Did you know back pain is the number one cause of disability worldwide? In fact, experts point out that eight out of ten people will have a back problem at some point in their life. That’s why protecting our backs when we train is so important! Although you can injure any part of your back, your lower back is the most prone to injury. This region of your back is uniquely susceptible to strain, as it’s the segment of your back that has the least support. It’s not uncommon to have disc herniations in this region, usually involving the lower lumbar discs, L4 and L5.
On the plus side, staying physically active and weight training helps strengthen the structures that support the back at all levels. On the downside, sloppy weight training practices can increase your risk of back strain or even a disc herniation. That’s something you don’t need if you want to stay pain-free and physically active! Let’s look at what steps we can take to protect our back when we weight train.
Don’t Be a Hero
No doubt, you need to challenge yourself when you lift. Progressive overload is the name of the game. But, don’t try to tackle more than you can lift with good form. You may think you have good lifting technique, but are you sure? Have a knowledgeable person watch you as you do various weight training exercises and critique your form.
When you lift, make sure you’re bending at the knees and hips and not arching your back. Your back should be straight throughout the movement. Always hold the weight close to your body. Doing so keeps the resistance closer to your center of gravity, thereby reducing the risk of injury. Just as importantly, avoid twisting your body suddenly as this can stretch the tendons and ligaments in your back and cause a strain. Even worse, a sudden twisting movement could rupture a disc and leave you with chronic pain.
Work On Your Posture
Poor posture alone can bring on back pain and there’s an epidemic of it as more people have sedentary jobs these days. Be aware of the alignment of your head and shoulders when you stand and walk. Your head should be in line with your spine and your shoulders shouldn’t fall forward, what some people call droopy shoulder syndrome. Poor alignment of the head and shoulders places stress on the upper back and neck and is a common trigger for neck pain and upper back pain.
Since you probably do a lot of sitting, be aware of how you position your body in a chair. The biggest problem most people have is letting their head and shoulders fall forward as they sit, especially if they’re working in front of a computer or texting. Invest in a comfortable chair for the office with good support and make sure your back rests against the back of the chair when you sit for support. Keep both feet flat on the floor with your weight distributed evenly. Don’t cross your legs or sit with one foot underneath you. When you’re sitting, avoid twisting your body around to one side or the other to grab something or open a drawer. This places excessive force on the ligaments, tendons, and discs in your spine. Also, consider adding a chair to your office that has firm lumbar support. Choosing a supportive chair is a good long-term investment in the health of your spine.
Work Your Core Muscles
One way to lower your risk of back pain is to strengthen your core muscles. Too often, we focus on the abs, in an attempt to get a six-pack, and neglect the other muscles that support the back and spine. In fact, some abdominal exercises, like crunches and sit-ups, place excessive force on your spine because you’re flexing at the trunk. Exercises, where you flex your spine, shouldn’t make up the bulk of your workout, and if you have lower back problems, you should probably avoid them entirely.
A better alternative for working your abs is planks. When you do a plank you keep your back straight and you work all the muscles in your core region rather than just the rectus abdominis, so you get a more balanced workout. Once a basic plank becomes too easy, try one of the many plank variations that challenge your core muscles even more. When you do planks, tighten your abdominal muscles. Doing this reduces the tendency to arch the back. Study good plank form and learn how to do one properly.
Aerobic exercise, too, is important for the health of your back and spine as it delivers oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and tissues in your back. So, a balanced workout program, including exercise that boosts your heart rate, helps maintain a healthy back and spine.
Know Your Own Back
If you have a history of back injury, especially disc problems, get evaluated by a physiatrist or orthopedic specialist before doing heavy weight training. They may recommend that you avoid certain exercises or use lighter weights and higher reps to reduce your risk of back injury. Then, listen to your body. If you feel a twinge of back pain, don’t train through it, especially if you have a history of back problems. Also, if you have biomechanical problems, like too much curvature in the lower back, you’re more susceptible to back pain and injury. An orthopedist, physiatrist, or physical therapist can identify these problems and recommend corrective exercises.
The Good News
Lifting weights incorrectly is stressful to the ligaments, tendons, muscles, and discs in your spine, but proper training helps prevent lower back pain and can even improve the symptoms of existing back pain. The key is to do it safely. Now, you know some of the steps you can take to keep your back and spine healthy when you train.
American Chiropractic Association. “Back Pain Facts and Statistics”
Harvard Health Publishing. “Want a stronger core? Skip the sit-ups”
Spinal Research Foundation. “Breaking Down the Exercises that Break Down Your Spine”
Can Weight Training Ease Lower Back Pain?
5 Abdominal Exercises That Won’t Hurt Your Back
Training This Muscle Can Help You Avoid Lower Back Pain