Lower Back Pain (LBP) is a major public health issue globally, and according to data provided by the Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) study 2019, “the incidence and YLDs (years lived with disability) rate of LBP were slightly decreased from 1990 to 2019, but the number of the prevalent cases, incident cases and YLDs had substantially increased, and LBP remains the leading cause of YLDs in 2019 worldwide.” This week, we look into the ways you can offset the risks of incurring any back injury while exercising in the gym.
Symptoms of Back Pain
The first tell-tale sign that you might have hurt your back in the gym is quite simply pain. This may seem like a self-evident diagnosis but it is the degree of pain that you need to be concerned about. Post-injury pain may range from a mild barely-there ache to severe pain or even sharp stabbing sensations. Sometimes the pain can be more intense when you adjust your body into different positions.
It is also not uncommon to find your back becoming tender and more sensitive to the touch than normal. These are all various indicators that can clue you in to which part of your back is injured and the corresponding treatment that needs to be administered.
The Main Cause of Back Pain
The most common reason for back pain after strength training is poor lifting form. Many inexperienced beginners are prone to rounding their backs when lifting heavy weights. This can cause a huge amount of strain on your ligaments, spine, and muscles and is the reason why it is important to keep your spine in a neutral position when lifting.
Failing to adopt a proper form when lifting heavier weights is particularly common. When your focus is on lifting a weight that is too heavy, your posture suffers and this could often lead you to lift using the wrong parts of your body.
The Most Common Type of Back Injury
Most back injuries/sprains usually occur in your lower back and spine. This is because lifting heavy weights places a high amount of strain on your lumbar region which could in turn add unnecessary stress on your lower spine. There is a high chance of suffering a lower back injury if you fail to observe proper lifting form at all times.
With all that said, you can still reap the benefits of strength training at the gym while minimising the risk of any injury to your back. You simply need to adhere to some of the time-tested dos and don’ts of safe back exercises.
We listed below several ways you can protect yourself while exercising at the gym.
A Proper Warm Up Routine
A dynamic warm-up helps greatly with joint lubrication and also maximises blood flow to your muscles. If you go too heavy or too fast before your body is ready, you risk injuring yourself, especially when doing back exercises. A good warm-up routine involves a combination of dynamic stretching (Dynamic stretches are active movements where joints and muscles go through a full range of motion) and cardio to ensure your muscles are properly warmed up before any intensive exercise.
Engage your core
Your core is the reason you are able to perform the most mundane of tasks. Activities such as bending over to pick up a dropped coin, walking up and down the stairs or even getting out of bed in the morning all require your abs to engage.
Developing a strong core is another way to reduce the risk of back injury at the gym. What we refer to as our core is actually a collection of muscles beginning at your midsection and extending beyond just your abs. A strong and well-developed core paves the way to a pain-free back as this group of muscles is an essential component when it comes to supporting your spine during exercise.
A frequent mistake beginners new to strength training make is thinking that building a strong back only requires training and targeting of the back muscles. As a result, core exercises are often overlooked and this can drastically affect your ability to achieve and maintain proper lifting form.
It is therefore good practice to engage in useful core exercises that strengthen the muscles supporting our spine. It also helps build up the connection between our upper and lower body.
Don’t Forget to Breathe
When you are repeatedly holding your breath during strength training, you can end up decreasing the rate of oxygenation in your blood. Doing this over the course of an entire gym session may even cause your blood pressure to rise dangerously.
Additionally, holding your breaths when lifting can make your muscles tense up, and we should all know by now that tight muscles are more susceptible to strain and injury. It is also hard to maintain optimal posture and form when you are not breathing properly.
You can prevent this by focusing on the rate and control of your breathing using the following pattern: Exhale when you lift the weight and inhale as you lower or release the weight. Make this a habit whenever you train and you will find yourself in better control of your lifting routine as a result.
Pay Attention to Your Form
Maintaining proper form while lifting is the key to injury prevention and there are a few things you can be mindful of to help keep your posture in check.
- Keeping your spine in a neutral position will help protect you from injuries when lifting. Learn to be aware of the three natural curves in your spine, namely the neck, upper back and lower back. There is an easy way to find your neural spine location – stand with your back against the wall while touching with your head and upper back and tailbone. When you are able to fit your fingers between the wall and your lower back while still maintaining all three touch points against the wall, you have located your neutral spine position.
- Ensure that your back is straight at all times, especially important when you are adding weights to your lift. You should not allow your shoulders to slouch or lean forward. Keeping your back straight when lifting also promotes the engagement of supportive muscles in your core and legs. This greatly reduces the risk of injury and muscle strain.
Always remember that when you lift anything with a curved spine, you put needless strain on your muscles and vertebrae.
If you are not confident about monitoring your own form, find a workout partner or trainer who can help guide you.
Heavier is not always better
There is a general misconception that it is necessary to lift very heavy weights to see results. However, more is not merrier in the gym, not when it is usually at the expense of proper lifting form. Lifting incredibly heavy weights at the squat rack and aiming to break your Personal Record at every session may give you a lifter’s high but it is not sustainable in the long run and definitely not without its own set of risks.
It may not feel immediately intuitive but using lighter weights can actually prevent other muscle groups from jumping in to assist in the lift, therefore further isolating the targeted muscle group. When you combine this with the right breathing technique and correct form, you can be sure you are keeping your back safe during your workout.
In short, learn to master good form when using lower weights, and then start to increase the weights. Make this a gradual process to avoid any unnecessary muscle strain or injury.
A strength training routine needs to be sensible above all things. It is an increasingly popular activity that most people are taking up to stay fit and healthy. That said, some of the most common back injuries incurred in the gym are situated in the lumbar region and the lower spine. At Hip and Knee Orthopaedics, we strongly advocate prevention as a preferable alternative to recovery from injury and/or pain management.
It is also important to note that if you are getting back pain after your training, do not immediately assume that it is your back that is the main cause of the issue. There are many other muscles and joints that can affect our backs. You should take time to isolate the cause of your pain or consult orthopaedic surgeon Singapore for a professional opinion.
In summary, remember that a proper warm-up routine, keeping good posture and not lifting too heavy are some of the keys to ensuring your body stays strong and injury-free. We hope the tips will go a long way to making your next gym visit a safe and enjoyable experience.