Don’t Bend and Snap: 3 Reasons Your Lower Back Hurts when Exercising

When’s the last time you’ve experienced low back pain? Today? Yesterday? 60 seconds ago? We get it. It happens.

The good thing is, you’re not alone. It’s been estimated roughly 80% of Americans experience some form of low back pain in their lifetime. That’s 8 out of 10 people. Thought you were in the cool club? Think again.

Today’s objective is to give you knowledge to understand why you might experience low back when exercising.  For those you are suffering from serious, diagnosed lower back issues, we kindly ask you skip this post and listen to your doctor’s advice.

We hope that after this post, you won’t be Bending and Snapping or having any more Legally Blonde moments.

 

Okay, let’s get down to business. Typically, lower back pain when exercising is usually due to one or more of the following:

  1. Lack of core stability
  2. Loss of neutral spine
  3. Poor posture outside the gym

LACK OF CORE STABILITY:

There may be a time in your life that maybe a friend or workout buddy mentioned that you should “strengthen your core” to help your lower back pain. Usually when we think strengthening the core, we tend to think of doing endless crunches hoping we’ll be the next cover model for the newest fitness magazine.

In reality, we need to be training more than just the superficial muscles and training the deep inner core muscles that help support our spine. These muscles include the transversus abdominis, multifidus, diaphragm, and the pelvic floor. When these muscles are strong, we prevent heavy loads going straight to our lower back. These muscles serve as a shield to protect our spine! We won’t get into all the details in this posts, but for a more detailed explanation of the physiology behind this, please check out our previous post here.

So now you must be thinking, “Well..how do I know if I lack core stability?” Well, it’s pretty easy to find out. To do so, lay on your back. Get your feet off the ground, legs 90/90, and slowly straight one leg out toward the ground (see below) – WITHOUT letting your lower back arch off the ground.

Planks

If you look like the left picture and have a large arch in your back, you probably lack some core stability. It’s okay, it happens. However, lacking core stability predispositions us to lower back pain. After all, the weaker our core is, the more load our spine has to take. If you need some ideas on how to increase your core stability, check out the exercises below:

The above exercises are a good place to get started. Prioritize these at the beginning of your workout until you can really master them. Remember, you shouldn’t feel any lower back pain during any of these exercises.

LOSS OF NEUTRAL SPINE

Any exercise we do in the gym requires us to be aware of how we are positioning our spine. Why? Because excessive flexion and extension of the spine over long periods of time can cause lower back issues such as herniated discs, arthritis, etc. Moving around with poor mechanics leads to injury. Period.

If you are experiencing pain when exercising, really have a heart to heart and ask yourself: is my back neutral?

 

What does that mean? Neutral means just not overly arched and not overly rounded. You might not even know what your back’s doing at this point, so take a look at two common exercise examples below.

Plank

Planks. We know. We hate them too. But we’ve got to talk about them. If you’re experiencing low back pain when doing planks, check out what your lower back is doing. Take a look below:

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Notice in the first image, the lower back is extremely arched. This leads to tons of pressure being put on your lower back when in reality, the plank is meant to strengthen the core so that you don’t have all the load going to your lower back.

Now, take a look at the second image. Notice a difference? We can now see my back still has a neutral curve rather than an excessively arched one.

Tips for a good plank include:

  • Squeezing your glutes slightly to help pull your back into neutral alignment
    Drawing the rib cage down so there is no flare – thinking of your sternum and belly button being held together by a piece of string.
  • Push the ground away from you. Don’t let your chest fall toward the ground. If I were to put the back of my hand across your upper back, you should be pushing into my hand.

Squats

Squats. We hate them and we love them…except when they start giving us lower back pain.

Many people get lower back pain during squats, and this can be due to many reasons which we won’t be able to fit all into one blog post. However, one of the most common reasons because of losing neutral spine throughout the entire movement. See below for more details.

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Rounded back

This is a squat with a rounded back. If we were add even more weight, this would be problematic because of all the stress on our discs. Rounded backs during squats could be due to a few things:

1) Tight hamstrings: If your hamstrings are tight, they’re going to pull on your lower back and cause your lower back to round. Implement this hamstring stretch into your routine:

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2) Lack of ankle dorsiflexion: If you can barely touch your knee to a wall from a few inches away, you’ve got some work to do. Lack of ankle mobility will cause your lower back to round to try to pick up the slack. Add the following mobilization into your routine:

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3) Lack of core stability: Ahh, here we go with core stability again. Can’t get enough of it, right? Add more core stability exercises to your routine such as the ones linked earlier in the blogpost.

Arched back

This is a squat with an arched back. Again, the discs are compressed and can produce pain. This can be due to a few things:

1. Lack of core stability (AGAIN! Seeing a trend? Check out those exercises linked earlier in this blogpost for some exercises)

2. Tight hip flexors: Having tight hip flexors due to excessive sitting or other factors creates dysfunction in the spine but shifting our hips back, creating an excessive arch in the lower back. To help correct this, make sure to add this hip flexor stretch before performing your squats

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3. Lack of awareness: Many times we’re not even sure what our lower back is doing during a squat. To practice proper squat form, have a friend videotape you or record yourself going through the movement. If your back is arching and you’ve addressed the two issues above, set up a box or bench behind you to squat to without moving into an excessive arch in the back. Master neutral spine in a smaller range of motion before attempting to squat full-depth. Check out the video below for an example of this:

 

Neutral Back

Let’s look at the third picture from above. Notice now there is no excessive arch or flexion of the spine. A normal lordotic curve is present. This is what we should strive for with our form.
POOR POSTURE OUTSIDE THE GYM

Unfortunately, we can’t just act like we’re athletes when we’re at the gym. If you workout for 30-60 minutes a few times a week, what are you doing for the other hundreds of hours a week you aren’t exercising?

 

We got to be real with ourselves. Most of us sit at our desks all day and probably get anywhere from 1000-5000 steps per day which means we are, let’s face it, sedentary.  Our core gets weak, hips get tight, glutes become underactive, and our shoulders round. These issues combined with going to the gym to do the exercises listed above is bound to cause lower back issues. Why? Because spinal alignment is based around the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that are attached to it. If muscles around it are weak and others overactive, this can reposition the spinal to suboptimal positions over time.

If you find yourself sitting for the better part of your day, it’s time to increase your steps and standing up more. Here are some tips:

  1. Get up to get a small cup of water instead of a large cup of water when you’re at work. This will force you to get up out of your seat more often than carrying around one of those huge water bottles.
  2. Place things you need away from you. Need to staple some papers? Keep your stapler in another room or across your office so you get out of your seat more.
  3. Park further away from your workplace. This will automatically force you to get some extra steps in.
  4. Talking on your cell phone? Stand up when you take calls and pace around the room.
  5. Invest in a stand-up desk. Amazon has lots of different ones, like this one.

Additionally, working out with weights isn’t something you should just go and do without a proper warm-up. If you sit all day, I suggest adding in the following to your warm-up routine:

Hip flexor stretch

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Foam roll your calves and mobilize them

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Thoracic windmills

 

Wallsides

 

Glute bridges

 

90/90 hip stretch

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In Summary

Low back pain sucks, and it’s a huge bummer when you get it while working out. Today we have discussed three possible reasons why your low back hurts and how to tackle them:

  1. Lack of core stability
  2. Loss of neutral spine
  3. Poor posture outside the gym

By addressing the above, you might see your low back pain lessen and hopefully disappear with time. Remember, it will take purposeful, consistent action to solve these issues, and if you are still experiencing pain, we recommend always checking with your doctor for further guidance.

Due to the prevalence of lower back pain when exercising, we make sure our clients do not push through pain.  Our programs also dive even more in-depth as to what might be causing the issue, assuming there aren’t any serious diagnosed back issues. We encourage you to bookmark our main page and check back regularly for more posts and tips.

Crunches Won’t Cut It: Truly Strengthen Your Core

There was a time in the early 2000s, as a 16-year-old kid, when I was getting in shape for the first time of my life. It was two years since I had taken my first steps to transforming from the chubby little video gamer I had always identified myself to be. I was thrilled to feel what it was like to lose some of the weight I had carried around for years while developing a little bit of muscle. In these early stages, goal setting was so very important as I hadn’t yet developed any kind of actual enjoyment in the process of being active.

I eventually reached a point that many exercisers comes to at one point or another, and in the name of vanity, I set out to develop a 6-pack of abs because, well… maybe I thought it might be cool. Or maybe it was the movies or comic book heroes that marketed to me that this was what it meant to be in shape. Whatever the reason was, I don’t remember, I just went for it.

But at 16-years-old, what did I know about developing a strong, defined midsection? Well, I had seen the Rocky movies a few times. I also knew that when I did crunches in JROTC for our physical fitness test that my abs would hurt for 3 days after. I also think I heard time and time again that this Actor/Actress did 500 crunches a day to get in shape for this or that movie role.

So with this knowledge, and this knowledge alone I set out for my goal… and failed miserably.

I remember starting with 100 crunches per day, 5 days per week while finding… no visible abs. It didn’t take long for my endurance to increase so I began increasing to 150 per day and before long, 200 crunches per day, and while after a while I had no problem maxing out my JROTC  crunch test, I still had no visible abs. There was no attention given to nutrition, and while I didn’t know it at the time, I was performing a useless workout program.

The experiment was a failure, but it taught me a great deal of information, though I wouldn’t realize it for maybe a decade later. And while the appeal of visibly defined abs no longer interests me from an aesthetics perspective, I have learned a tremendous amount since that time about how functional it is to have a strong, balanced and coordinated core for both in-the-gym training and in the real world.

While core strength is becoming more and more discussed in the fitness industry and in mainstream marketing, our general perception as a whole of what core strength is and how it is developed is still commonly misconstrued. After spending the past seven years working in commercial gyms, I have seen dozens upon dozens of people each day make the same mistakes I described above, and I hope to set you up for success with the information in this post so that you can be spared the mistakes that I and so many others have made.

Breaking the Spot Reduction Mindset

We cannot spot reduce where we lose fat. Period. (Although it would be awesome if we could…)

Where we store fat in our bodies is a great deal attributed to both gender and our genetics. To generalize, men typically tend to store more body fat in the abdominal and midsection area, while women tend to store more body fat in their hips and lower bodies. While there are many exceptions to this overgeneralization, this is the case for most people.

As we overindulge and store calories in the form of fat in our bodies, our genetics also determine whether we store more fat in our legs versus our arms, or our hips versus our bellies, or our fingers versus our toes. You get the point.

This means that when we attempt to lose body fat in our bellies, that really, we just need to burn fat in our bodies which is a combination of:

• A well balanced diet
• Creating a healthy caloric deficit (which doesn’t entail starving ourselves)
• Performing activities that raise our metabolism (heavy compound movements for example, and exercise in general)

But if aesthetics are important to you whether it is regarding your abs or any other muscle group, there IS a secret formula, which really is not a secret at all, and it’s:

(Developed muscle in an area) + (Low Body Fat) = Muscle Definition

The big mistake, however, is that most people set out to “get abs” by nearly starving themselves which certainly does some work reducing fat albeit an unhealthy one, but it also reduces muscle in our bodies which means it shrinks muscle in the abs. Remember, no muscle = no definition.

Nutrition is perhaps the most essential component to seeing the abs, but developing the core is a very close second, and from a performance standpoint, strengthening the core area is the foundation of most great exercise programs as it protects us from injury, and strengthens all movements we perform. But how do we strengthen our core?

Stop Doing Crunches and Sit-Ups

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but not only are countless floor crunches and sit-ups repeatedly performing a movement that worsens the ramifications of the seated desk position that causes so many of us to have slouched posture, tight hips, and low back pain, but it also doesn’t work well for building the abs. In order to build muscle effectively for any area in the body, heavier progressive overload exercises work best.

Even when putting aside the evidence that crunches and sit-ups are correlated with tight hip flexors (which cause low back pain) and stress to the discs in the spine ( Which also cause back pain,) the nature of these exercises is more of an endurance classification, and while you may “feel” the area working, you’re just getting better at resisting fatigue in the abs, and not necessarily building muscle. There are better methods and exercises out there, and I intend to share them with you.

Some Quick Physiology

If you want to skip the science stuff, scroll ahead to Effective Ways to Strengthen the Core. While I won’t dive too far into the physiology that influences muscular growth as it pertains to the core, it is important to briefly touch upon it to explain why other training methods work better than crunches and Russian twists when it comes to truly achieving a stronger core.

According to the 3rd edition of Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, “Heavy resistance training brings about significant adaptive responses that result in enhanced size, strength, and power of trained musculature.”

The three primary hormones involved in muscle tissue growth are testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor.

Maybe you’ve heard of these chemical compounds before in the news or articles covering athletes’ illegal use of steroids or performance enhancing drugs, however, they actually occur naturally in our bodies (in both men and women) and can be influenced to a degree by heavier resistance training. These compounds are responsible for building lean muscle which is a huge factor in burning fat and feeling and looking stronger. Most of all, using some of the training protocols used for influencing these hormone levels will also develop strength in the entire body, especially the core:

Natural Testosterone Boosting Methods:

• Large Muscle Group Exercises
• Heavy Resistance (85%-95% of 1 RM)
• Moderate to High Volume of of exercise using multiple sets, exercises, or both.
• Short Rest Intervals
• Two or more years of resistance training experience

Natural Growth Hormone Boosting Methods:

• Growth hormone has not been found to be affected by low resistance high repetition exercises (VanHelder study noted in text mentioned above)
• An Intensity Threshold (lifting heavy enough) exists to get the body to begin secreting growth hormone
• Kraemer study showed less break time mixed with total volume of exercises (Volume =  Weight x Reps x Sets) increases GH serum levels
• 10 Rep Max sets were shown to produce higher levels of GH responses

When evaluating the natural ways to boost growth hormone and testosterone to build muscles, you see in both cases, it requires heavier resistance loads (sets of 3 to as many as 20,) so it makes sense that an endless number of repetitions and long duration sets of “abs” won’t be very effective for building much musculature there. These exercises fall into a category of more of an endurance type, and they still carry the risks mentioned above.

Effective Ways to Strengthen the Core

So where does this leave us? Well, we should approach the core like we would if we were trying to strengthen anything else such as the biceps, triceps, lats or quads.

Compound Movements are king in any exercise program; even when focusing on core strength. The degree of core strength and stability required to perform a squat or a deadlift or a bent-over-row, with safe form and full range of motion is tremendous. I can personally attest to this from my own experience in 2015, When I entered a 90-day weight loss challenge for my job, and I finally achieved my 16-year-old self’s goal (although this time, “getting abs” wasn’t the goal.)

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2015: 90-Day Transformation. Compound lifts, healthy carbs/proteins/fats, and 0 “Ab Days.” Not a single crunch was performed or necessary.

The difference this time around was there were many more principles of nutrition and physiology that factored into the program. By following a protocol that required a lot of caloric output by using heavier compound movements and a sensible nutrition plan (yes, I ate carbs… LOTS of carbs which are healthy and part of a well balanced diet)  the conditions were right for a favorable transformation to occur.

99% of this program consisted of compound movements: Squats, Deadlifts, Pullups, Bent Over Rows, Overhead Press, etc. without ever performing an abdominal crunch. The core works hard in every single one of these exercises, even though they are not “ab movements.”

This is not to say isolating the core is useless. It can be highly effective for isolating weaker areas and imbalances and can be especially effective as a good warm up for lighter lifting  or circuit training days, or a great way to end a workout on heavier lifting days. In fact, core stability exercises help quite a bit to ensure compound movements are functioning properly. But stability aside, there are still some pretty great isolation movements out there which include the following:

Time-Under-Tension Exercises:

• Planks
• Hollow Body Holds
• Deadbugs
• Pallof Presses
• Stir the Pot
• Dragon Flags

Resistance Loaded and Full Range Of Motion Exercises:

• Suspended Leg Raises
• Cable Woodchop/Horizontal Rotation
• Side Bends
• Cable Flexion (Cable Crunch)
• Ab Wheel

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Hollow Body Hold

In Summary

Piecing it all together can be tough, but let’s try and break it all down right here into a few short bullet points to simplify as much as possible:

• Core performance has different categories in which we discussed three: Core Strength, Core Stability, Core Endurance
• Core Strength is most associated with growing the size of the abdominals and other core muscles (though the other categories play an important role)
• There exist specific loads, rep schemes and movements that trigger muscular strength, power and size in all muscles including the core
• Compound Movements, if performed correctly with full range of motion and enough resistance will activate the core in very large amounts and are strongly recommended for developing a strong core
• When isolating the core, focusing on time under tension and full ROM resistance loaded movements are highly effective when compared to high endurance exercises such as crunches

These are some of the fundamental principles we implement into our exercise programs when training in-person or in our Eon Fitness: Online Personal Training Program. If you’d like to learn more about ways to strengthen your core or improve your exercise programming, we encourage you to bookmark our main page and check back regularly for more posts and tips.