Trying to train legs when you suffer from back problems is NO fun. Believe me, only being able to squat a fraction of what you were once able to do is heartbreaking. But you don’t need to be relegated to having pencil legs for the rest of your life.
You can absolutely develop your legs, but you’re going to have to get crafty with your training.
If you’ve always had lower back trouble, then you might not know how satisfying it is to squat more than your bodyweight for several reps. On the other hand, by not knowing on what you’re missing out, you can implement these training ideas more diligently into your programs.
Loading up the bar and squatting for close to an hour is a reasonable leg day to some, but you won’t be afforded this luxury.
Instead, you will have to find exercises that cause you no pain our trouble — otherwise, you’re going to have a bad time.
And we want to avoid having a bad time.
We want to train with longevity in mind.
That said, there’s no reason to train like a pussy and fail to enjoy mammoth results.
You can train legs like an athlete with back problems, but your reps, sets, volume, and intensity will have to change.
How to Train Legs With a Bad Back
Before we get started, please, we urge you, go see a specialist. If you already have an injury, you don’t want to exacerbate it by trying things you are not capable of.
Granted, there may be some work you might have to do before you can start to train legs again, such as spinal decompression, but YOU CANNOT ALLOW YOURSELF room for error. Your mobility must improve and you have to stretch every day and before every session to ensure your back doesn’t round due to problems with hip and hamstring mobility while squatting.
I am speaking from a position of experience. Last year, I was diagnosed with DDD in 4 discs and lumbar stenosis. Years of squatting, deadlifting, and rowing massive weights on an undiagnosed broken back opened a whole can of worms.
Even though I still suffer from lower back pain, modifying my leg — and back — workouts around my injury have allowed me to live as painlessly as possible.
I want you to be able to say the same.
How to Train Legs With a Bad Back: Buttwink
If you look like a dog taking a dump when you approach parallel on the squat or your deadlift resembles a frightened cat, you need to revisit your form.
Alternatively, you need to hammer any mobility issues you might have preventing you from hitting parallel on the squat without buttwink (lower back rounding).
Controversially, squats aren’t the be all and end all of lower body training.
While they are awesome, and, once upon a time, were my favorite exercise, you can have an impressive set of wheels without ever squatting.
How to Train Legs With a Bad Back: Strengthen Your Core
Developing your core will strengthen the muscles around your spine — as will developing your glutes. One of the reasons why as we age we begin to suffer from more lower back problems is due to muscular atrophy in our glutes, forcing us to rely too heavily on our lower back for daily tasks.
Not much needs to be said here, but if you suffer from a bad back, you need to strengthen your core — specifically with isometric holds such as Planks, Side Planks, Bird Dogs, and certain Yoga Poses.
Dynamic core exercises may aggravate your lower back — but this varies on a person to person basis.
I like to do Hanging Leg Raises, L-Sit Chin Ups, and Windshield Wipers. When my back pain was more severe, I could barely even hold a Plank.
How to Train Legs With a Bad Back: Squats & Quads
You may find that you have no problem eliminating buttwink, while others struggle to do so in spite of plentiful mobility work.
If the latter is the case for you, you might have to give up your aspirations of becoming a competitive powerlifter if you don’t want you back to give you more grief in future.
Even if you can’t squat, there are plenty of other exercises you can do:
- Lunge Pattern Movements
- Russian Step Ups
- Box front squats set at a height before your lower back rounds
- Single-leg leg press
- Quad Extensions
- Bodyweight Quad Extensions
- Bodyweight Sissy Squats
- Belt Squats
Off the bat, you can decrease your total spinal load by training on one leg with lunges and various single-leg exercises.
Furthermore, you can perform these exercises with dumbbells or kettlebells to decrease the spinal load and move in a freer range of motion over placing a bar on your upper back.
Some lifters with back problems also use a weighted vest for similar results — the weight of the vest is distributed more evenly throughout the body. You could even do simple bodyweight leg workouts. Enough volume will have you feel sorer than a proverbial so-and-so.
And to make up for the lack in total weight, you can increase total volume by adding in more sets and reps.
There are other measures you can with corrective exercise such as Goblet Squats or Front Squats with 2.5lb plates under your heels.
But, if you can’t do this, we recommend hammering lunge pattern movements with dumbbells and hitting quad extensions for HIGH VOLUME for best results.
I tend to opt for 10×10 or 8×8 for lunges or box front squats, followed by 10×10 quad extensions.
If you want to train legs but don’t have a squat rack, check out this article.
How to Train Legs With a Bad Back: Deadlift/Hammies
Hamstrings should be a priority when you train legs for a variety of reasons, but this usually isn’t the case.
Most hinge pattern movements can aggravate your lower back if it rounds. This means that deadlifts, snatches, cleans, kettlebell swings, etc, are out of the question if you have lower back pain.
Does it mean you should give up?
You will need to get creative if your gym isn’t well equipped.
Here are some of my favorite exercises for hammering the hammies:
- Reverse Hyperextensions (Can actually help decompress spine)
- Leg Curls
- Glute-Ham Raise
- Nordic Glute-Ham Raise
- Cable Pull-Throughs
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
While some of them aren’t very glamorous or as exciting as the deadlift, they certainly work.
Most of my sessions incorporate a Glute-Ham Raise variation for around 50-150 reps followed by 50-150 reps of leg curls.
How to Train Legs With a Bad Back: Sample Workouts
Now, I will demonstrate some of my sample leg days to illustrate how I train legs with a bad back.
|Sample Leg Day 1||Total Sets||Total Reps||Weight Used|
|Box Front Squat/Goblet Squat 10×10|
|Glute-Ham Raise 10×10|
|Quad Extensions 10×10|
|Leg Curls 10×10|
|Stir-The-Pot Swiss Ball Plank|
|Sample Leg Day 2||Total Sets||Total Reps||Weight Used|
|Walking Lunges 4×20 paces w/ DB|
|Banded Glute-Ham Raise 5×12|
|Quad Extensions 8×8|
|Leg Curls 8×8|
|Russian Step Up 4×10 per leg w/ DB|
|One-Leg RDL 3×15 per leg w/ DB|
|Windshield Wipers 3xfailure|
How to Train Legs With a Bad Back: Conclusions
Although you might not get the biggest wheels in the business, unless you back condition is utterly debilitating, there are always methods you could use to work around your setbacks.
Granted, I might not have developed my legs without being able to squat heavy ass weights in the past, but I can certainly retain a decent amount of tissue in the process.
I walk like Bambi on ice after every session and make sure I get a good pump.
Of course, you have to exercise caution when you train to avoid injuring yourself or exacerbating your back condition, but there is always a way to train around your problems.
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