Because of our sedentary, cubicle-based society, it can seem like we have two types of people: those with back pain and those who will experience it in the future. The gym always has been a breeding ground for back ailments as guys try to push the limits of what they can lift. That’s truer these days because of tighter hips, glutes, and hamstrings—a product of a life led at a desk and hunched over a smart phone.
Back pain can be a result of a herniated disc but more often is the result of something else along the kinetic chain that has caused the body to compensate. That’s why when taking care of the back in the gym it’s important to consider not only moves included in back-specific workouts but also in other routines that could impact the back.
Here are seven exercises that could contribute to back pain, along with alternatives to consider.
Pete Williams is a NASM certified personal trainer and the author or co-author of a number of books on performance and training.
Why You Should Avoid It: We spend far too much time in the flexed position between sitting at desks and cramped behind steering wheels and in airline seats. As a result, our shoulders are rounded and our bodies unnaturally flexed forward. So the last thing we should do is exacerbate this problem further with situps and crunches.
What You Should Do Instead: Physioball Ys and Ts. Lie facedown on a physioball and bring your shoulder blades together to raise your arms to a “Y” 10 times and then a set of “T”s for 10 reps. You’ll strengthen and stabilize the shoulders, countering the effects of sitting, and reducing the risk of low back pain. Not challenging enough? Add a pair of light dumbbells.
Why You Should Avoid It: Orthopedists tell patients with herniated discs to avoid overhead lifting. That’s because it compresses your spinal discs, which serve as the shock absorbers of the body. Many of us have herniated discs, whether they’ve manifest themselves with symptoms or not. Like our automotive shock absorbers, spinal discs only have so many miles on them. Why blow those miles in the gym?
What You Should Do Instead: Most any overhead lift benefit can be obtained while lifting dumbbells or barbells below the neck. Lying on a bench is fine since the back and neck are supported by the bench.
Why You Should Avoid It: This puts the body in a crunched, awkward, legs-in-the-air position that puts tremendous stress on the back and knees.
What You Should Do Instead: A Bulgarian split squat provides much of the same benefit in terms of lower body power with less stress on the back and knees. Place your back foot on a box or bench and then lower your hips toward the floor by squatting back and down. Without letting your back knee touch the floor, drive your weight back up with the front leg.
Why You Should Avoid It: There’s nothing wrong with squatting, one of the best all-purpose moves. The problem is that many people are so locked down from sitting all day at work and elsewhere that they’re risking back injury by stepping into a squat rack without learning how to do it properly.
What You Should Do Instead: A goblet squat is more accessible than a traditional barbell squat since it takes the pressure off your back. The counterbalance with the weight in front of the body allows you to sit back more easily, encouraging proper form. Master the goblet squat before advancing to a barbell squat.
Why You Should Avoid It: Like the barbell squat, the Romanian deadlift is one of the best lower body moves that, among other things, contribute to a strong back. But RDLs present a similar pitfall for those lacking in flexibility and that includes many of us who sit at desks all day, tightening our glutes and hamstrings.
What You Should Do Instead: The cat/cow yoga combination mimics the motion of an RDL, opening the hips while helping us focus on the movement of the spine. Master the cat/cow and then advance to a bodyweight RDL. When you can move properly through the hips, glutes, and hamstrings, add weight to your RDL.
Why You Should Avoid It: Another effective full-body move to build strength and endurance, it’s enjoyed a resurgence in recent years because of the Spartan Race, which doles them out as 30-rep penalties for failing to convert obstacles. The constant jumping places pressure on the spine. And some people tend to drop down into pushup position rather than squatting and thrusting, further stressing the back.
What You Should Do Instead: Slow down and squat before thrusting your legs back. Instead of jumping at the end, simply throw your hands up. You’ll find this slower, more deliberate version of a burpee actually can be more challenging since you don’t have the momentum of jumping.
Why You Should Avoid It: While twisting with a bar or broomstick across the back seems like a low-impact way to work the back and engage in some rotational movement, it puts pressure on the lower back.
What You Should Do Instead: A cable rotational row builds strength in your torso, arms, and back. The movement should look and feel like you’re trying to start a stubborn lawn mower. So you’ll not only build rotational strength with less stress on your back, you’ll have better success getting your old Toro to crank.