Like most forms of exercise, weight lifting has many potential benefits for spinal health, but also has the potential to create or worsen back injuries. Extending or flexing the back muscles against resistance (the weight) during weightlifting and bodybuilding may result in a number of injuries, including muscle strain and ligament injury. The most dangerous moves are associated with overhead presses - avoid them completely for few months or longer if required by your physio. Training legs is the next thing to be cautious with (e.g. leg press instead of the back squat, until you're recovered enough for some light squatting). Read on...
Certain types of weightlifting exercises can be particularly stressful to the joints and soft tissues, such as:
- Squats (especially back squats)
Older persons (e.g. many over 50 years old) who do weightlifting are likely already have some disc degeneration and osteoarthritis in their spines, which may make them more susceptible to the strains while lifting weights.
The lumbar spine offers great support as well as distributes weight throughout the pelvis to the lower extremities. If individual joints are not functioning properly, or your deep inner core is not firing, or gluteus maximus firing pattern is off, then you are definitely at a predisposition for lumbar spine injury. Facet syndrome (also referred to as facet imbrication) or lumbar sprain/strain are the two most common athletic injuries you would come across in weightlifting and bodybuilding.
Basically, the facet joints are the small pair of joints located on the superior and inferior posterior portion of each vertebral segment. The facet joints orchestrate movement and provide stabilization for the lumbar spine. When these joints are repetitively jammed together, as in deadlifts or a back squat or even handstand pushups, the synovial fluid and articular cartilage can become inflamed and result in pain. With a facet injury, an individual feels pain with excessive extension, stiffness in the morning, and even difficulty rising from the seated position. An individual will feel relief upon forward flexion or in the “roly poly” stretch. A lumbar sprain or strain happens when excessive mechanical demands are placed upon the muscles and/or ligaments. An individual may feel increased discomfort with rotational movements.
Preventing Back Injuries from Weightlifting
As a general rule, before one wants to go back to weightlifting routine after back injury, it is important to know the condition of one’s back and keep weight amounts within personal limits. If anyone has experienced back pain, it is advisable to first get an evaluation from the doctor or spine specialist before beginning lifting weights.
Another valuable point is that injuries don’t just happen for no reason, so if you’ve had a spinal injury - it must be telling you something. They are your body’s way of sounding an alarm, telling you that something is not right. That something is probably your biomechanics, wrong technique performing the lifts, weak focus (could be stress at work, could be related to emotions), or could be anything. So take a look at your life and be patient.
If you want to improve your biomechanics and lifting technique, work with a powerlifting coach (you don’t have to be a powerlifter to want to work with one). These guys are experts in body biomechanics, movement patterns, and finding the right techniques for the right people. Remember, they teach athletes to break records without breaking backs, and they will spot any shortcomings in your form within minutes. Once you get the technique right, you don’t need to go heavy – but you will definitely be able to lift safe, and avoid further injuries.
Specific guidelines that are useful in helping to prevent back injury include:
- Use smaller weights, but do more repetitions when lifting weights.
- If you cannot hold the hollow position for sixty seconds, then you should not be putting any weight over your head.
- If you have weight over your head, you had better be “hollowed out.”
- Activate your gluteus maximus before workouts.
- Back squats put the most load on the spine posteriorly.
- Front squats are great for training posture and core.
- Consider using a training machine rather than free weights for certain weightlifting exercises. A machine may reduce stress on the back (for example, quadriceps done sitting at a machine versus squats holding weights) and can generally be used by someone with little or no supervision.
- Use a spotter when working with free weights to protect the back from possible sudden movement or excess strain.
- Consider wearing a belt for weightlifting (first ask the recommendation of an athletic trainer or spine specialist, as there are conflicting studies on the benefits of belts). Some spine specialists suggest that while there is no conclusive evidence that a belt protects the back while weightlifting, it does help as a reminder to maintain proper form.
- Do not perform exercises such as the clean-and-jerk, dead-lift, snatch or squat without proper supervision (or at all), because these exercises may pose greater risk for back injury and back pain.
To safely resume the regular exercise routine proceed with caution.
Before any running, jumping, or lifting, the person must have a perfect air squat. Their pelvis must not shift to one side. Their knees must track out while feet stay firmly on the ground about hip-width apart. The axial skeleton must stay upright, active, and with no collapse of the lumbar spine (“butt-winking”). Ten perfect squats a day along with core activations and individual specific mobility are the only things allowed during the first week of recovery from a low back injury.
When the first week of activity has been completed and there is no discomfort, then we move on. During the second phase, you are allowed running, rowing, swimming, air squats, strict pullups, hollow holds, and perfect pushups. Yes, there will be muscle soreness from the de-conditioning that has occurred due to the injury, but if any of those things, aggravate the low back, then seek coaching for specialties such as running or gymnastics to learn the correct biomechanics.
Once the patient has mastered the second phase of bodyweight movement and metabolic conditioning with no pain, then we start to add a little weight in the squat. This means only the bar and only a front squat. Front squats have numerous benefits, but the greatest of all is that this particular squat creates a super strong core. A strong core is a solid foundation to any movement.
As you can see, there are a number of movements the athlete (you) can now do: running, rowing, front squats, hollow holds, pushups, and pullups. This is a great foundation to get back into your regular exercise program. If all is progressing nicely, start to add things back in. Do one thing a day and wait to see how your body responds the next day. Only introduce one new movement at a time.
There are a few movements that you need to approach with extreme caution when recovering from a back injury:
- Putting any weight overhead requires an extremely stable and active midline. This means having a solid hollow position. Dusty Hyland teaches this position very well. Do not take this movement too lightly.
- Deadlifts are great for strengthening your posterior chain, but these have to be done correctly. Use light weights and focus on the biomechanics of the movement.
- Back squats put a lot of stress on the posterior chain. For people who have had a disc issue, I advise waiting nine to twelve months of pain free exercise before going heavy on back squats.
TIP: Once you have developed a spinal problem – avoid or use extreme caution performing such exercises as the clean-and-jerk, dead-lift, snatch or back squat. Don’t be in a hurry to go heavy, set the intention for correct biomechanics and you will be a stronger, more efficient athlete in the long run.
Your own physical condition and diagnosis may require specific modifications or precautions. Before undertaking any course of self-treatment you should consult a doctor or physiotherapist.
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