Don’t Bend and Snap: 3 Reasons Your Lower Back Hurts when Exercising

When’s the last time you’ve experienced low back pain? Today? Yesterday? 60 seconds ago? We get it. It happens.

The good thing is, you’re not alone. It’s been estimated roughly 80% of Americans experience some form of low back pain in their lifetime. That’s 8 out of 10 people. Thought you were in the cool club? Think again.

Today’s objective is to give you knowledge to understand why you might experience low back when exercising.  For those you are suffering from serious, diagnosed lower back issues, we kindly ask you skip this post and listen to your doctor’s advice.

We hope that after this post, you won’t be Bending and Snapping or having any more Legally Blonde moments.

Okay, let’s get down to business. Typically, lower back pain when exercising is usually due to one or more of the following:

  1. Lack of core stability
  2. Loss of neutral spine
  3. Poor posture outside the gym

LACK OF CORE STABILITY:

There may be a time in your life that maybe a friend or workout buddy mentioned that you should “strengthen your core” to help your lower back pain. Usually when we think strengthening the core, we tend to think of doing endless crunches hoping we’ll be the next cover model for the newest fitness magazine.

In reality, we need to be training more than just the superficial muscles and training the deep inner core muscles that help support our spine. These muscles include the transversus abdominis, multifidus, diaphragm, and the pelvic floor. When these muscles are strong, we prevent heavy loads going straight to our lower back. These muscles serve as a shield to protect our spine! We won’t get into all the details in this posts, but for a more detailed explanation of the physiology behind this, please check out our previous post here.

So now you must be thinking, “Well..how do I know if I lack core stability?” Well, it’s pretty easy to find out. To do so, lay on your back. Get your feet off the ground, legs 90/90, and slowly straight one leg out toward the ground (see below) – WITHOUT letting your lower back arch off the ground.

Planks

If you look like the left picture and have a large arch in your back, you probably lack some core stability. It’s okay, it happens. However, lacking core stability predispositions us to lower back pain. After all, the weaker our core is, the more load our spine has to take. If you need some ideas on how to increase your core stability, check out the exercises below:

The above exercises are a good place to get started. Prioritize these at the beginning of your workout until you can really master them. Remember, you shouldn’t feel any lower back pain during any of these exercises.

LOSS OF NEUTRAL SPINE

Any exercise we do in the gym requires us to be aware of how we are positioning our spine. Why? Because excessive flexion and extension of the spine over long periods of time can cause lower back issues such as herniated discs, arthritis, etc. Moving around with poor mechanics leads to injury. Period.

If you are experiencing pain when exercising, really have a heart to heart and ask yourself: is my back neutral?

What does that mean? Neutral means just not overly arched and not overly rounded. You might not even know what your back’s doing at this point, so take a look at two common exercise examples below.

Plank

Planks. We know. We hate them too. But we’ve got to talk about them. If you’re experiencing low back pain when doing planks, check out what your lower back is doing. Take a look below:

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Notice in the first image, the lower back is extremely arched. This leads to tons of pressure being put on your lower back when in reality, the plank is meant to strengthen the core so that you don’t have all the load going to your lower back.

Now, take a look at the second image. Notice a difference? We can now see my back still has a neutral curve rather than an excessively arched one.

Tips for a good plank include:

  • Squeezing your glutes slightly to help pull your back into neutral alignment
    Drawing the rib cage down so there is no flare – thinking of your sternum and belly button being held together by a piece of string.
  • Push the ground away from you. Don’t let your chest fall toward the ground. If I were to put the back of my hand across your upper back, you should be pushing into my hand.

Squats

Squats. We hate them and we love them…except when they start giving us lower back pain.

Many people get lower back pain during squats, and this can be due to many reasons which we won’t be able to fit all into one blog post. However, one of the most common reasons because of losing neutral spine throughout the entire movement. See below for more details.

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Rounded back

This is a squat with a rounded back. If we were add even more weight, this would be problematic because of all the stress on our discs. Rounded backs during squats could be due to a few things:

1) Tight hamstrings: If your hamstrings are tight, they’re going to pull on your lower back and cause your lower back to round. Implement this hamstring stretch into your routine:

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2) Lack of ankle dorsiflexion: If you can barely touch your knee to a wall from a few inches away, you’ve got some work to do. Lack of ankle mobility will cause your lower back to round to try to pick up the slack. Add the following mobilization into your routine:

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3) Lack of core stability: Ahh, here we go with core stability again. Can’t get enough of it, right? Add more core stability exercises to your routine such as the ones linked earlier in the blogpost.

Arched back

This is a squat with an arched back. Again, the discs are compressed and can produce pain. This can be due to a few things:

1. Lack of core stability (AGAIN! Seeing a trend? Check out those exercises linked earlier in this blogpost for some exercises)

2. Tight hip flexors: Having tight hip flexors due to excessive sitting or other factors creates dysfunction in the spine but shifting our hips back, creating an excessive arch in the lower back. To help correct this, make sure to add this hip flexor stretch before performing your squats

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3. Lack of awareness: Many times we’re not even sure what our lower back is doing during a squat. To practice proper squat form, have a friend videotape you or record yourself going through the movement. If your back is arching and you’ve addressed the two issues above, set up a box or bench behind you to squat to without moving into an excessive arch in the back. Master neutral spine in a smaller range of motion before attempting to squat full-depth. Check out the video below for an example of this:

 

Neutral Back

Let’s look at the third picture from above. Notice now there is no excessive arch or flexion of the spine. A normal lordotic curve is present. This is what we should strive for with our form.
POOR POSTURE OUTSIDE THE GYM

Unfortunately, we can’t just act like we’re athletes when we’re at the gym. If you workout for 30-60 minutes a few times a week, what are you doing for the other hundreds of hours a week you aren’t exercising?

We got to be real with ourselves. Most of us sit at our desks all day and probably get anywhere from 1000-5000 steps per day which means we are, let’s face it, sedentary.  Our core gets weak, hips get tight, glutes become underactive, and our shoulders round. These issues combined with going to the gym to do the exercises listed above is bound to cause lower back issues. Why? Because spinal alignment is based around the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are attached to it. If muscles around it are weak and others overactive, this can reposition the spinal to suboptimal positions over time.

If you find yourself sitting for the better part of your day, it’s time to increase your steps and standing up more. Here are some tips:

  1. Get up to get a small cup of water instead of a large cup of water when you’re at work. This will force you to get up out of your seat more often than carrying around one of those huge water bottles.
  2. Place things you need away from you. Need to staple some papers? Keep your stapler in another room or across your office so you get out of your seat more.
  3. Park further away from your workplace. This will automatically force you to get some extra steps in.
  4. Talking on your cell phone? Stand up when you take calls and pace around the room.
  5. Invest in a stand-up desk. Amazon has lots of different ones, like this one.

Additionally, working out with weights isn’t something you should just go and do without a proper warm-up. If you sit all day, I suggest adding in the following to your warm-up routine:

Hip flexor stretch

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Foam roll your calves and mobilize them

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Thoracic windmills

 

Wallsides

 

Glute bridges

 

90/90 hip stretch

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In Summary

Low back pain sucks, and it’s a huge bummer when you get it while working out. Today we have discussed three possible reasons why your low back hurts and how to tackle them:

  1. Lack of core stability
  2. Loss of neutral spine
  3. Poor posture outside the gym

By addressing the above, you might see your low back pain lessen and hopefully disappear with time. Remember, it will take purposeful, consistent action to solve these issues, and if you are still experiencing pain, we recommend always checking with your doctor for further guidance.

Due to the prevalence of lower back pain when exercising, we make sure our clients do not push through pain.  Our programs also dive even more in-depth as to what might be causing the issue, assuming there aren’t any serious diagnosed back issues. We encourage you to bookmark our main page and check back regularly for more posts and tips.

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