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Lower back pain and exercise

lower back pain and exercise
In this article I am going to discuss about lower back pain and exercise. An area that I personally suffered from very early on when I first started out working out, which lasted for several years until I finally got it sorted out. It is important to make sure you takes steps to safeguard your back now and for your future mobility.

For those interested, you can also read about neck pain here.

My personal lower back injury

Rather than go straight into a post about how and what to do with regards a lower back injury/pain, I wanted to start by telling you about my experience in this area first. You see I started working out in my mid teens with general exercise and martial arts. When I was 18 I took up weight training/bodybuilding. For the first few years all was fine, but one day while squatting I lost my balance and had to step forward with my right leg to stop me falling. As I did so the weight on my shoulders went forward and I had to stop it from crashing down so ended up bent at the waist with around a 45 degree forward lean with my squatting weight still on my shoulders. I felt pain, but managed to rack the weight. I fell to the ground and a doctor was called and I was prescribed pain killers. This was just the start. For several years after, I suffered on and off lower back pain, sometimes quite severe pain until I eventually went to see a specialist. It was then I was told that my hip was tilted, one leg was shorter than the other in its position and that it would take some time to correct it. It did take some time, about 18 months on off treatment plus several years of on off self treatment. And up until my mid/late 30’s I still had the odd occasional back issue.

With proper training and avoiding the wrong exercises or doing them in a way to avoid hindering my back, my back is now very strong. Again for those interested I also have a slight curvature in my back, with one side lower than the other, like a slight scoliosis and even more reason for me to take care with my training.

With all that said, I feel confident that with these issues I can tell you what you should do and what you shouldn’t do to create a strong healthy lower back and how to treat any lower back issues you may have. Don’t make the mistakes I did. Read this article.

Back to the article (no pun intended)

Lower back pain from exercise or non exercise activities is an extremely common issue for most people and can be quite debilitating.

Back pain can be classed in several levels of severity, pain and duration. Here I’m mainly going to talk about back pain in regards to exercise, but will also cover more information to help with day to day activities that will effect lower back health in general. For those who are suffering severe or long term lower back pain, you should seek professional medical advice.

Keeping a healthy lower back allows you to live and continue to live a healthy lifestyle and stay active into old age.

What are the common causes of lower back pain?

Well firstly, us humans are in fact not really meant to stand or walk upright or sit the way we do. While through evolution we are able to do so, structurally our bodies have an inefficient setup making our backs a weak link in our anatomy, making lower back pain a very common issue for many people. Our backs need to be stable and strong enough to lift objects and keep us upright, yet flexible enough to allow use free movement. Which can put us in a catch 22 situation with each element working against each other.

Strains and sprains with the muscles and ligaments around our spine are the main cause of pain in this area with other issues caused by stress or damage to our joints, discs and the large network of nerves surrounding this area.

Many lower back issues are created by:

  • Incorrect flexion (bending forward and over)
  • Incorrect extension (bending back)
  • Dysfunction due to poor posture (sitting badly, standing awkwardly and slouching)
  • Lifting objects that are way too heavy
  • Twisting while lifting a heavy object
  • Using improper lifting techniques
  • Being in the bent over position for too long
  • Doing too much and over working your lower back
  • Sleeping awkwardly
  • Wear and tear – osteoarthritis, disc degeneration – with older people being more susceptible
  • Herniated discs
  • Nerve damage
  • Sciatica
  • Infections and other diseases
  • Being overweight – especially with excess belly fat/bloating

What are the symptoms of lower back pain?

Lower back pain can sometimes happen straight away at the time of the activity you are doing or even a day or two later. Regardless, it is important to understand how bad your lower back injury is. Is it causing discomfort or is it causing severe pain?

I have split the symptoms into just two categories:

Lower back spasms, sprain or strain:

These are generally created by day to day activities, bad posture, over doing an activity, heavy lifting or twisting while lifting and sudden impact. Symptoms include:

  • Aching back
  • Tenderness
  • Inflammation of tendons and muscles

If you fit this description you should be able to manage and recover from your lower back pain with most self help methods mentioned below.

Something more uncomfortable and painful:

If you are suffer more pain or long term issues, they can be caused through very heavy lifting, trauma impact, diseases, pinched nerve, herniated disk (slipped disk), degeneration or sciatica (sciatic nerve), usually comes with pain or discomfort down the legs, buttocks, while more severe sciatica can be caused by a degenerative disc from disease or even a herniated disc. Symptoms include:

  • Loss of feeling
  • You become immobile or have difficulty in coordination
  • Tingling / pins-and-needles sensation
  • Weakness in legs
  • Severe pain, often deep

If any of these symptoms is happening to you, seek medical advice before attempting any self help to avoid further complicating the situation.

Getting treatment

If you suffer from long term lower back pain or acute pain, please seek medical advice. Either go and see your doctor or a chiropractor or osteopath. A chiropractor usually focuses on your spine, joints and sometimes your muscles, while an osteopath will also look at a wider and broader area and take the body as a whole. Which one you need will depend on the symptoms and of cause the reasons for your lower back pain. You could also try a physiotherapist who specialises in treatments for neuromuscular, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular conditions and are good at dealing with rehabilitation of injuries.

For less severe issues you could also try a sports massage to help increase blood flow and mobility.

Self help

There are a number of things you can do yourself to help either reduce the chances of getting a bad back or recover from one:

  • Reduce the amount of time you are in the seated position, whether that be in front of the computer or TV. Get up and walk around more often
  • Avoid sleeping awkwardly. Try sleeping on your side (foetal position) or on your back (with a pillow under your knees). Also use a pillow for your head at a height to keep your head and neck in a straight line
  • Avoid lifting anything heavy
  • Don’t over reach when lifting
  • Lift with your legs, bend at the knees and have a neutral back, keeping any weight close to your body
  • Concentrate on your posture (see about posture here)
  • Use heat to increase blood flow to any problem areas. If inflamed use ice packs. Use heat before any activity and ice after
  • Go swimming for exercise. A gentle swim can keep you moving with reduced weight placed on your spine
  • Use ibuprofen to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Stretching your hamstrings and glutes can help reduce tightness in your lower back (use of a foam roller is ideal)
  • Don’t run, as this can create jerking, twisting and stress on your lower back through impact
  • Lose weight, excess weight can place too much stress on your spine and lower back
  • See the exercise listed below

Back pain can often be made worse by avoiding treatment and working through your back pain, causing you to walk, sit or lay awkwardly and use your muscles incorrectly to compensate, creating a worsening situation. Make sure you don’t let a bad back go untreated for too long.

Exercises to help strengthen and condition your lower back

Firstly I’d like to say that the simple act of moving can help greatly, as counter intuitive as it sounds…….staying in a comfortable position for too long doesn’t help much. Change positions as often as you can, move about more and add occasional rest periods. (Note: this mainly applies to less severe issues, those with a more serious issue, need to follow direction once the issue has been diagnosed).

To help with lower back pain or build a stronger core/back you need to train smarter. It is most important to use the appropriate weight and correct technique or modified technique to avoid injury.

Try using a belt for very heavy lifting, but do not use a belt for regular workouts, you want to make your core and stabiliser muscles work and they can’t get the required stimulation if you are using a belt all the time.

The key to exercising and lower back health is building more mobility, endurance and strength into your core muscles.

Note: if you sit all day with a flexed back and then hit the gym and expect your now straight back to cope with lifting weights, you may just not be able to maintain a straight enough back to stay injury free. This is an issue that many fail to realise and one that leads to people over working what is often a weak link in many exercise routines. Building core stability will help greatly.

Exercises to help strengthen your core and lower back:

  • Child’s Pose
  • Lying down hip / spine twist
  • Cat camel / cat-cow stretch
  • Sphinx pose
  • Hip raises / glute bridge
  • Bird Dog / superman
  • Plank with Forearm Run
  • Side plank
  • Partial crunches

Look all these exercise up on-line. There are videos that will demonstrate these better than I can explain in words.

Exercises to avoid:

If you are suffering from any lower back issues, avoid the following exercises that can place too much stress on your lower back and/or spine:

  • Most weighted squats
  • Leg press
  • Stiff leg deadlifts
  • Barbell /DB rows
  • Good mornings
  • Toes touches
  • Regular sit-ups
  • Lying leg lifts/raises
  • Running/jogging

For very mild back issues you may still be able to do some of these exercises, but you will need to train smarter by going lighter, stricter with correct form and by adding more volume instead of weight. Better still, find and use alternative exercises until you are fully recovered.


Many people suffer from a bad lower back on a regular basis. Most short term lower back aches are OK, especially if you are not used to exercise, had an extremely gruelling workout or busy activity. Generally these type of issues should subside within a few days. These types should be gradual and may occur a day or two after exercise or the activity you’re were doing. It is quite a normal reaction to exercise or unusual activity for the body. However a more severe injury will often happen in an instant, be painful and have very restrictive movement. In this instance seek medical advice first.

If you feel pain when working out, don’t work through it. If mild pain occurs you may be able to work around it, but don’t work through it.

And remember no matter how fit and strong you are or whether you do regular workouts, if you sit all day long you need to get up from being seated for a few minutes every hour to keep your back and core muscles active throughout the day.