While it’s true that being active and maintaining a healthy weight are some of the best ways to reduce your risk of lower back pain, plenty of weightlifters are still plagued by the dull aches and shooting pain the common woe is famous for.
Back pain among lifters can pop up for a number of reasons—like over-working the same muscle group, lifting too much weight, slacking on your core workouts, and, yup, you guessed it, poor form, trainers say.
So how can you protect your back in the weight room? Whether you’re already dealing with back pain or just want to make sure it’s never an issue for you, your spine will thank you for keeping these tips in mind when strength training.
1. Mind Your Form
A golden rule of reducing your risk of back pain is to focus on proper lifting technique. Improper form puts excessive stress on the spine and surrounding muscles, leading to strain and discomfort, explains strength and conditioning coach Mike Hamlin, C.S.C.S., founder of Everflex Fitness.
Generally, proper positioning for your spine means keeping your back in a neutral position, engaging your core, and using your legs and hips to generate power, particularly in moves like squats and deadlifts, says Hamlin.
In fact, trainers agree that deadlifts are often the primary culprit behind lifters’ low-back issues. The reasons for this? Not only do people deadlift some hardcore weight, but many gym-goers turn the hinge movement (which should be driven by the hips) into a pulling movement, says trainer Mike Julum, C.P.T., founder of This is Why I’m Fit. When you use your back to lift the weight instead of your hips and legs, you put a tremendous amount of strain on your lower back. It’s a recipe for pain and injury.
In addition to driving with the right muscles, make sure not to round your back and to engage your core when deadlifting.
When in doubt (during deadlifts or otherwise), check in with a certified trainer. They can help you get a feel for your neutral spine position, help you utilize a full range of motion, and fix faux-pas like twisting or jerking motions that could be problematic for your back, notes trainer Jamie Hickey, C.P.T., founder of Truism Fitness. Whether you’re a weight room rookie or a long-time lifter, proper form is essential for continued gains and lifelong training, so check the ego and check your form!
2. Do More Core Work
FYI: Your core muscles play an important role in stabilizing your spine when you lift. “If your core is weak, other muscles—including those in your back—may overcompensate and become strained, leading to pain,” Hickey explains.
One of the trainers’ favorite ways to build core strength? With planks. Hickey recommends starting with 30-second holds and gradually increasing your time as your core gets stronger.
Looking to switch things up? Flip over onto your back and do deadbugs, suggests Hamlin. Weighted twists (also known as Russian Twists) also fire up your core muscles.
3. Add Unilateral Exercises to Your Routine
Unilateral exercises work just one side of your body at a time and include moves like single-leg deadlifts or lunges, according to Julum. So, how exactly do these single-side moves help your back? Well, when you do bilateral exercises like squats or deadlifts (in which both sides of the body work together), your stronger side often compensates for your weaker side, which can lead to muscle imbalances that then contribute to back pain, he explains.
However, when you do unilateral exercises, you force each side to work independently, which helps build up muscle on your weaker side and correct any imbalances, says Julum. That’s good news for your back!
4. Focus on Your Breathing
As long as you get your breathing right, you may not need an actual weightlifting belt (more on that in a second) to support your lifts. When used correctly, your breath becomes the belt.
Say what? To understand this concept, picture a soda can, suggests Hamlin. Before it’s opened, there’s a lot of pressure inside, which makes it a very stable and solid object (like what we want for our core). But when you pop open the can, it depressurizes and creates a less stable object (like what happens to our core if we are not utilizing our breath properly during heavy lifting).
That’s why it’s good to breathe in and have a stabilized core for the challenging portions of an exercise, Hamlin explains.
For example, you could perform this breathing technique by taking an inhale at the top of a squat, bracing (i.e. contracting) your core throughout the lift, and then breathing out either on the way up through the squat or at the top of the lift again.
“This will help create the intra-abdominal pressure we are looking for and keep the back safer for the challenging portions but still allow us to get oxygen during the rest portion of the exercise,” he says.
5. Wear a Weightlifting Belt
You don’t need a weightlifting belt every time you hit the gym, but you should probably strap one on when you’re doing squats, deadlifts, and power cleans and the load is extremely heavy. If you’re lifting more than you could move for five reps or are going for a personal best, done that belt, the trainers say.
Weight belts work by creating pressure around your core, providing support and stability and preventing your spine from bending or twisting under heavy loads that could otherwise lead to injuries like herniated discs, Julum explains. So while you absolutely should not use lifting belts to compensate for weaknesses, they can help you safely execute your most ambitious lifts.
6. Improve Your Hip Mobility
Your form is great, your core is strong, and yet your back pain still persists. What gives? It could all come down to skipping stretches, particularly for your hips. You see, when your hips get tight, it can trigger pain in other parts of the body, including your lower back, says Hickey. Luckily, the fix is easy: You just need to stretch your hips out more regularly.
The hip flexor stretch is a good go-to here. Here’s how to do it:
- Start in a kneeling lunge position with your right foot forward and your left knee on the ground.
- Keeping your torso upright, gently press your hips forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your left hip.
- Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, focusing on relaxing and breathing deeply.
- Switch sides and repeat.
Incorporate just a few minutes of stretching into your daily routine (try after training or before bed) and you’ll be on your way to greater hip mobility in no time.