When you're dealing with general lower back pain (which is different from a back injury, which commonly involves sprains and strains), it can disrupt other areas of your life—particularly your workout schedule. The good news is hitting the gym can actually be beneficial in getting your body back on track. You just have to make sure you know which exercises to avoid when back pain strikes.
"An achy back makes it easy to blow off your workouts, but multiple studies have found that back pain sufferers who participate in strength-training programs specifically see a decrease in pain symptoms compared to those who avoid activity or stick strictly to cardio. It can actually speed your recovery," says Ka'imi Kuoha, personal trainer, martial artist, and co-owner of Othentik Gym in San Diego, CA. "The only hitch is that you must avoid moves that will make your problem worse."
Before your next sweat session, make sure you're sticking to the exercises that do your back good. Here, Kuoha breaks down the strength-training exercises to avoid with back pain, and the ones to do instead.
The 3 exercises to avoid with back pain, according to a trainer
When it comes to lower back pain, doing a round of burpees is a big no-no. "We always recommend that clients who are experiencing lower back pain or trauma skip or modify this move," Kuoha says. "A traditional burpee involves repeatedly dropping down into a squat position, jumping your feet back into a plank, doing a push-up, bouncing back to a squat, and then jumping up high with hands overhead. All of the jumps can put a lot of stress on your back."
What to do instead: Skip out on regular burpees. Instead, do a modification that will let you reap the benefits without causing additional pain. "The move can be modified by walking the feet out to a plank position and back instead of jumping, and by simply standing up with your arms stretched overhead in lieu of the jump," Kuoha says. "It’s surprising how much you can get your heart rate up even with the modifications. These bouts of high-intensity cardio will increase your calorie burn and boost your cardiovascular health without exacerbating your back pain."
2. V-ups (aka toe touch)
You know V-ups are great for your abs. Unfortunately, they're not great for your back. "In a V-up, you begin lying on your back, and using your stomach muscles, raise your upper body and lower body at the same time to touch your toes," Kuoha says. "Hamstring tightness can be one cause of pain in the low back, and V-ups are good for lengthening the hamstrings. But done incorrectly with the back too rounded, they can put a lot of strain on the lower back—especially if there's a lower back injury or if the abdominal muscles aren’t strong enough."
What to do instead: Kuoha says there's a way you can do V-ups that's much easier on your back. "Modify this move by lying on the floor with a neutral spine. Bring one knee to the chest, grasping with both hands to assist, and hold for 15 to 20 seconds until the tension releases. Repeat on the other side," she says. "This modification will strengthen the abdominals and release tightness in the lower back."
Deadlifts are the ultimate strength-builder—one Kuoha loves. When it comes to anyone who's dealing with back pain, though, poor form will only make matters worse. "This is a great functional movement exercise, as most of us lift heavy things in our daily lives, and practicing proper form will keep you safe. When done correctly, deadlifts strengthen the core, legs, glutes, and back, but the form has to be just right to avoid injury," she says. With that being said, it's best to save them for when your pain has faded.
What to do instead: As an alternative to a deadlift, Kuoha recommends trying a shallow leg lunge with a hamstring squeeze. "It's a safer exercise for those with back issues. These will also strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, and quads," she says. "The key is to keep your core tight, stay focused, and use slow movements. Believe it or not, this exercise can be more challenging for the muscles you’re trying to work while putting less pressure on your spine. And you’ll gain more stability along the way."
- Begin by standing tall and engaging your core.
- Step forward until your leg reaches a 90-degree angle, making sure that your front knee stays behind your toes. Then shift your weight forward and slowly lift the back leg in parallel (heel up, toes down). Do 10 to 12 small lifts, then lower your foot back to the ground and finally bring it back to the starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite side. Do about 3 sets on each side.
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