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How Do You Train Around a Bad Lower Back?

Listen to Your Body So You Can Stay in the Gym and Not On the Sidelines

Lower back pain is a daily battle for many people. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, approximately 60-80% of the adult U.S. population is plagued with lower back pain and it’s the second most common reason that people make an appointment to see their doctor.

Of course, unhealthy diets, lack of exercise, or even genetics can be the culprit most of the time. But, even those of us who faithfully hit the gym can find themselves with back pain that can range from annoying to down right debilitating. In other words, as far as back pain goes, it seems like you’re damned when you don’t train and, at some point, damned if you do.

Nothing can derail your weight training faster because of all of the movements and exercises that require your back. And what happens when you can no longer perform a deadlift or military press without being brought to your knees because of your back?

It can feel like “Game Over. Insert Another Quarter.”

Turns out though, that weight training and strengthening exercises can be HUGELY beneficial when you are struggling with lower back pain. They can help stabilize your spine, decrease the chance of future back injuries, and teach you better body mechanics (i.e., how to pick up something properly).

After doing some research on the subject, we found that trying to figure out how to train around a bad back is one of THE top questions consistently asked of personal trainers. We’ve collected some of the answers given around the web for you below.

That said, you should always consult your physician or health care professional prior to starting or modifying your weight training program. Everyone’s back issue or injury is different and needs to be treated as such.

There….now we’ve made all the lawyers out there happy.

In an article on, Ben Bruno, a Los Angeles-based trainer to celebrities and athletes, offered his take on training around lower back pain:

“Single-leg exercises allow you to load the legs without loading the spine as heavily,” says Bruno, so you may need to swap out barbell squats for Bulgarian split squats done with dumbbells, or single-leg squats. If you’re dead-set on continuing to squat, you could do front squats, which allow you to keep a more vertical torso and protect your lower back from shear forces on the spine.

“If you’re deadlifting, trap bar deadlifts and sumo deadlifts will be easier on the back than conventional deads,” says Bruno. Rack pulls, where you shorten a deadlift’s range of motion by pulling from the pins in a rack, or from blocks, can also be substituted.

Bruno also recommends replacing any bentover rowing movements with chest-supported rows (chest down on a bench) or inverted rows, where you hang underneath a bar in a rack and pull yourself up. Overhead pressing can be problematic, too, if your torso bends backward excessively. You can replace it with lever pressing, in which you wedge a barbell into a corner and lift the other end like a lever.

To prevent future lower-back injury, you’ll most likely need to improve your hip mobility. Bruno likes to do squat stretches—get into the bottom of a body-weight squat and push your knees out to sink as deep as you can. “Core strength helps too,” he says. Work on planks, side planks, stability ball rollouts, and bodysaws.

We also wanted to get the perspective from the medical side – the folks that actually have to see and treat the estimated 60-80% of us who struggle with back pain.

Jason Highsmith, M.D., is a board-certified, highly sought-after neurosurgeon and expert on the treatment and prevention of degenerative and traumatically-sustained back injuries. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Back Pain. In a recent article, he stressed the negative effect that several exercises can cause due to compression on the spine:

Weightlifting that increases axial load (weight in line with the spine) can make pain worse. These exercises include leg presses (when done seated with hand grips), deadlifts, military presses and lunges with the load on the shoulders….

Although Dr. Highsmith stresses that physical activity is an excellent way to strengthen the back and help the healing process, some moves should be avoided if your back hurts. Military presses (where a barbell is lifted overhead) and weight-assisted lunges are not recommended; they can axially load the spinal column (compress the spine from the head area—as when a person dives into shallow water and lands headfirst).

Unfortunately, sometimes our bodies throw us a curve ball that can really affect our training and our goals. Listen to your body’s feedback and realize when it’s time to change your workout to accommodate a lower back issue or injury. Even though you may have to lay off your favorite movements for a while or indefinitely, it is far better to adjust and compensate so you can stay in the gym and stay off the couch.

Sources: ,

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