Training Legs with a Bad Back

By Drew Price BSc MASc RNutr CSCS, MuscleTalk Moderator and Strength & Conditioning Consultant

Many people suffer from a bad back but what do you do if you want to train legs and have a problem squatting and deadlifting? Obviously the first thing to do is to find out what the problem is and take measures to improve the situation, which usually means a trip to either the doctor or (sports) physio, then follow their advice.

However, there are things you can do to take the strain off the back whilst training and increase the training effect on the legs. Depending upon the nature of the problem, single leg movements may well be a good choice. By working one leg at a time you train the body as it naturally functions (remember walking and running are movements on one foot), you increase instability as well as also greatly reducing the load you need to carry.

A pistol is a squat with large range of motion but using only one leg. The aim is to squat down in a controlled fashion until your glute touches, or is as near as possible, to your heel. You then pause and squat up, avoiding a bounce. The unused leg is kept near straight and moves from a few inches out in front when at the top of the movement, to straight out in front when at the full squat position. In this way the heel of that leg slides a long a line a few inches off the floor. They are tough as they demand co-ordination, flexibility and a good deal of useful strength. These are great; no external loading of the spine and they are very very hard going. Remember if you do a pistol with your own bodyweight, this is like putting your bodyweight on your back and doing a normal squat.
In fact if you try it you’ll see it’s more like bodyweight plus 20% as one foot is less stable than two so you have to work harder. Balance is a problem and shifting you centre of gravity forward will help. You have three options here. The first is to pistol squat in a doorway using the frame for stability, this is a good starting place to learn the movement. Stand side on in the doorway with toe 2-4″ away from the frame but in line with the wall. As you squat down your free leg will stick out next to the wall. As a progression from there you can also do it with hands out in front of you or also use a weight like a small plate, light dumbbell or kettlebell.

One leg squat
This is similar to the pistol but with the leg you’re not using bent at the knee so at the bottom of the movement you have your knee/shin on the floor.

Unilateral deadlifts
These are copies of the deadlift movement on one leg. If you can use a weight as well then all the better. You can do either stiff-legged or traditional; just make sure you keep your hips nice and stable.

Lunges are often overlooked but when done nice and steadily they don’t require much in the way of weight compared to squats and the like.

Split squats
These are like lunges but with the back foot on a platform or bench and are very tough. Remember if you can’t use a weight go for depth and reps.

Weights and loading
With the above you can use a little weight if it is tolerated. You can also wear a rucksack with the load on the (tight!) waist strap and the shoulder straps loose. In cases where there have been disc issues holding the weight up above the head can keep the back in a more preferable position but again do check with your doctor or physiotherapist before trying anything here.

Source: MuscleTalker Issue 80

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