How many of you have experienced low back pain in your day? I'm sure most can nod their heads in agreement; at one point or another, nearly all adults have experienced pain in this region. Sometimes it is a mere annoyance, while other times it may be debilitating.
Diagnosing Back Pain
The problem, then, is determining what caused this pain. Was it something you did in the weight room? Did you perform an exercise with weights that were too heavy? Did you use poor form? The list is endless and, unfortunately, often the initial pain cannot be accurately diagnosed making it difficult to correct.
Many times it stems from something else; are your shoes providing full support? Do you have a leg length discrepancy that's causing you to favor one side or another?
When I'm asked by folks to "diagnose" a specific condition or point of pain that they have, it's often impossible to do without knowing more about their situation and seeing how they train.
It's also difficult to prescribe exercises via email because everyone is unique; while I can provide sample routines that are proven to work, there may be a handful of people who cannot do a particular exercise. That doesn't mean I'm recommending working through pain or the limitation; it is up to you, the individual to determine the risk to benefit ratio of performing an exercise(s).
For example, often folks with back pain or prescribed a particular exercise or series of exercises that actually exacerbates their pain. However, there is also a time when the exercises recommended produced a therapeutic yield that exceeded any irritation caused by the exercise, thus allowing measurable improvement in function and a subsequent reduction in complaints.
This progress is due to the specificity of the activity (strengthening and conditioning the afflicted region or weak link) and its relative safety. In contrast, no amount of squats or cleans will cure back pain in athletes who find these exercises painful. The irritation clearly outweighs the stimulus for adaptation and subsequent improvement.
Time and time again, I've witnessed athletic folks who experience significant pain exacerbation during strength training exercises but who are determined to keep with the present program. Some bodybuilders I've talked to over the years actually believe that they will simply adapt to the painful exercise and continue to work through the pain.
Unfortunately, though, such adaptation does not typically occur because, in contrast to aggressive rehabilitative exercise, the therapeutic yield of most strength-training activities does not offset the irritation.
Remember, pain from fatigue, or delayed onset muscle soreness is much different than physical, debilitating pain. Exercise should be hard, but it should not disable you in any way (aside from the simple difficulty of sitting and standing after a hard leg day, for example).
Is Your Back Weak?
Some readers may be wondering who on Earth this article is for because I clearly can't be talking to them about having a weak lower back. Well, in fact the low back may just be the most neglected body part in most bodybuilding routines.
Moreover, there are way too many folks out there who basically live in their weight belt, which weakens the back since it's able to rely on that support and not use its own musculature to do so. It also stems from the "train what you can see in the mirror syndrome" that many folks suffer from.
The back is definitely outshined by the abs. They are front and center and nearly everyone is concerned with getting a six pack. On the other hand, you don't hear too many guys at the gym saying,
Well, how about determining your low back strength. There are ways to do it with specific equipment; however, many of you probably don't have access to MedX equipment, which is optimal as they offer computerized testing to assess low back strength. Of course this also requires the expertise of someone qualified to use this machinery. So where does this leave us?
To make this article useful and practical, try this.
Find a STURDY table or very firm bed and a trustworthy assistant to hold your lower extremities in place. The arms should be folded across your chest with your hands touching the opposite shoulders.
Lying face down with the lower half of your body on the table (a towel under your knees might make this a bit more tolerable) and your upper body off the table, have your assistant hold your legs in place while you balance horizontally. Once you fall below this horizontal position, the test is over.
According to Stuart McGill, a world renowned back researcher, if a college aged male can hold this for 161 seconds, you're good. Females, 181 seconds---that is not a typo (likely because males are more often than not holding a higher amount of weight).
Now the question comes as to what to do with this knowledge. It's important to not only focus on pure strength, but muscular endurance as well. In many specialized low back clinics, they ensure clients do a set of back extensions for up to 20 reps with a time under tension of 140 seconds.
In other words, this strengthens and enhances endurance. So am I suggesting the only way to increase lower back strength is through back extensions? Of course not, but it's a good way to also enhance endurance, which is important for this particular area of the body (because of the makeup of the muscle fibers, which is left for another article).
Another great exercise is hyperextensions; if you're fortunate enough to have one of these in your gym, give it a try. It is usually hidden in a corner and getting little activity.
Also keep in mind that core work in general is very important. I'm not saying that abs should be neglected because they get too much work, but make sure the amount of ab work done is balanced with the amount of back work.
The poor lower back is susceptible to a lot of stress and bears a lot of the weight from your body-it's used every single day to support your entire body and all the stressful activities you do, so keep it strong, and keep it healthy!