How To Train Around An Injury: Lower Back

How To Train Around An Injury: Lower Back

No one is immune to back pain. For the typical American, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are primary causes of back pain. As for athletes – whether pro, high school or recreational – they are confronted with additional spine-unfriendly problems, such as collisions. When back pain occurs, the last thing anyone wants to do, athlete or otherwise, is train. However, this is a mistake.??

Exercise is a powerful method for helping to prevent and also resolve back pain. For competitive athletes, not playing their sport would be a disaster. After just two weeks of exercise cessation, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, a “swift and significant” detraining effect occurs. This effect is particularly pronounced in elite athletes. Case in point: In 2005 Maria Sharapova was ranked as the #1 tennis player in the world, but a shoulder injury hampered her game so badly that it wasn’t until this year and after extensive physical therapy that she was able to regain her previous tournament winning form and a #1 world ranking.??

The lesson here is that it’s much easier to maintain your strength and conditioning than to regain them. In fact, studies have shown that both strength and aerobic conditioning can be maintained for several months even if the amount of work has been reduced by two thirds, as long as intensity is maintained. So although you’ll be reluctant to keep up your workouts if your back hurts, it’s in your best interest to try to do so.??

If you are suffering from lower back pain, your best friends in the weightroom are exercise machines. As for free weights, the total-body training effect that such equipment provides so well may not be the best approach to training when your back needs TLC. Save the Olympic lifting platforms, Olympic bars with bumpers, thick bars, thick-handled dumbbells and strongman equipment for when you are 100 percent. For now, go with machines that stabilize your trunk, thereby preventing excessive flexion, extension, bending and twisting that can aggravate back pain.

??Another bit of advice: Stick with machines that have been properly designed. One way manufacturers cut costs is to make exercise machines with fewer parts without regard to human biomechanics. A fixed backrest costs less than an adjustable backrest, and fixed handles cost less than handles that rotate, but these compromises inevitably affect the function of the machine. Among the best exercise equipment is that manufactured by Atlantis because they carefully think out the design as it relates to human biomechanics and they do not compromise function to save a few dollars.?? It only takes a few seconds to master the basic lifting techniques of machine exercises, but you need to follow some guidelines to ensure maximum safety and get the most from your workout. Here are some that apply to four popular lower body resistance training machines:?? Leg Press. The advantage of leg presses is less stress on the lower back because the trunk is stabilized. In fact, people with lower back injuries or medical conditions that make squatting painful, such as scoliosis, often can perform the leg press without discomfort. Just be careful not to lower the weight so far that your lower back becomes rounded at the bottom. Also, only use machines that require you to start with your legs straight, because then you can determine exactly how far you can bend your knees safely. Conversely, if you start the exercise with knees bent, you have a tendency to jerk the weight and create adverse pressure on your lower back.??

Hack Squat. One EMG study that compared regular squats to hack squats showed that both exercises produce similar effects on the vastus lateralis (outer quad muscle) but the hack squat more strongly works the glutes and biceps femoris (the hamstring muscle involved in knee flexion). As for the lower back (erector spinae), the hack squat produces less involvement than the squat produces but more than the leg press. Also, you should avoid hack squat machines with short backrests, as they will not adequately support the lower back (in the ’70s, the backrests of some hack squat machines were so short that the pelvis would easily roll under and hyperextend the spine).??

Hip Thrust. The hip thrust is similar to the angled back squat, but the trainee faces the machine. It is a popular exercise among football strength coaches, as they believe it is similar to the positions that occur in tackling. The same safety precautions apply with the hip thrust as with other exercises performed on hip sled machines. However, because the back is not supported in the hip thrust, it is much easier for the back to flex, which can easily lead to injury.??

Leg Curls. Leg curl machines of the past had a flat bench and often caused hyperextension of the lower back. Eventually those machines were replaced with a V-shaped bench that minimizes the pressure on the back. Other back-friendly options are to use a standing, seated or kneeling variation of leg curl machines. At the Poliquin Strength Institute we have eight different leg curl machines with both cable and plate-loaded options.??

Finally, those with back pain may need to consider several issues with abdominal crunch and torso twist machines. The major problem with most crunch machines is that when the legs are anchored, you increase the activation of the muscles that flex the hip and therefore you can hyperextend the spine. To minimize the involvement of the hip flexors, always perform these exercises slowly and avoid gripping with the heels, calves and thighs. As for the torso twist machines, this type of exercise places extreme shearing forces on the disks and does little to work the obliques, as these muscle fibers are primarily aligned longitudinally to the spine.??

More than 65 million Americans are currently suffering from lower back pain at an annual cost of over $50 billion. It’s a statistic you don’t want to be a part of, so take care of your back with smart training. If you do get slammed by back pain, get appropriate medical attention and don’t be afraid to get back into the weightroom and stay strong.


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