Most people will suffer from a bout or two of lower back pain at some point in their life but for some unfortunate souls, it’s a chronic problem. In fact, eight out of ten people suffer from some form of back discomfort during their lifetime and the risk goes up with age. What’s more, a study showed that women are more likely to experience lower back pain during and after menopause.
Why does back pain become more common with age? The discs that separate your vertebrae and help cushion it degenerate over time. If the degeneration becomes severe, the damaged disc can press against a spinal nerve and cause pain. Injury is another common cause of lower back pain. For example, if you’re deconditioned and lift something heavy you’re not accustomed to lifting, it strains the muscles in your back. More seriously, lifting something heavy can cause a disc to rupture or bulge. A ruptured or bulging disc compresses on the nerves in your spine and you feel pain.
Not surprisingly, deconditioning increases your risk of developing lower back pain. When the muscles in your back are weak, they’re more susceptible to injury and they don’t protect your spine as well. Abdominal obesity is another factor that predisposes to lower back pain. When your abdomen protrudes outward, it throws off your center of gravity and places added stress on the muscles that support your back. In some cases, your spine may actually tilt from the extra stress of compensating for excess tummy fat.
Another question. How’s your posture? Hopefully, you hold your body in proper alignment, so you aren’t forcing your back muscles to work harder. Poor posture is a risk factor for back pain, and with so many people sitting at work in a slumped position, bad posture is at epidemic proportions. Another problem is we’re simply sitting too much! Take more breaks to walk around and stretch during the day.
Can Weight Training Help?
As mentioned, deconditioning is a risk factor for back pain. People who have a history of lower back pain are often reluctant to weight train, fearing that lifting weights will worsen their back problems, but they’re missing out on the established conditioning benefits that weight training offers. Of course, you should always check with your doctor before weight training if you have significant lower back pain. You should also seek medical attention as soon as possible if you have any of these red-flag signs of a more serious back problem:
· Numbness or tingling in the legs
· Loss of ability to hold your bowels or bladder
· Loss of sensation
· Problems walking
· A history of trauma to the back
· Unexplained weight loss
· Intense pain in one area
However, once you get cleared, weight training may actually ease your symptoms. In one study, participants that weight-trained experienced significant improvements in lower back pain and enjoyed greater range-of-motion and ability to get around. In fact, between 50 and 80% of the participants who trained with weights reported improvements in long-term follow-up. A few other small studies show that weight training is beneficial for back pain sufferers – and we know that weight training has other health and fitness benefits as well.
Another benefit that weight training offers for back pain sufferers – it helps with weight control. As mentioned, abdominal obesity throws your center of gravity off and places stress on your spine. Losing weight, particularly in the tummy area, helps restore healthier body mechanics.
The “Traditional” Treatment for Lower Back Pain
At one time, physicians told people with back pain to go home and rest. In fact, for most cases of back pain, this is bad advice. Lack of movement causes the muscles in your back to tighten up and this makes the pain and stiffness worse. More than 100 studies show that exercise is beneficial for most cases of back pain. The key is to listen to your body and avoid exercises that cause discomfort. Weight training helps strengthen the muscles that stabilize your back and may lower the risk of a future back injury. That’s important, right? So, unless you have a serious back issue, you can probably benefit from a modified weight training routine.
Should You Avoid Certain Exercises?
As a general rule, any exercises that cause pain should be removed from your training routine until you’re pain-free. But, also avoid doing exercises that require you to hold weight and hinge at the hips. Examples include kettlebell swings, deadlifts, back extensions, good mornings, and bent over rows. Planks are a good exercise for working your abs and core as they keep your spine in a neutral position. Also, avoid doing exercises that force you to twist your back. Don’t do standing toe touches either as this move places stress on the discs in your lower back.
Other Tips for Weight Training with Back Pain
You do a warm-up before workout out, right? It’s important for everyone but it’s essential if you have a history of back pain. A dynamic warm-up that gets the blood flowing is best. Save the static stretches for after your workout is over. The purpose of a warm-up is to raise your core body temperature and reduce muscle stiffness while static stretching can temporarily reduce strength and power.
If you have active back pain, lighten up on the weights and go for higher repetitions. Your risk of further injuring your back is lower if you use lighter weights. Choose a weight that’s about 50-60% of your one-rep max and do slightly higher reps. When you lift a bit lighter, you can focus more on form and that’s important for preventing further injury. As long as you’re lifting to muscle fatigue, studies show you can build muscle using lighter weights. Be careful when you bend over to pick up weights. Bend your knees and lower your body to pick up weights while letting your legs do most of the work.
Don’t be a hero when you’re training. Use pain as a guide to tell you when you’re overdoing it or when an exercise isn’t right for you. If you feel a twinge of discomfort, stop what you’re doing. Listen to your body when you train, especially if you’re prone toward lower back pain.
Everyday Health. “The Link Between Aging and Back Pain”
Am Fam Physician. 1999 Nov 15;60(8):2299-2306.