Back pain sucks.
Unfortunately, about 80% of us will suffer from it at some point in our lives.
That’s, like, almost as many people who hate the Kardashians.
As common as low back pain is, though, there are often more questions than answers in how to deal with it.
First, it’s all too common to get checked out and end up with some vague diagnosis like, “degenerative disk disease.”
Or worse, just blaming it on a leg length discrepancy.
But, as Dr. Stuart McGill, the world’s foremost spine researcher says:
“There is no such thing as non-specific back pain. There is always a cause. Nearly always, the pain is worsened by specific motions, postures and loads, and yet may also be relieved with specific motions, postures and loads.”
Then, there’s the tendency to want to “rest” a sore back and let it “heal.”
But not moving usually makes it stiffer and worse.
If you have crippling back pain, it’s important to get it checked out by someone you trust, first and foremost. This article isn’t intended to diagnose or treat your back pain, or even to directly solve it.
But if you deal with a cranky low back, training smarter can do wonders to help to alleviate your pain, and keep it from coming back in the future.
You are not relegated to a lifetime of corrective exercise or foo foo exercises on BOSU balls. You can, and should, train to the best of your ability.
You have 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic, and 5 lumbar. The cervical vertebrae are smaller and designed for more motion (that’s why you can move your head around so freely) and less weight distribution.
After all, the human head only weighs 8 pounds, Jerry.
As you move down the spine, the thoracic vertebrae get a little bigger as they have more of your bodyweight to distribute, but these guys are still designed to be more mobile than the lumbar spine.
The lumbar vertebrae are big, thick SOB’s in your lower back that have relatively minimal movement, and they have the entire weight of your upper body to support and distribute.
Between each vertebrae you have disks, which act like shock absorbers, and help give structure and movement to the vertebrae. I like the analogy of the spine being like a stack of Oreo cookies, with the disks being the filling and the vertebrae being the hard cookies.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but hopefully it helps paint a bit of a functional picture.
Layer on ligaments, muscles, and tendons on top of that bony anatomy, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of what you’re dealing with.
The joint by joint approach is a thought process from Mike Boyle and Gray Cook that explains that your entire body is series of joints that alternate between being mobile or stable.
Starting at the ankle, which has a primary need for mobility, and moving upwards, you have a knee, which is a simple hinge joint that only really moves in one plane, so it’s a joint that needs stability. You have a mobile hip, a stable lumbar spine, as discussed above, and mobile throacic spine, a stable scapula that rests on your ribcage, and a mobile shoulder joint.
When you lose mobility in a joint that you should have it, for whatever reason, you’re likely to try to make up for that in the joints above or below.
In terms of what we’re talking about today, when you lose mobility in your thoracic spine or hips, you’re likely to make up for that loss of movement at your lumbar spine.
The resulting pain might be coming from a disc issue, the vertebrae themselves, or the surrounding muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
As McGill says:
“Back injuries are a result of putting a spine under load and then breaking healthy movement form…Each individual has a loading tolerance which, when exceeded, will cause pain and ultimately tissue damage.”
Putting resistance on your back, in the form of a barbell in a back squat, for example, will increase sheer and compressive forces on your spine. By simply switching to a goblet or front rack position, you’ll be forced to have a more upright torso, which removes much of the sheer stress, and can alleviate a lot of issues.
Also, by placing the load in the front, your anterior core musculature “turns on,” which helps to stabilize your spine.
This isn’t to say back squatting is the devil or back loaded lunges will kill you, but if you have a history of lower back issues, this is one way to keep training hard without ill effects. Besides, there’s minimal difference in muscle activation between front and back squats anyway, so you don’t have to squat in a manner that causes discomfort to get stronger.
I’m likely to get killed by powerlifters everywhere for this one, but conventional deadlifting can be rough on the lower back, even when done with perfect technique due to the sheer stress, just because of the way the bar is positioned in front of the body.
Switching to a trap bar deadlift, a sumo deadlift, or maybe even more of a hybrid sumo position can often help.
In a similar vein, using appropriate frequency, volume, and loading schemes is important. It should be common sense that loading the hell out of your spine multiple times each week is asking for trouble.
Single leg training is great because it cuts the loads you use in half, resulting in half the spinal compression. Also, if you are doing some kind of lunge or split stance exercise, it’ll be easier to keep a more neutral spine.
Situps and crunches won’t spontaneously explode your spine on the first one, but repeated bouts of loaded flexion is asking for trouble. Mix in common exercises like bicycle crunches or Russian twists and you have the worst position for your spine possible: rotation and flexion together.
Instead, focus on “anti” exercises like planks, side planks, and Pallof presses. As you get stronger on these, progress to more dynamic versions like ab wheel rollouts, bench side holds, and Pallof presses from more challenging positions. This is how your core musculature is designed to work, so train it accordingly.
If you tend to get a big arch in your lower back when pressing overhead, try using a half kneeling position for awhile to drive home better mechanics and to take the stress off the back. Or you can remain standing but put one foot on an incline bench to help keep a neutral spine.
When bench pressing, try using a low incline instead of a flat bench, or elevate your feet on a bumper plate to help take away the excessive lower back arch. This has been a game changer for my cranky low back.
The higher the position of the load, the more stress you’ll have on your lower back. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for everyone, but if you have a history of low back pain, keeping the loading closer to the ground or in the goblet position is going to be a better bet.
When doing a lunge, for instance, try using 2 dumbbells at your sides, or even a sandbag in the front rack position instead of a barbell on your back. This will help from driving your lower back into an overly extended position.
Learning how to keep your trunk rigid and stable is going to allow your extremities to work from a stronger position and the pressure you create in your abdomen will help to stabilize the spine.
Try to get a deep breath into your belly, expanding out 360 degrees. Once you get the air in, squeeze your abs like someone is going to punch you in the gut. This will help to keep your spine in a neutral, safe position while you move through your ankles, hips, knees, and shoulders during an exercise.
As Dan John says, the goal is to keep the goal, the goal.
You train to feel good, build muscle, and have the physical freedom to do the things you like to do, so don’t get caught up in thinking that there are particular exercises that you need to do.
If something flares up your back, bag it and find an alternative that gives you all the benefits without the back soreness. Put yourself in better, spine sparing positions, work on your mobility and flexibility, and keep your technique perfect on every rep of every exercise.
As Dr. McGill says:
“The secret is in changing your default movement patterns so that you can enjoy the benefits of fitness without compromising your back.“
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