If you've ever had to battle through debilitating back pain, you know how important it is to protect your back when you work out. Although there are specific exercises that target various back muscles, pretty much every exercise you do involves your back in some kind of way.
Think about it: If your workout requires sitting, standing, bending, twisting, turning or stabilizing your core, you'll recruit at least some section of your back muscles to do it, so it only makes sense to do whatever you can to keep those valuable muscles from getting injured. Below are some practical tips for how to protect your back so you can have a productive and injury-free workout.
General Exercise Tips
1. No matter what exercise you're doing, avoid herky-jerky movements at all costs. This is especially important for back-intensive exercises such as deadlifts, back extensions and squats. Never try to take on more weight than you can handle with good form, and just be mindful to perform your exercises with smooth movements, free from any sudden starts, stops or jerks.
2. Working out with cold back muscles can definitely put you at risk for injury. Warm up your back muscles with some very light-impact, progressive movements that will get your blood flowing increase the flexibility and responsiveness of those muscles. Try performing arm circles, shoulder rolls, side bends, toe touches and trunk rotations (lightly twisting your torso from side to side).
3. Wear an adjustable back brace if need be to provide your back with extra support during your workouts. This really comes in handy if you're going to be lifting weights or performing other weight-bearing exercises.
Tips for Specific Exercises
1. Squats - Try to keep your lower back as straight as possible when you squat down, and make sure that you're not curving your back inwards (e.g., poking your chest out), as this can put extra stress on your spine. Keep your back and hips aligned as much as possible, and again, smooth movements are always the way to go.
2. Sit-Ups/Crunches - When performing sit-ups, don't come all the way up to where your head is basically in alignment with your knees. Not only does this take the tension off your abdominal muscles (where it belongs), but it over-extends your lower back, putting strain on the muscles surrounding the lumbar spine, which can lead to significant lower back pain.
Instead, come about three-fourths of the way up, which will keep those abdominal muscles engaged and your lower back safe. As far as crunches go, try performing them on a stability ball instead of the floor, as it will conform naturally to the curvature of your back, and it engages your hips and gluteal muscles, which will reduce the amount of pressure placed on the spine.
3. Lat Pull-Downs - This hallmark back exercise can create great results when done correctly, but can wreak havoc on your back muscles when done with poor form.
With this exercise, the first rule of thumb for injury prevention is to not take on more weight than you can reasonably handle. Also, never tilt your head forward and pull the bar down behind your head; this provides no benefit to the back or shoulder muscles, and can actually strain the muscles of your neck and upper back. To do it the right way, lean back slightly and engage your abdominal muscles while pulling the bar down to your upper chest.
4. Deadlifts - This is an exercise that you need to work up to before taking on any significant amount of weight. In fact, practice your deadlift form with nothing but the bar (or even a broomstick) at first, to ensure that you're using only your thighs, glutes and hamstrings to do the lifting, not your back.
Keep in mind that the force that will take you from being bent over to standing upright should be the squeeze that you get from your glutes and hamstrings, not the muscles of your lower back.
5. Planks - While this exercise can work wonders for strengthening your core, you have to be careful to perform it with correct form, otherwise it could place undue stress on your lower back. When you're in the plank position, you have to make a conscious effort to engage your abdominal muscles by keeping them nice and tight in order to prevent your back from sagging in the middle.
Although it can be tempting to forego the warm-ups and skip the finer details of proper form so you can get to the workout, don't do yourself a disservice by neglecting these important back safety precautions. While these preventative measures will require a little more effort, it will be well worth it in order to keep your back healthy and strong.