Lower back pain. If you’ve ever had it, you know how frustrating it can be — and you know how hard you want to work to avoid it. And if you’ve ever dealt with it, you also know that it’s something that’s very easy to reaggravate.
Whether you’re in the gym or elsewhere, a nagging lower back issue can feel great one moment, then feel awful the next, after you’ve stuck yourself in a position that just isn’t quite right. You can feel fine (all right, more like decent and just not in pain) while having a conversation, and then you reach for a grocery bag on the ground and feel the twinge.
Such issues can get even worse in the gym, too. One rep of, say, a barbell row can feel great. Then the next, you’ve rocked back too much and taken emphasis off the target muscles of the exercise (hint: it’s not your lower back), and then you’re workout is over and you’re cursing your whole decision to go to the gym on that day at all.
It’s a frustrating line, and it can lead you to avoid plenty of exercises — and that in turn can lead you to avoid plenty of movements that you should be training despite your back pain.
Don’t do that, though. By avoiding certain movements, you’re misunderstanding why you might get back pain, and you’re hurting your ability to build solid all-around strength. Yes, you may have back pain when you do, say, a back squat. But if you’re answer to that back pain is simply not squatting at all, you lose a valuable total-body move.
The better fix: Learn alternative exercises for the key exercises you’re avoiding. Then you can still build total-body strength and the body you want while avoiding crippling lower back pain.
Back Pain Training Keys
If you have persistent lower back pain, you can still exercise. The key thing is managing risk in all your exercise choices. There’s inherent risk in any exercise — and really in any movement period — but what you must do if you have back pain is avoid exercises with a ton of inherent risk.
In the long term, as you build more and more core strength, your back will grow stronger in more and more positions. But when you’re starting out with lower back pain, you need to minimize body positions that place the lower back at risk.
That means thinking carefully about a few ideas.
Rounding Your Back
A rounded lower back is a position you don’t want to be in with lower back pain. Avoid it by avoiding motions that have your shoulders falling below your hips. If your shoulders are always above your hips, it’s harder to round in the lower back.
Twisting At the Lower Back
Your body is meant to be able to twist and turn (and good core strength helps you resist those twist and turns, an idea called “anti-rotation” at certain points). But if you’re dealing with back pain, such twists can be a source of pain. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t twist, but you need to maintain control of those twists — and that can be challenging to do from certain positions and while holding weights in certain ways.
Arching Your Lower Back
As bad as it is to round your lower back, it’s equally bad to arch your lower back. If you have lower back pain, as much as possible, you want to keep your spine in a “neutral” position. An arched lower back can cause plenty of back pain, too. It’s less of a problem when you bend at the waist and more of a problem when you’re doing overhead exercises without proper shoulder mobility, or just if you’re going too heavy on overhead exercises.
Your Changeup Exercises
Use these exercises instead of certain traditional gym moves to spare your lower back. You can also string them together to build a solid full-body workout.
Do Fisherman Rows instead of Dumbbell Rows
The standard dumbbell row is great, but here’s the problem: Especially if you stagger your feet, you often fail to keep your hips square to the ground. And when your hips don’t stay square, you wind up generating rotation in your lower back.
The lumbar segments of the vertebrae aren’t meant to sustain much rotation, but your thoracic spine can. That’s why the fisherman’s row can be an upgrade for the standard dumbbell row. To do it, you place both knees and one arm on the bench, sort of setting yourself up diagonally on the bench. Instantly getting both knees on the bench will help you keep your hips square. Keep your core tight anyway, to keep minimizing that lower back rotation.
Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per arm.
Do Goblet Squats Instead of Back Squats
The goblet squat — not the back squat — remains the king of all squat exercises because of its versatility. It’s a perfect entry-level squat, and because the weight is in front of you, your torso has to stay upright. That eliminates one of the most critical problems with the back squat: You can easily round or overarch your back.
The front load of the goblet squat will help grease the groove for proper squat mechanics, which is why it’s widely considered the best squat for you to start with in general in your training journey. And if you’re dealing with a back injury or coming off a back injury, it’s your ideal starting point.
Do 3 sets of 10 to 12 good reps.
Cable Pull Through instead of Romanian Deadlift
The deadlift and RDL are great ways to torch the posterior chain, which indeed includes the lower back. But if you have lower back issues, you mostly want to target your glutes (and in general on the deadlifts you want to target your glutes too). One easy way to focus on the glutes and save your lower back from any load is the cable pull-through.
To do it set a cable behind your body, a bit lower than hip-height, and pull it through so you’re holding it at your hips with both hands. Brace your core, push your butt back, and bend at the waist, as if doing a deadlift or RDL, letting the cable pull your butt back. Then stand up straight and squeeze your glutes, pulling the resistance back through to the front of your hips.
Do 3 sets of 12 reps.
Kneeling Scrape the Rack Press instead of Shoulder Press
If there’s a common issue with shoulder presses and moves that have you pushing weight overhead, it’s that very often, you can put compressive force on your lower spine. It happens often when you go too heavy: Almost in lieu of actually driving the weight overhead, you arch at the lower back. You shouldn’t do it. And you don’t want your body to do that.
But how do you prevent that? A move like the scrape the rack press can help. The scrape the rack press has you pressing the weight overhead, but you’re not just doing that. You’re setting up in a squat rack, kneeling, facing the edge of the squat rack, and pressing up. As you press up, you have to keep the barbell scraping the rack; this prevents you from being able to arch your back, as does the kneeling position.
Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
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