Ok, I lied. There is no full proof way to eliminate injury risk. However I’d like to talk about 3 effective ways to help reduce your risk of back injury when lifting weights. I’ve seen too many people avoid strength training due to concerns over injuries of any kind, especially back pain. There are a number of great exercises (squat/deadlift variations, kettlebell swings, etc) that can not only help to burn fat and build muscle, but when performed properly can also have many preventative benefits in regards to back pain.
- Proper breathing(bracing)- Many coaches and trainers are so focused on form (I hope!) that often teaching people how to breath properly is glossed over, or not mentioned at all. Picture from your waist to your rib cage and 360 degrees around as a canister which should be filled with air in effort to create stiffness to protect the lower back. Most people “breath up” where their shoulders move upwards, and this breathing is not effective in terms of bracing to lift. Instead, think “breath out”, or I find the verbal cue “get fat” works for many as also.
After the breath is done correctly, the next step is bracing. The easiest way to do this is to imagine you’re about to get punched in the stomach. This movement will activate many of the muscles of the core in attempt to keep the spine rigid and minimize the movement of the lumbar joints during the lift(s).
Weightlifting belts are a useful feedback tool to help improve breathing technique. While using the belt, if you breath properly (out vs. up) the belt will get more tight. If you breath “up”, you will not feel the tightening around the abdomen, or the belt may loosen.
- Build muscular endurance- There have been numerous studies showing that low back pain can often be attributed to poor endurance of the deep intrinsic musculature of the back. As a result of inadequate endurance of the supporting muscles in the lower back, the body often responds with compression of the joints that can result in pain and immobility.
In order to most effectively and safely build endurance of these muscles I’d recommend adding exercises that resist movement of the core and hips. This can include RKC planks, side planks, and bird/dog.
- Use your hips- Hip extension is one of the most powerful movements in sports. It’s commonly trained in the deadlift, kettlebell swings, cleans and snatches. If you can’t master the pattern of a hip hinge before transferring power, a great amount of force will be transferred through your lower back instead; increasing risk of injury. A big problem a lot of people have is figuring out how to flex the hips without needing the low back to flex along with it, in addition to maintaining a neutral lumbar spine (avoiding lumbar hyperextension). This will commonly occur in people with poor hip mobility, poor core stability and/or poor body awareness.
The hip hinge is about reaching your hips back with minimal knee bend (shins should be perpendicular with the floor) followed by contraction of the glutes and quads to powerfully extend the hips.
For the sake of this blog, let’s assume (likely not true) you have the requisite amount hip mobility, core stability and body awareness to perform the hinge properly. The next step is to work on basic progressions of hip extension. A glute bridge or bench hip press are good exercises to start with. Next you can progress to a hinge while standing, the “wall tap hip hinge”. This will allow you to focus on moving the hips forward and backwards vs. up and down when on the floor. In this exercise the wall will provide feedback to self-correct the proper position. After the pattern is understood, adding weight with a kettlebell deadlift would be another good option towards mastering the hip hinge. The kettlebell positioned in between the feet make this movement more effective at reinforcing the hinge than a barbell deadlift.
Whether you’ve been suffering from lower back pain, avoiding certain exercises because of low back pain or just want to learn ways to keep low back moving pain free; give these a try!