Having Low back pain in the gym is one of the most frustrating injurys you can get. You get into a routine of getting stronger and fitter then bang- out of know where your low back pain flares up.
One of the most common complaints seen when returning to the gym in January is lower back pain , or a ‘pulled back’. An average to 60-80% of people will be affected by low back pain at some stage in their lifetime.
This article can help if:
- You want to avoid low back pain in the gym
- You are unsure if you can exercise with low back pain
- You want to know what may be causing your back pain
- You have rested and the pain isn’t resolving
Although rarely too serious, the sensation of pain or discomfort in the lower back can be a frightening experience and lead to fear-avoidance and deconditioning in the long run as people tend to rest and avoid all loading in order to protect the back. In this article I am going to go over some of the common mistakes people make when returning to the gym in January, as well as address some misconceptions about the lower back in terms of lifting weight and exercising.
CAN LIFTING WEIGHTS CAUSE LOWER BACK PAIN IN THE GYM?
Like any other muscle or body part, the lower back is susceptible to injury if the demands placed on the structures and tissues outweigh their capacity to perform a certain task. This does not necessarily mean that the gym causes lower back pain. Two of the most common errors people make are:
- Load selection
- Technique – It is essential to perform your lifts with the correct form to not only protect yourself from injury, but to maximise your output on each lift. Many people will go to the gym, perform a generic exercise programme a couple of times a week without ever looking at their form or technique. You may get away with this initially, but if you don’t learn the correct patterns for the key compound lifts such as squats, deadlifts etc as you progress your body will start to tell you something isn’t right. If you are new to the gym, take the time to learn the correct technique for each exercise.
Start these movements with just your bodyweight and begin to add load as the exercise becomes easier. As a general rule of thumb as a beginner, I would recommend lifting a lighter weight while keeping the repetitions slow and controlled. Leave the ego at the door!
Take a look at this video of deadlift technique to prevent lower back pain.
- Load selection – If the tissues in our lower back cannot tolerate the loads they are being placed under with exercise, they will likely be overloaded leading to pain and injury. Many lifters will return to the gym in January having had a couple of weeks off relaxing and enjoying the festivities! By lifting the same weight you did 2-3 weeks previous in your first session back, you could be leaving yourself vulnerable to an episode of back pain.
Instead, it is best to reduce your load by 20-30% of what you lifted before the break and ease yourself back in for the first 2-3 sessions. So for example, if previously you were lifting 100kg on a trap bar deadlift for 3 sets of 8, why not try 2-3 sets of 70kg on the first day back, then gradually add weight session by session e.g Session 1 -70kg, session 2 – 80kg, session 3 – 90kg and so on. Gradually building the load again will allow you to readjust to the demands of weight training without overdoing it in the first session.
CAN I CONTINUE TO EXERCISE WITH LOW BACK PAIN IN THE GYM?
In the majority of cases, rest will rarely resolve any musculoskeletal issue. In the case of low back pain, the evidence shows that prolonged best rest may actually hinder your recovery rather than help relieve your low back pain. It is extremely important that you continue to exercise at a tolerable level, whether that’s as simple as just going for a walk, getting in and out of a chair 10-20 times in a row or some gentle resistance exercises which don’t provoke the pain to a level that isn’t tolerable.
Back pain can be scary, however it is extremely common to feel this sensation of tightness or spasm if you’ve recently returned to the gym or exercise so don’t worry!
If you are still unsure, why not book in for a session with us in clinic where we will:
- Take a detailed assessment of your injury, mobility, strength and assess your current programme
- Treat you injury with a tailored rehabilitation programme specific to your individual needs
- Address any additional compensation patterns
- Provide you with the tools to confidently get back to your activity and prevent reinjury.
Read more about how we can help you overcome your back pain here.
WHAT ARE THE BEST EXERCISES FOR MY LOW BACK PAIN IN THE GYM?
Although many exercises in the gym will indirectly target your lower back and your core to help keep you strong, it is important to add in some targeted exercises to strengthen and move your back in all of its planes of movement. In the modern day, we spend a lot of our time in seated positions whether that’s at work, driving or binge watching Netflix! While sitting isn’t the devil we once thought it was, it is essential that we take time out of our day to actively move. Our spine is made to flex, extend, bend from side to side and rotate when needed. Even as little as 5 minutes of movement can be hugely beneficial.
We need to target the lower back in a variety of ways, but some of the most common exercises we will use in clinic are:
- Deadlift variations (Trap bar, Sumo, Single leg)
- Squat variations (Goblet, Back Squat, Box Squat)
- Back extension variations
- Core exercises (Sit ups, planks, side planks, pallof presses)
Take a look at this video of some graded exposure exercises if you are dealing with an episode of back pain in the gym.
Small gains will add up. If you’re going to the gym 4x per week, and work on some targeted lower back movements for just 5 minutes per session, within a year you will have achieved 1040 minutes movement!
All that being said, back pain is common. It may be something you experience at some stage on your exercise journey. Don’t panic! There are many misconceptions about lower back pain.
Let’s have a look at some of these below.
IS BENDING FORWARD BAD FOR MY BACK?
Your back is a strong, resilient structure designed to move. Bending forward is a normal function of the spine and doesn’t need to be feared. Where people may have difficulty is when they perform an activity over and over again without having the strength to do so. For example, going out to do the gardening all day when the weather is good (A rare occasion in Ireland!)
To make use of the good weather, spending the whole day bending and twisting is going to be above the norm for that person which may lead to a feeling of stiffness or pain. This is actually due to the cumulative load built up on that day for that person, and not actually due to the act of bending forward!
When a flare up happens, we do recommend to avoid a movement that provokes this, which may be bending forward for example, but this will only be for a short period while we build the strength back. It is important to get yourself on a plan to help return to activity, and address any strength or mobility deficits you may have.
We see people like this every day in our clinic, why not get in touch to see how we can help.
IS MY POSTURE CAUSING MY LOWER BACK PAIN?
This ‘myth’ isn’t completely false, but it seems the message regarding posture and low back pain has been lost in translation. Sitting all day at the desk, hunched forward, shoulders rounded, neck extended is certainly not the best for your body but the opposite is also true. Trying to sit up straight, shoulders locked back and constantly thinking about your posture will also take its toll. In truth, the worst posture is the one you stay in for too long. So if you are office/desk based try to stand up, move around or take a short walk around every hour or so if possible.
Our body will become accustomed to the posture we assume most regularly, which can affect important muscles and cause pain if not addressed. Muscles may become short and tight, while others may be lengthened and become weak.
Have a look at this video addressing some of the other common misconceptions around back pain.
WILL REST HELP MY LOWER BACK PAIN?
The simple answer to this is no. Like many injuries, in the early phase of healing we need to respect the injured tissue and allow it time to settle but this will rarely be for long. Once you’ve passed the acute phase of healing (48-72 hrs) there is almost always something active you can do to begin working the area again!
Taking an active approach to your recovery is essential. Early exercise intervention and movement will help speed up your return to activity. Want to find out more about the most effective treatment for lower back pain, click here!
Thanks for taking the time to read.
Sean O Hanlon.