Prevent and Manage Back Injuries in Weight Training

Keep Your Back Strong and Functional

The Squat
The Squat and a Straight Back. (c) Paul Rogers

The lower back is susceptible to injury from lifting heavy weights or using incorrect lifting technique when weight training. Lifting weights from the ground in a standing position, as in the deadlift weightlifting exercise, inevitably places strain on the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the back.

Lower back injuries are common in everyday life for reasons much broader than traditional weightlifting.

Many resolve in a week or two, but other injuries need expert medical attention. Poor posture when bending over a sink to wash one's face or any movement that involves similar bending of the trunk can injure the lower back, as recorded by doctors and physical therapists worldwide.

Back injuries range in severity from a case of mild discomfort for a short time to lifelong chronic pain and disability. Practicing good form in the gym and weight room can prevent back injuries when performing weightlifting exercises. In addition, strengthening the back muscles with weightlifting exercises can help protect you from back injury in everyday life by re-enforcing good lifting technique and developing strong back muscles and supporting tissues. Here's how it all fits together.

Types of Back Injuries

There are several types and causes of back injury and associated pain:

Treatment of Back Pain

Mild back pain from strains and sprains, when there are no serious complications, are often treated with rest, ice, warmth or anti-inflammatory medications. Medical assistance should be sought for more acute, painful or long-lasting conditions.

Practice Good Form in Weightlifting to Protect the Back

In weightlifting and weight training, "good form" means the appropriate posture and movement to maximize safety and minimize injury while lifting a weight. This applies equally in competition lifting, where the weight is maximized, or in fitness or bodybuilding training for muscle and strength improvements. Either way, preventing injury while lifting heavy weights is a primary focus of lifting with good form. Below are the basics of good form for protecting the back from injury.

  • The No. 1 rule is to keep the back straight when bending to lift weights from the floor or squatting with weights on the upper body. This applies equally in recreational and occupational lifting at work or play.
  • This one is frequently misunderstood. Bending or flexing at the hips is required, but curving the back is not. In addition, to reach a weight that is low or on the ground, flexion at the knees must occur. Bending the knees allows you to keep the back straight as you lower the body to grasp the weight.
  • This equally applies in the squat, where the weight is held at the upper body on the chest or upper back: A straight back is supported by knee and hip flexion and extension. Because of the weight position, rounding the back in the squat is hazardous not only for the lower back (lumbar spine), but also for the upper back (cervical spine).
  • In the deadlift, the barbell, once grasped, is lifted with extension of the knees and hips, predominantly powered by the legs. The arms and back are stabilizers as you rise to standing. At all times the back should be straight and not curved. No lifting force should act through a curved back.

Summary of Back Protection in Weight Training

Ultimately, you should perform any weight-training exercise that has the potential to place the back in a vulnerable position with good form and a straight back. Examples of such exercises are good mornings, any type of deadlift or squat and bent-over rows. Not only will practicing good form prevent injury, but strengthening the back muscles will ensure additional protection from injury.

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