5 Ways to Prevent Back Injuries While Working Out
3 Strength training and exercise, in general, has so many health and fitness benefits. But, you have to do it safely. Fortunately, resistance training, by strengthening the muscles that support your back and spine, lowers your risk of being sidelined by a back injury or chronic back pain.
Research even shows weight training and body weight strength exercises help people who already suffer from lower back pain. Contrary to popular belief, movement rather than inactivity is what helps an achy back feel better. Otherwise, the muscles stiffen and the pain worsens.
Numerous studies show exercise is good for back pain and back pain prevention. One study found 16 weeks of training with free weights improved functionality and reduced pain in lower back pain sufferers. But, doing exercises incorrectly or advancing your training too quickly can place excessive strain on your back and increase the risk of injury. Here are ways to protect your back and spine when you fitness train.
Strengthen Your Core
How strong is your core? It matters! Your core is made up of a number of stabilizing muscles that support your spine. When these muscles are strong, your risk of back injury and pain is lower.
One muscle, in particular, plays a key role in protecting your back and spine. It’s called the multifidus. One of the best ways to target this deep, stabilizing muscle is to do exercises that involve back extension, such as “super mans.” This is an exercise where you lie face down on a mat. Once situated, lift your chest, along with your legs and arms, off the floor and hold the position for 2 to 5 seconds. This is an isometric hold that helps strengthen the multifidus muscle. If you have active back pain, don’t do this exercise until talking to your physician.
Planks and their many variations are other exercises that strengthen the muscles in the core. They also work the abdominal muscles without flexing the spine. If you have a history of back pain, it’s best to limit abdominal exercises, like crunches, that require spinal flexion and focus more on planks.
Work on Your Posture
Many of the problems people have with back pain come from poor posture. Bad posture is an epidemic as people spend more time sitting at a desk. How do you sit in a chair? If your head and shoulders fall forward, you’re placing added stress on your upper back. Make sure you have a work chair that supports your upper back. Then, train yourself to be aware of your head and neck positioning and make adjustments.
Correct posture in your daily life will take the strain off your back and reduce your risk of back pain. Back injuries don’t just happen when you train, they’re often due to chronic, low-grade stress from the activities you do every day, like lifting incorrectly and standing and sitting with poor posture.
Stop Rounding Your Back
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they do bodyweight exercises or train with weights is they round their back when they do certain exercises. One of the riskiest exercises to do with a rounded back is a deadlift, especially if you’re using heavy weights. When you round your back while deadlifting, it often means your spinal erectors are falling down on the job and your spine is forced to do additional work.
This usually happens when your spinal erectors are weak. Ideally, you want your spine to be in a neutral position when you do most exercises. It takes practice to get the form right, especially for a complicated move like a deadlift but it’s worth it. To get the form down, start without using weight. Watch your form in the mirror or have someone critique it. Then, progress to using a light weight. Don’t try to do too much too quickly. It’s not worth it if it leads to an injury.
Don’t Go Overboard with the High-Impact Exercise
High-impact exercises are movements where both of your feet leave the floor at the same time. Examples are movements that require jumping, such as jumping rope, plyometrics, and running. These exercises place added stress on your spine and the effects may be cumulative.
If you’re otherwise healthy, there’s no reason not to do high-impact training but don’t do it every day. Alternate high-impact exercises with low-impact ones, like cycling, swimming, walking, or rowing. Keep your workouts balanced! Change the activities you do to avoid stressing the same muscles, including the ones in your back, repetitively.
Get Back to Basics
Don’t jump into a workout without warming up first! Cold muscles don’t perform as well and may be more prone to injury. Light cardio, such as leg swings, butt kicks, high knees, and arm swings, will warm up the muscles you’re working safely. It’s controversial whether a warm-up prevents injuries, yet there are few benefits to launching into a workout with cold muscles. Plus, a warm-up gets your nervous system primed to work too.
After a workout, do a 5-minute cool down. It should consist of similar exercise as you did during the warm-up but with gradually decreasing intensity. Follow up with some static stretches with a focus on the hamstring muscles in the back of your thighs. Tight hamstrings increase the risk of lower back pain and injuries. Be sure to stretch your hamstrings regularly to keep them from becoming overly tight.
Hopefully, you’ll never have to take a long break from training due to a back injury, but be proactive. Take these steps to keep your back healthy and fully functional when you train.
Spine-Health.com. “Weight Training Effectively Relieves Back Pain”
BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2015 Nov 9;1(1):e000050. eCollection 2015.
Core Concepts. “Multifidus – Smallest Yet Most Powerful Muscle”