In our 10 years of being personal trainers, one of the most common concerns we come across is the issue of low back pain. We hear it all the time: “I’d really love to be able to work out to lose weight, but my back bothers me too much and I don’t want to hurt it more by lifting weights.” This thought process, while somewhat understandable, becomes problematic because the individual will typically become sedentary for fear of injury, which will only exacerbate their pre-existing condition. The key to alleviating back pain is first to understand how back pain is caused, in most cases, and then to devise a to eliminate these causes safely and effectively through exercise.
According to their website, The Mayo Clinic identifies five (5) main risk factors that are typically linked to chronic low back pain: lack of exercise, excess weight, improper lifting/poor mobility, diseases (like osteoporosis, certain kinds of cancer, and arthritis), and smoking. While all of these factors is important to watch out for, we are going to focus on the issue of lack of exercise as it relates to back pain, and what can be done about it.
Lack of exercise is arguably one of the biggest causes of back pain because it applies to a vast number of people, and when we take a closer look at the anatomy of the spine, especially the lumbar spine (lower back), it’s easy to understand why. This portion of the spine is incredibly susceptible to being affected by pain due to it’s capacity for a wide range of motion, and the fact that it carries all of the weight of the torso. As a result, it is vital that the muscles surrounding the spine are both properly strengthened and flexible enough to support the demands that are constantly placed on the spine. In particular, the extensor muscles which bend the back backwards; flexor muscles like the abdominals that bend the spine forwards; and oblique muscles which allow you to bend and twist the spine from side to side, all need to be consistently strengthened and kept flexible in order for the lumbar spine to operate effectively and pain free. If any one of these muscle groups becomes weakened or too tight due to lack of proper exercise, a number of injuries could occur such as a slipped disc, or nerve impingement (sciatica).
Therefore, one of the most important things that can be done to prevent this type of back pain is regular and specific exercise. In particular, some of the best exercises and stretches to work the extensor muscles include the deadlift, supermans, and cobra pose stretch. For the flexor group, you should incorporate planks, traditional crunches (with feet on the floor) and the kneeling lunge stretch. Finally, to work the oblique muscles, you can incorporate the bicycle crunch and cable trunk-rotations. Additionally, it also advisable to do all your other exercises with freeweights (either dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells). This will force your body to use the muscles surrounding your lumbar spine to activate while you are completing an exercise that might be focused on completely different muscle group like your chest or legs. This way, every exercise becomes an ab exercise!!
As you can see, when taking into consideration action steps to prevent low back pain from occurring in your future, an enormous amount of focus needs to be placed on regular, and properly performed exercise; specifically strength training. Who knows? After spending enough time working out lifting weights, you may find the only source of back pain you experience is the kind only brought on by your spouse and kids!!
Joe Gernetzke CSCS