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5 Ways to Protect Your Back & Stay Pain-Free When You Workout

Back Training

Strength training is the ultimate way to increase muscle mass, reduce body fat, and improve physical performance and functionality in sports and daily life. If you aren’t strength training after the age of 35, you’re losing muscle. Plus, working muscles against resistance offers other health benefits, such as lowering the risk of osteoporosis.

Strengthening the muscles that support your spine also reduces your risk for back pain, but how you train matters. Strength training with improper biomechanics increases the risk of back injury. Exercises like deadlifts and squats require proper form to avoid irritating or injuring delicate structures, like muscles and the discs that support and cushion your spine.

How well are you protecting your back? Let’s look at some ways to lower your risk of back injury when you strength train.

Start Training Using No Weight

When you first start training, developing good habits is essential. Bad habits and poor biomechanics are hard to unlearn. Form matters more than weight or repetitions, so focus on getting the basics right before challenging yourself with weight. Certain exercises carry a higher risk of back injury than others. High-risk exercises include deadlifts, snatches, and clean-and-jerks. Squats can also be a high-risk exercise if you round your back you raise or lower your torso. One of the most common causes of back pain and injury with strength training is back rounding when lifting a heavy weight.

Once you’ve mastered the biomechanics of strength-training movements and you can do them with the correct form, transition to light weights. Only advance the weight when you’re comfortable with and able to do an exercise with proper form. Often, people try to increase their weight before they’ve mastered the basics. Building a strong foundation will help prevent future injuries.

Consider Wearing a Weight Training Belt

While it’s unclear whether wearing a weight training belt lowers the risk of a back injury, it makes you more aware of your form when training. Serious bodybuilders wear them because they support their abdominal muscles and help them generate more intraabdominal pressure for giant lifts.

Weight training belts also provide extra support for your spine when you work with weights. One concern is that wearing a belt every time you train can weaken your core muscles, especially a deep muscle group called the transverse abdominis. It may be helpful to wear one to make you more aware of your form but avoid wearing one every time you strength train.

Strengthen Your Core

Core work is essential for protecting your back from injury. Abdominal, trunk, lower back, and pelvic floor muscles make up your core muscles. These muscles work together to support your spine and keep your body in proper alignment. Strong core muscles protect your spine from injury. If the muscles that support your back and spine are weak, your spinal discs and ligaments are placed under more stress because they must pick up the slack. Strengthening your core muscles reduces the strain on ligaments and discs. Among the most effective exercises for strengthening your core are front planks, side planks, and exercises like bird dogs. By strengthening your core, you will also improve your stability, alignment, and balance.

Avoid Doing Too Many Sit-Ups and Abdominal Crunches

Sit-ups and abdominal crunches involve repeated flexion of your lumbar spine. If you have a history of back pain, doing too many of these exercises may increase your risk of a lower back strain. Crunches and sit-ups work your hip flexors more than your abs and core, and they can tighten and shorten your hip flexors. Why is that a problem? If you sit much of the time, your hip flexors are already tight. and crunches and sit-ups create even more tightness. Tight hip flexors also pull on your spine and create back discomfort.

If you have a history of back pain or injury, avoid ab crunches and sit-ups entirely. If not, do them in moderation and use precise form. To prevent injury, don’t jerk your body up or arch your back as you lift yourself. Limit your range of motion too. Lifting only your head and shoulders off the floor places more emphasis on your abs and less on your hip flexors. So, you get the benefits with fewer risks. Also, stop if you feel pain or discomfort.

You can get many of the same benefits and get them safely by doing planks and plank variations. When strength training, the rule is “do no harm.” Abdominal crunches also pull on your neck and can cause neck pain.

Listen to Your Body

Take back pain seriously. If you experience a back strain, give your back a chance to recover before continuing your training, or at least modify the movements so that you’re not experiencing discomfort. Do stretching exercises in place of strength training until your discomfort has subsided. If you have weakness, numbness, tingling, or bowel and bladder changes, consult your healthcare provider immediately. Also, see them if the pain persists.

The Bottom Line

Protect your back by training properly. Strength training can lower your risk of lower back pain, but how you train is crucial. Poor biomechanics are the most common cause of lower back injury when training. Take care of your back, so you can keep training without limitations, and you won’t be sidelined by an achy back or, even worse, a herniated disc.

References:

  • “The best core exercises for older adults – Harvard Health.” 01 Apr. 2021, health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-best-core-exercises-for-older-adults.
  • “BACK BELTS – Do They Prevent Injury? (94-127) | NIOSH | CDC.” cdc.gov/niosh/docs/94-127/default.html.
  • Dalichau S, Scheele K. Auswirkungen elastischer Lumbal-Stützgurte auf den Effekt eines Muskeltrainingsprogrammes für Patienten mit chronischen Rückenschmerzen [Effects of elastic lumbar belts on the effect of a muscle training program for patients with chronic back pain]. Z Orthop Ihre Grenzgeb. 2000 Jan-Feb;138(1):8-16. German. doi: 10.1055/s-2000-10106. PMID: 10730357.
  • “Athletic Medicine Lumbar/Core Strength and Stability Exercises.” https://uhs.princeton.edu/sites/uhs/files/documents/Lumbar.pdf.
  • Chang WD, Lin HY, Lai PT. Core strength training for patients with chronic low back pain. J Phys Ther Sci. 2015 Mar;27(3):619-22. doi: 10.1589/jpts.27.619. Epub 2015 Mar 31. PMID: 25931693; PMCID: PMC4395677.

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