Protect Your Back at the Gym

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Do you suffer from back pain? According to the Mayo Clinic, “back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide.”

I have been a Licensed Physical Therapist Assistant for the past twenty-one years.

Throughout my career, I have treated thousands of back pain patients. Patients with diagnosis’ ranging from a simple back sprain to patient’s recovering from multilevel spinal fusion.

Back pain can be debilitating and life-altering for long periods, so while our treatment goals were centered on proper body mechanics and getting them back to doing their jobs. Patient’s personal goals were getting back to doing the things they enjoy.

Some frequent questions I was asked:

  • Can I go back to the gym?
  • Is it safe to lift weights?
  • Can I start running again?
  • Should I wear a back brace?

I’m going to answer those questions, and more, but first, there are a few critical things to note.

First, if you have neck or back pain that radiates into your arms or legs, it is essential to be seen by a doctor.

Second, if you ever experience back or neck pain accompanied by bowel or bladder incontinence, you should go to the emergency room immediately.

Ok, now that we have that out of the way, I think going to the gym is an excellent idea. Maintaining overall body strength is excellent for your back as well as your overall health.

Things to stay away from at the gym.

  1. Back strengthing machines — the best way to protect your back is to strengthen your core. Building strength in your back requires much more precision due to the possibility of muscle imbalances and the risk of injury.

Alternative: Pelvic stabilization exercises

2. Hip ab/adductor machines — hip and pelvic muscles are often weak, especially if you have had a back injury and have taken a long break from working out. Using a weight machine to try and target all of these muscles can lead to muscle substitution and back strain.

Alternative: Sidestepping with resistive band around ankles

3. Standing calf raise machine — you don’t see these much anymore, but if you do, stay away. These machines rest on your shoulders to increase weight while you are doing calf raises; however, they increase the compressive force on your spine, which can lead to back injury.

Alternative: Standing calf raises

4. Leg press machine — these machines tend to put strain on your lower back, which increases the chance of back injury

Alternative: Incline squat machine

Running

Running is not recommended for people who have had back surgery or a history of a back injury. Because of the amount of compressive force on the spine coupled with the continuous jarring of the low back, the risk far outweighs the benefit.

Alternatives to running

Walking on a treadmill with the incline raised

Elliptical trainer

Stationary bike

Lifting Weights

Free weights are fine as long as your back is supported. I recommend sitting with your back against an adjustable weight bench or lying down on the weight bench in a chest press position.

Avoid dead-lifts or lifting anything from floor height.

Avoid overhead lifting of any kind even in a seated position. Did you know that sitting puts the highest amount of compressive force on your spine?

A word about back braces

I don’t know anything about weight belts used in the gym, so I can’t comment on those at all. However, back braces that velcro on for stabilization provide nothing more than a false sense of security. The only way to protect your back when lifting and moving objects is to use proper body mechanics and abdominal stabilization. There is no substitute.

In the next article in this series, I will address proper body mechanics and the use of pelvic stabilization exercises to strengthen your core.

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