In the clinic, we often see gym goers presenting with upper, middle, or lower back pain from lifting weights, through exercises such as deadlift and back squat. Does this mean that lifting weights is bad for your back? It certainly doesn’t, and whilst there is a risk of back injuries, there are numerous strategies we can do to help prevent back pain and keep you lifting injury free.
Warm up for weightlifting
The key to any great weightlifting session is a great warm up. Your warm up should start off with some light-moderate exercise, followed by dynamic stretching. This allows your muscles and joints to help prepare themselves for the load they are about to be placed under. When lifting weights, it is especially important to start light, even just with bodyweight exercises, and slowly increase how much you’re lifting as you build towards your target weight. Going in cold and trying to squat 100kg off the block, whilst may seem like a good way to get in and out of the gym, is one of the worst things you can do if trying to prevent injury.
Strengthen your core muscles
Your core muscles are essential when repetitive lifting, as they help support your spine under load. Doing core strength training exercises as part of your weekly routine will help strengthen these abdominal muscles, and allow them to activate whilst lifting weights. This will take some of the burden off of your lower back, and help decrease your risk of injury.
Ask a coach for help with form
If you’re unsure on proper lifting technique, or how to position your body when completing a lift, or which muscle groups you should feel activating, asking a coach to help with your form can be a great way to find out. Small cues from a coach can help correct posture, and get you lifting with a more neutral spine position. This can help avoid extra stress on your spine and help increase synergy between muscle groups, increasing your ability to lift heavier weights, and decreasing risk of injury.
If your form is looking great, but you are still struggling for other reasons, a coach or physiotherapist can also modify the activity for you. For example when squatting, if you are having difficulty activating your glutes and your legs are being pulled in, we can add a resistance band around your knees to force these muscles to activate. Likewise, if you are struggling getting low due to ankle mobility, we can add heel lifts underneath your feet, to allow greater range through your ankles, and a deeper squat. The possibilities are endless!
Treat existing injuries
If you have an existing injury, whether it be a muscle sprain or herniated disc, it is important to seek medical advice on what to do next. When experiencing back pain, whether it’s in your upper, middle, or lower back, you must identify what it is causing this pain. A Physiotherapist will be able to help you with this, through a detailed subjective and objective examination, to diagnose your injury. We will also be able to determine the next step forward, and modify your training program to best promote a healthy recovery. We can use a range of treatment methods from hands on therapy to exercise therapy, in order to help you continue heavy lifting pain free.
Rest and recovery
Just like the start of a session, what you do following strength training exercises is extremely important in helping to avoid injury. Immediately after a session has finished it is important to cool down. This should consist of low intensity activity, and should be followed by static stretching. This will help allow your heart rate to gradually decrease, which will assist with lactic acid breakdown in your muscles. The static stretching will also help with preventing your muscles tightening as they return to a resting state following working under heavy loads.
In addition to your immediate recovery, it is also important that you give your body adequate time during the week to rest and recover. Muscles need rest in order to resupply worked areas with nutrients, oxygen, and special cells called fibroblasts which allow for tissue healing following damage caused by workouts. This period also allows for muscular hypertrophy, which increases muscle size and strength. If the body is not allowed this time to recover, damage caused to the muscles will not have adequate time and resources to heal, which can lead to injury. If you’re feeling constantly fatigued, try adding in frequent breaks and a couple extra rest days, or if you’ve been training a long time, give yourself a deload week to help your body recover and prevent back pain.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I lift weights if I have lower back pain?
This depends! Generally, If the pain is low level, such as a 4/10 or below, and resolves immediately after, this may be okay to work through when you are recovering. When treating an injury, we may not get you to stop all together, rather just work at a lower intensity. If you are experiencing symptoms such as joint pain, muscle soreness, or muscle spasms, make sure you speak with your coach/physio on what is best for you!
How do you know if your back injury is serious?
This can be hard to know sometimes, but if you are experiencing a sharp pain that is not going away after finishing your activity, it is important to seek medical advice. We always recommend getting any niggling problems checked out, so you can get on top of your back injuries, before your injuries get on top of you!
Are squats good for the lower back?
Yes! Squats are a great activity that targets the lower back and lower limb in its entirety. Whilst you may hear bad things associated with squats and injury, as long as you follow our tips such as warming up and not lifting too heavy too early, they are a fantastic exercise to add into your routine.
What exercise not to do with lower back pain?
If you are experiencing low back pain, it is important to talk to your physiotherapist about whether you can continue weight training with a bad back. We won’t always tell you to avoid any exercises, however we may get you to reduce the intensity of them, such as reducing the weight, or moving to bodyweight exercises. The body loves exercise, and moving is a key to a healthy recovery!
Are weightlifting belts good for low back pain prevention?
Whilst weight belts are definitely not required for every exercise, they can help brace the core and abdominal muscles in exercises such as squatting and deadlifting. If you are experiencing pain, you can try using a weight belt and see if it works for you!