Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How's Your Back - Bob Hoffman


Marvin Eder at 16





How’s Your Back?
by Bob Hoffman (1945)


In my last article we discoursed at considerable length concerning the anatomy of the back, and many of the serious conditions which manifest themselves as backache. If a backache persists over a long period you will be wise to pay a visit to an osteopathic physician first of all. He should quickly determine the cause of your trouble and remedy this condition. Frequently a single treatment will overcome a painful backache. If your condition is more serious than subluxation or dislocation of the vertebrae of the sacroiliac joints, you should desire to know of it and obtain proper treatment for it as quickly as possible.

It is my opinion that at least 90% of back troubles have their comparatively simple origin through habitual faulty posture of slight dislocation. If a child is not taught to sit, stand and bend correctly the backbone is constantly placed under a strain, which may not during early life result in pain, owing to the flexibility of the young, but in the end will produce a weak back as a result of these years of careless and improper posture. The subject of posture is more than enough for an article of its own, so I will continue with it in the future. For the present we will only state that the body should be held erect both in standing and sitting, that bending should be done from the hips and as little as possible through bending the spine. The spine should have its periods of regular exercise, bending at times to the limit to make it stronger and more flexible, but outside of the exercise period bending should be done from the hips, particularly when there is the lifting of weighty objects.

That’s why the stiff-legged dead weight lift, the good morning exercise, the teetotum exercise and dumbell swing are included as part of my training courses. Proper alignment of the various parts of the hips and back is determined in large measure by the strength of the muscles and ligaments which keep the bones of the back in proper position. Backache has increased many fold during the years of this century, and it is reasonable to believe that lack of exercise and an increase in sitting, particularly in faulty positions, are the seat of the trouble. The bones of the back and hips in themselves would not have the strength and ability to support the body. Although they are the foundation on which the muscles are built, it is the muscles themselves, the tendons and the ligaments which control the position of the body and every movement which involves the back. You only appreciate the functions of the back when through a mild or severe injury you find it difficult to move around. The small of the back, the vital region of the body, the part that the Ancients considered sacred, hence the name Sacrum for the lower spine, must be in proper condition if you are to be light and active on your feet. It has been said that a man is as old as his back. When the back is strong, elastic, flexible, he can get around with energy and spring. He will not tire easily, and will be as they say, “light on his feet.” But observe the shortened stride, the halting walk of the person with a strained or injured back. He can hardly get around. All advanced weightlifters are tremendous jumpers. The uninitiated are often surprised to see how these men can jump. This spring which makes a man feel like he is walking on air, when has trained his muscles to an advanced stage through barbell training, results through the strengthening of the lower back muscles, ligaments and attachments.

In the York courses we warn all students to be careful in practicing the stiff-legged dead weight lift. We ask them to start with a moderate weight and advance slowly in using heavier poundages. Bending forward is easy for some men, harder for others. It’s the way the man is put together. Certain men can lift nearly as much in the stiff-legged deadlift style as with flat back and bent legs. Wally Zagurski and his brother Tony were two who could lift 600 pounds plus with a round back. John Terry, who holds the current world’s record in the dead weight lift style, featherweight class, could, when he was in training for record deadlifting, perform repetitions with 500 pounds. Not knowing what sort of back the average student has, we recommend that at no time should more than bodyweight be used in this exercise.

The average person can learn to bend back easily, most any child can learn acrobatic dancing and learn to walk bent far back with the head near the ankles, the hands clasping the ankles, but only a few have a hinge in their back which permits them to lean forward as well as backward. While most humans can learn by practice, by stretching the muscles in the various weight exercises which develop the muscles from extreme of contraction to extreme of extension, there are a limited number who can bend forward well enough that they are what is commonly called “double jointed.”

Most of us have to be careful in bending forward, particularly if we are untrained. In manufacturing plants where it is necessary at times to perform heavy labor, to make heavy lifts, it will be found that many of he men have strained backs and even permanent damage. It is important to learn what sort of back you have and how to use it.

Certain men, mentioning again Wally Zagurski, and adding the names of Val de Genaro and John Grimek, could bend forward to the point where they could almost touch their elbows to the floor while holding the knees straight. To this list should also be added the name of Elmer Farnham, killed in the invasion of France. All of these men could perform the stiff-legged deadlift standing on a box, lowering the weight from six to twelve inches below where they were standing. All were good at the stiff-legged deadlift and all excelled at the bent press. Wally and John Grimek have pressed 300 pounds to arm’s length in the bent press style. Val de Genaro is currently the holder of the lightweight record at 215 pounds.

These men, although all beautifully built, are slightly longer in the back in proportion to the length of their legs than most men. All could snatch and clean in what is known as the squat style. Wally, way back in 1933, won five championships in a single year using this style. Grimek habitually snatched and cleaned in the squat style, as did Val de Genaro. Taller men rarely have the ability to bend like these men, or to use the squat style without much practice and training. Most men who are tall possess leg bones of great length, yet their backs may only be the same length as men who are inches shorter. While these men can clean well, their comparatively short backs and bent strong legs make this possible; but these men should not use too great a weight in the stiff-legged deadlift.

I am in this latter category, although I was flexible enough to touch the palms of my hands to the floor while standing with straight knees I could not hold it the position for more than seconds, while some men have developed the ability to stand in the style for long periods of time. I have used 300 pounds in the stiff-legged deadlift with round back and locked knees, twelve repetitions, but the fact that I felt strained in the lower back afterwards was an indication that it was too much weight for me. Although I could bend like most of the nation’s leading bent pressers, I did manage to develop enough ability along this line for some years.

You and only you must determine what sort of back you have. As suggested previously, start moderately, increase your poundage slowly until you observe just how your back feels. You should seek a strong back, but you do not want to strain your back. By all means practice the exercises which stretch and strengthen the back from one extreme to the other, but don’t subject your back suddenly to enough strain to injure it, even if only a little.

It is believed by authorities that half of men and women have one leg that is shorter than the other. It may seem shorter, but one of the mysteries of life is that growth can be so uniform, very rarely is there a difference in the actual length of the leg bones. The apparent difference is in the tilting of the bones which join the backbone and the hip bone. These articulate at the sacroiliac joints, to either side of the fifth vertebra. It is here that the fifth vertebra also unites with the sacrum which in turn is connected to the pelvis or hip bone, and this transmits the weight and power of the body to the legs or from the legs to the body. Although the vertebrae are united to one another by what should be very powerful attachments, and the entire backbone is covered behind with a very complicated system of powerful muscles which are grouped together under the name erector spinae, it is possible that the hip joints, the sacroiliac joints and the connection of the fifth vertebra can get out of adjustment.

This can occur with the habitually weak, untrained man or woman by any slight twist or jar, even sudden movements during sleep. It can also occur with the strongman or potential strongman by becoming too ambitious, by trying to lift too much weight too soon. This condition often comes about when too much weight is lifted suddenly with a round back. It could occur in performing a dead weight lift or deep knee bend when the back is permitted to round instead of being held flat.
If you report to an Osteopath complaining of back trouble, the first thing he will do is lay you upon a table and place your heels together. In the majority of cases it will be found that one leg is shorter than the other in this position and he will endeavor to overcome this condition. If you do not find it convenient to visit such a physician, or do not have the funds to do so, there are a number of things you can do for yourself. Lie upon a table and have a friend or family member observe if one leg is longer than another in this position. Or stand with your back to an observer and ask him to note if one shoulder is held higher than the other.

Even if you do not have pain at this time it is still wise to subject yourself to these tests to find if your spine and connections to the hip bone are in the proper place. Failure to do so may in time result in a variety of unpleasant pains. If the condition is permitted to continue it can result in spinal curvature, lack of energy and endurance, headaches – due primarily to the pressure on the huge spinal nerves which pass through the backbone. Occasionally while being observed from the back it can be noted that one side of the belt is higher than the other, thus proving that the hip bone is tilted.




For many years the members of the York team have performed certain movements to keep their backs in good condition. Hanging is one of these, for hanging has a tendency to stop congestion by freeing the parts of the body from pressure of any sort. Age manifests itself when the body settles upon itself, so the longer you can prevent the condition by standing and sitting erect, by exercising and thus keeping the muscles alive, elastic, and by the practice of at least a moderate amount of hanging, the longer you will feel, look and act young. In the doorway to the York barbell gym is a chinning bar. This is made of a standard section of barbell bar, cut to proper length to fit the doorway, a pair of blocks made of a 2 x 6 board have been notched and attached so as to support the bar. Various types of chinning and high pullups are practiced on this bar, and some exercises while hanging by the knees in an inverted position.

It’s not unusual for one the club members to walk over to another and ask him to snap his back. Perhaps the man feels that his back is not as flexible, and knowing that snapping it will remove the stiffness, he asks one of his training mates to snap it. The one who wishes to have his back snapped stands in front of the other, the man in the rear wraps his arms around the one he is to snap, lifts him slowly from the floor and then with a sudden lowering of the body he jerks it just before the feet touch the floor. This snap would lift the vertebrae, permitting them to come back into the proper position.

For some years we have made use of a slight variation of the good morning and the teetotum exercise to more properly seat the sacroiliac joints. As normally practiced with the teetotum, you lean to the side with the bar held in the dead weight lifting position. you twist until the bar is at right angles to the feet instead of parallel with them as in the usual dead weight lift, then you rise to the straightened position of the body. The good morning exercise is usually performed by leaning forward only, with the weight back of the neck. With either exercise with the feet well apart, the knees straight, and keeping the shoulders parallel with the floor bend far to the side, keeping the body in the bent over position, shoulders parallel to the floor, swing in a quarter circle until your head is over the other foot, then come erect. Continue this movement five or six times, starting first down toward the right foot, swinging to the left, and then going down to the left foot and swinging to the right.

While this exercise will suffice to keep the normal back in proper alignment, if your back hurts already it will be all you can do to perform this movement with the empty hands clasped behind the head. Some time ago we received a small book from G. R. Jackson, a physical trainer from Edmonton, Canada, called Backache, How to Cure Your Own. During forty years in physical training he has helped his pupils overcome many conditions through exercise, particularly back troubles. Utilizing a variety of exercises, he now believes the good morning or the teetotum to be best. He performs his recommended movement, with hands clasped back of neck, with the feet at right angles and far apart, but with one resting upon a chair. Leaning forward as far as possible with a flat back, he recommends swinging to the opposite side and then up. His book is rather complete, we think it a book of value for those who have various back troubles, and believe we could get any interested reader a copy for about one dollar if he or she desires to have a copy of Mr. Jackson’s book.

Although it is important that you stretch and strengthen your back through proper exercise, you should acquire the habit of bending from the hips when you work or lift. Assume the flat back, bent-legged method of lifting, and thus improve chances of avoiding possible back injury. A mixture of Sloan’s liniment and olive oil before training will help if you should strain your back.

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