There are many reasons that someone’s back can be out of whack in the gym, causing chronic pain or acute injuries.
In some cases, it could come down to bad overall posture, making the low back bear plenty more load than it ever should be.
In others, it could be chalked up to poor lifting technique, leaving the spine hanging out to dry while loading movements.
In others still, it could be a genetic predisposition to weakness or various syndromes.
Being a victim to bad luck of the draw is never easy, and even with great lifting form, there’s not much that can be done other than playing it really safe.
With this in mind, regardless of what category you fall under, it’s important that you keep certain directives in mind when designing your workout program or hitting the iron hard.
These tips should always be in first mind while you’re having at it.
Tip 1: Lift Right
As mentioned above, lifting with bad form will be the first way to create spinal issues or exacerbate existing ones.
Related: Tweaked Your Back? 7 Ways You Can Still Train
If you don’t know how to apply basic important cues like keeping a neutral spine while lifting, creating abdominal tension, engaging the glutes, and retracting the shoulder blades, you’re not off to a good start, and probably can stand for some coaching. Having another set of trained eyes on you is the best investment you can make for your health and your results.
On that note, if lifting with a trainer is just plain not in the cards for you right now, make yourself a student of the craft. Read articles and watch videos that demonstrate good form for exercises, and then apply the cues in your workouts. Use your camera phone as a form check by recording loaded sets. You may be surprised by what you see once you play it back.
Tip 2: Improve Hip & Shoulder Mobility
The ball and socket joints of the shoulders and hips go a long way in dictating spine health, and vice versa. The two go hand in hand to create a suitable environment to lift weights injury free. Poor shoulder mobility will likely mean a kyphotic mid and upper spine, which throws off most upper body lifting mechanics and creates a very bad atmosphere for the shoulder to bear load.
Similarly, a pair of locked up hips inhibits gluteal involvement, which is a key player to reduce lower back overload and kills excessive lordosis. Two simple drills to spearhead the issue would be the following:
1. Spiderman Walks with Thoracic Rotation
This exercise attacks basically everything mentioned above, with the emphasis placed on both hip flexibility and mid back rotational ability. This will set the stage for improving shoulder range of motion when it’s done correctly.
Take your time during each stride to really get the most out of the stretch. Remember to reach above the head, not behind the back.
2. Shoulder Dislocates
Using a dowel (or a band if you want some “give” to accommodate your shoulders), perform full revolutions over the head, making sure not to let the elbows bend. You’ll feel a stretch in the outer chest.
Tip 3: Don’t Rely on the Deadlift – It’s Only One Tool
This may catch many reading this by surprise, but the deadlift isn’t something I view as the pinnacle back exercise to ensure your spine stays strong and functional.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fantastic and extremely important movement pattern for you to not only practice, but look to improve. But there’s an obsession over endlessly looking for a heavier and heavier deadlift without realizing that doing so translates itself less and less to a healthy spine.
In truth, someone who can pull 500 pounds may have a vertebral column and connective tissue that’s barely hanging on to do it. Moreover, a single rep – or even 3 or 5 reps – is not a good representation of time under tension that the lower spine should learn to tolerate.
Many demanding life chores that rely on the lower back being loaded aren’t performed for 5 or 10 seconds. They rely mostly on muscular endurance, along with strength.
Instead of going heavy every week with the deadlift, try lifting for reps using other exercises just as often. If you’ve got health in first mind, of course. Some movements that are great to accomplish this:
- Horizontal back extensions
- Bird dogs
- Bentover rows
- GHR blackburns
Tip 4: Make the Muscles of the Core Do Their Real Job
When people think “core”, they often think “abs”. And when people think “abs”, they often think of trunk flexion without even realizing it. That means movements like crunches, lying leg raises, and sit ups come to mind, when in truth, none of these movements do much too actually make the spine a safer, stronger, and more stable unit.
When it comes to core training, we have to remember the primary function of the abs, obliques, and lower back is to remove instability from unwanted external forces to protect the spine. If the core muscles are really doing their job, the spine shouldn’t have any issues. That means zeroing in on movements that do just that.
- Anti-Extension: Ab Wheel Rollouts
- Anti-Rotation: Plate Transfer Plank
- Anti-Lateral Flexion: Single Arm Overhead Carry
Lastly, creating forces that help transfer energy through the body is just as important for load bearing purposes. While the extremities are in motion, adequate bracing through the core is a must to make movement more efficient and properly distributed.
Dead bug variations work on just that tension by asking the trunk to remain still and engaged while the legs and arms simultaneously do work.
Tip 5: Think Decompression
We can easily get sucked down the rabbit hole of doing many compressive exercises during the course of our workout, which is only bearing down on our spine (and other load bearing joints) the entire time.
Exercises that create force in the opposing direction can be a saving grace for spine health, and unlock some intervertebral space to allow for decompression and increased blood flow. Plus, they can just plain make the spine feel great.
The name of the game here is hanging work. Lifts like chin ups, dips, and hanging leg raises are great examples of movements that don’t compress the spine. Furthermore, a smart tactic to employ would be that of arranging supersets in a way that allows for such decompressive movements to counter compressive moves that precede them. Here’s an example:
A1. Barbell Deadlift
A2. Bodyweight Dips
B1. Back Squat
B2. Pull Ups
C1. Strict Barbell Press
C2. Hanging Leg Raise
Tip 6: Note The Time Of Day
I saved this one for last because it’s an important, yet very overlooked piece of information.
The reason it’s often said that we as humans are “taller” in the morning is actually because the intervertebral discs collect more fluid while we’re laying horizontally at night. Because of this, the spine is a bit less stable and more prone to injury until these discs drain.
Related: Warming Up For Dummies - A Lifter’s Guide to Injury Prevention
Lifting heavy weights first thing in the morning may feel invigorating, but depending on how soon you’re doing so after you wake up, you may be doing some harm to your vertebrae – especially if you’re more susceptible to spine injuries than the next guy.
If you can, give yourself a few hours of upright movement before hitting the gym, and you’ll be glad you did. If you can’t do this, then focus on horizontal pushes and pulls on the days you’ve gotta pull the 6AM session. Those movements aren’t as demanding on the spine as their vertical push/pull counterparts, and can salvage your joints for the time being.
Summary on Preventing Back Pain
As a guy who’s dealt with plenty of issues to my lower and upper spine, I speak from not only a place of science and education, but also one of firsthand experience – to all of the tips shared here.
The truth is, if we want to be lifting for a really long time, we have to be mindful of the way we lift and also the way we program our lifts.
We’ll always be mind-blown by the guy who comes into the gym to lift heavy with abysmal form but somehow never gets injured. But do we really want to take the blind leap of faith and follow his path?
I vote no. Play it safe, educate yourself, and train right. You’ll be better off in the long run.
Great article, as always Lee.