Weightlifting and Back Problems

Training while injured or returning to the gym after suffering a major injury is a tough process.

This is especially true when it’s your back that has taken the blow.

Physically speaking, it could mean making major changes to the way you train, or depending on the severity of the injury, it could also mean taking time away from high intensity or moving heavy loads entirely.

Emotionally speaking, it can be just as tough not to feel like a victim or like giving up altogether. As a power athlete (those who practice CrossFit or weightlifting, for example), coming to terms with a bad back is difficult to accept but is an essential part of recovery.

Here we’ll resolve some common concerns and questions around back injuries and lifting weights.

What are back Injuries?

Back injuries are usually characterized by pain or discomfort, most typically around the lumbar area (lower back). Back injuries can be especially frustrating because they are one of the integral body parts that make up your core. If you're a CrossFit athlete, you've probably heard the term core to extremity.

Your core or midline is the group of muscles that help you stay stable and upright, which facilitates most physical activities.

Unlike training with a bad shoulder or knee, working around a bad back it is difficult to maneuver because it is our main source of stability as we move our arms and legs.

This means that even while doing exercises that primarily work your upper or lower body, you may still experience some pain in your back.

Is lifting weights bad for your back?

Many argue that lifting weights is dangerous. Like with most activities, there are risks, but that’s not to say that weightlifting is a dangerous sport. It may sound ominous, but injuries can happen at anytime, not just while participating in sports. Performed correctly, weightlifting can be a useful tool to improve your strength, posture, and quality of life.

How do back injuries happen?

Injuries from weightlifting usually occur as a result of improper technique and lack of preparation. When your muscles are too fatigued, when you try to lift too heavy, or you move unsafely, the result might be severe discomfort over a period of a few days as your muscles try to recover.

If the inflammation is serious, it could affect your spine resulting in lumbar strain, a bulging disk, or a hernia.

How can I prevent getting injured?

With great power comes great responsibility. If you want to be able to lift heavy without getting hurt, you’ll have to train progressively and with special attention to form:

  • Work within a range of motion that allows you to move with control. Avoid using momentum or suddenly rebounding.
  • Learn how to brace correctly and maintain correct posture even under high-rep sets and fatigue.
  • Know when you're too tired or too sick to train, and opt for rest or low intensity exercise instead.
  • Warm up sufficiently and work up to maximal/submaximal loads.

If you're not sure that you move correctly, getting an external viewpoint is a great way to identify your habits.

Train under the supervision of a coach, among experienced friends, or at the very least, record yourself and analyze your technique.

Along with the potential to provoke or aggravate prior injuries, weight training also has the potential to strengthen and protect your back from future injuries.

How do I know if I’ve [seriously] hurt my back?

If you've been training with weights for a while now, it's very likely that you've had some kind of strain, pull, or tweak near your lower back.

Perhaps one day you overdid it while lifting and experienced stiffness or discomfort over the following days. It happens.

However, if you notice that you continue to have back pain for several weeks even while resting, or if you notice tingling, numbness, or weakness in your legs, it could mean that the problem has become more serious and that you should seek the attention of a doctor or physical therapist who can help to identify the damage.

I’ve hurt my back, now what?

Don't let pain and frustration paralyze you!

If the pain continues over several weeks (even if it's on and off), opt for an X-ray or MRI to diagnose the specific problem.

Once you've identified the cause of your back pain, speak with your health care professional about what the best option for recovery is.

Most treatments will begin with resting for a few days. In general, once you're able to do everyday activities without pain, you should be ready to ease back into exercising.

The battle isn't won when you're back in the gym. Continue to work towards reducing the risk for future injuries.

Can you lift with a back injury? (Should I stop lifting?)

This will depend on the severity of your injury and what phase of recovery you are in.

While sometimes the cause of lower back pain is lifting, we often forget that resistance training is also one of the best ways to correct or rehab injuries. Many back problems can be reduced or controlled by improving core stabilization or hip mobility.

In many cases, athletes who experience a back injury are able to continue lifting as long as they reduce the load and/or a company of their lifting routines with rehabilitative exercises

Exercises like bird dogs, lateral planks, and cat-cow stretches are great for helping you to develop control and prevent your spine from bending or flexing unintentionally.

Make your hip mobility a priority.

Strong, mobile hips will bear load more efficiently and help to alleviate lower back tension.

Even with back problems there’s a chance that there will still be barbells in your future.

In the end…

Sometimes weightlifting gets a bad rap for being dangerous especially for your back.

Experiencing low back discomfort can be confusing and scary, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you should ditch weight training completely.

The benefits of resistance training far outweigh the risks and there are many athletes who learn to control back pain.

Respect your recovery process and stay positive. When performed with special attention to form and technique, weightlifting quite literally has got your back.