Back pain, particularly lower back pain, is something that plagues millions of people around the world. Whereas specific exercises can help to alleviate and prevent back pain, other exercises can make things much worse if done incorrectly.
It’s not that these exercises are inherently bad for your back. If done correctly, they can help build muscle and strengthen your body. It’s just that if they are done incorrectly without proper guidance and direction, the risk for injury is greatly increased.
Before diving into specific exercises that can cause serious back pain, it’s useful to understand what causes this back pain in the first place.
The most common form of back injury is through muscle fatigue, poor lifting form, or excessive lifting of weight. This type is the easiest to pinpoint because once you throw out your back, you can’t help but notice because every moment from then on is extremely uncomfortable. Some exercises are more prone to cause injuries because there is more room for error. Coupled with weight, these motions can quickly do damage that would require additional treatment.
Awkward lifting, vehicle accidents, and sports injuries can also stretch and tear the long fibrous bands called ligaments that limit the amount of movement at different spinal level. Physiotherapy focuses on effective and efficient ligament healing while simultaneously reducing pain so you can get back to enjoying a life without pain.
Squats are arguably one of the best compound exercises. When a squat is executed correctly, all the muscles in your lower body and core start firing up. Since humans naturally have a higher reservoir of strength in their lower body, we might be quick to jump the gun on lifting heavier weights on our squats. Since they are so involved, when done with poor form squats can have devastating effects on not only your lower back, but virtually every single joint in your lower body.
Where things get risky: The most common mistake made in squats is rounding your spine instead of keeping it straight. This causes an extreme amount of tension in your lower back and distributes a lot of the weight in a way that is not conducive to an optimal lift. People will also tend to look up towards the ceiling when squatting, which puts your spine at an odd angle for the lift. Additionally, if your footwork is too narrow or your knees are slumping past your toes, you could also do damage to your knees.
Your lower body is extremely powerful and is capable of lifting tremendous amounts of weight, but it takes lots of practice to make sure that both your primary and supporting muscle groups are capable of lifting the weight.
To perform squats with perfect form, you should start with your feet wider than hip-width. If you feel an uncomfortable tightness in your hips, you can spread your feet wider. Keep your head pointed forward and your spine straight, keep your chest out, and focus the weight on the back of your heels. Keep your thighs parallel to the floor throughout the lift and don’t let your knees extend past your toes. Keep your core engaged and tight, and make sure your spin isn’t arching.
When done with proper form, normal and straight leg deadlifts will work all your major muscle groups in a single compound movement. This exercise is primarily usually used to target your hamstrings, but as you can imagine, lifting a weighted bar off the ground will activate virtually every other muscle group as well.
Where things get risky: The proper form for straight leg deadlifts means keeping your spine straight and your head facing forward. If you allow your spine to round out during the lift, your lower back will end up doing the heavy lifting instead of your powerful hamstrings. The spine will tend to round out for two main reasons:
1. You aren’t sure of the proper form for the lift, and rounding your back “feels natural”. Although it may feel comfortable at first, realise that just because this is the path of least resistance, it doesn’t mean you are free of injury.
2. You are lifting too much weight. Stacking a few plates for your straight leg deadlifts might feel good for your ego, but once your back starts rounding you are putting yourself in a very dangerous position.
To perform straight leg deadlifts correctly, keep your core tight and your spine in a straight and neutral position. Use your hips to drive forward when lifting the weight, instead of using your lower back to pull up and back.
These machines are designed to sculpt your obliques, but can often lead to serious back pain. The torso twist machines put your body in an unnatural awkward moment that your stabilising muscles often aren’t used to. Twisting your upper body while keeping your lower body stationary is something that puts stress on your spin and can lead to pinched nerves and nerve damage.
Where things get risky: One should always be wary of lifting with machines. Since many of them are designed to work a single muscle or muscle group, they keep otherwise active muscle groups stationery. Some machines will even keep your stabilising muscles from being engaged in the lift. All it takes is for one awkward jerk of the torso twist machine to pinch a nerve in your lower back and cause excruciating back pain.
Exercise is a double edged sword. It can make you healthier, but it can also put you in a lot of pain if done incorrectly. Additionally, just because you have perfect form in your exercises does not make you immune from the risk of injury.
Stretching and regular physio checkups are a few preventative measures that can be taken to make sure your body is prepared to undergo extensive physical exercises. Musculoskeletal manipulative physiotherapy is training focused on the dysfunctions of the spine, particularly on the neck and back. This sort of training helps to prescribe specific exercises and correct faulty spinal movements, helping you exercise in smoother, pain free movements. You can check out some of our manipulative physiotherapy treatments here.