strange to me. Jaiden is careful with form and the weight he was using to squat was low with the reps isolated by the machine and speed controlled by him.
Doctor and Referral to Physio
We went to the doctor, he knew what the problem was right away with spasming muscles on one side in the lower back and sent us to Physio.
Jaiden and I went to Physio which was probably about 5 days after the injury. It was a real wake up call as to how we treated form, core, and the levers of our joints.
When you do leg press or squats you tend to push with your quads and try and keep you back straight. This is really important as a hunched back doing squats can really cause a lot of stress on the back that it can’t handle.
What we really learned from our super Physio guy is to instead look at the muscles that are involved with the hinge points of the exercise.
As you can see from the image below, the hinge in your hips is where you are doing the work of the squat, therefore it is not just the quadriceps on the front of the let that are involved but also the Glutes (your butt) that have to do most of the work.
The trouble with relying on the glutes for an exercise is that we tend to not activate the glutes at all and instead run into a problem where on one side of the hip the quads are doing work and on the other side of that hinge in the hips your lower back is trying to do the work of the inactive glutes. Your poor back can not do that work itself at all!
Another problem that the physio guy found was that Jaiden was much stronger on one side of his body than the other and so over time he unconsciously compensated by relying on the weak side for the strong side.
So you can imagine how bad this set of squats was for Jaiden. He would go down, then as he was coming up his back would be doing a lot of the hinge closing instead of his glutes, and then one side of the back was taking the work of the other side of his back. His poor back didn’t stand a chance, even, or maybe especially, with a low weight.
So each visit the physio guy gave Jaiden a new exercise. The first ones were clamshells, which involved lying on his side and pulling a knee up with a band holding his knees together. This works the hip abductors on the outside of the thigh
Next was an exercise that involved squeezing a ball between his knees to strengthen the hip adductors muscles on the outside of the thighs.
Next we had an exercise that is a lot like the fire hydrant that you can see below. The difference is that instead of having the leg go straight out to the side, the knee was further down about 6 inches or so. Also the idea is to hold it for a long time instead of just doing reps with this. This means that instead of simply activating the glutes it will strengthen as well.
Here are some more exercises for activating the glutes. These have really helped me and I am sure they can help you as well
So after this Jaidens back was feeling a lot better and we were able to move on to making sure that the motion was good. The fourth appointment was mostly checking to see if his strength between left and right side was evening out and then doing leg presses.
With the leg press there is a trade off between pushing with the quads and pushing from the heels to make the glutes active and take up more of the work. Jaiden did a few sets of this with the Physio guy giving tips on keeping knees at a consistent distance apart and pushing through with the glutes to make sure that they were taking much of the power of the exercise.
Finally we waited two more weeks until we went back. This was the last appointment and Jaiden found out more about doing unweighted squats, front squats, and very very deep squats to make sure to be strengthening the butt instead of the quads as much.
All of these exercises focus on using the body correctly and doing squats in a way that Jaiden will be able to relieve the pressure on his lower back and instead work with the quads and glutes instead.
This type of training will be interesting over the next few months. Most people look at squats as being a very good exercise for building quads and we will see a bit of that. More though we will be getting the whole chain correct from the lower legs up. The exercises that will help us with quads more will likely be the leg presses and leg extensions.
Hopefully I have been able to give you a much better idea of the role of glute activation and glute exercises to help protect your back.