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Protect Your Back While You Work Out

8 opportunities to tweak your approach to common exercises for a safe, injury-free sweat session
Written by 
Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

Protecting your back likely isn’t top of mind when you start your workout. After all, our focus tends to be pretty targeted when we exercise: Crunches work our abs; free weights challenge our arms. Though that may be inevitable (you choose certain moves and activities for this purpose, after all), it’s important to remember that in the process of strengthening one part of your body, you could be straining another too—and, in many cases, it is your back.

Though back exercises obviously zero in on working this part of your body, every exercise taxes your back in some way. The collection of muscles in your back, after all, is involved in standing, turning, bending and more—whether you clearly feel it or not. Making some simple tweaks to your routine can help ensure that you’re protecting your back from pain and potential injury as you concentrate on strengthening other muscle groups.

The Warm-Up

When you’re pressed for time, it can be tempting to skip straight to the good stuff: cardio, strength training. But easing into action with gentle, progressive movements increases blood flow and warms your muscles so they’re more pliable and ready to work. Without a warm-up, your muscles—including those that support and protect your spine—will be stiffer and more susceptible to strain.

Protect Your Back: Spend about 5 to 10 minutes doing mild exercises like shoulder rolls, arm circles and gentle trunk rotations (turning your torso from side to side). These simple starters slowly get you primed to work your way up to full throttle.


Planks

When performing planks and other core conditioning moves,  you may employ a technique called “hollowing out”—pulling your belly button toward your spine to activate the transverse abdominus, or the deepest layer of abdominal muscles. This once-popular practice has actually fallen out of favor because it can decrease stability and lead to improper form and, in turn, possible injury.

Protect Your Back: Instead, brace your abdominals as though you’re about to cough or take a punch to the gut. Tightening your core as if you’re filling that space (rather than sucking it in) will better support your spine and back muscles. 


Sit-Ups

Traditional crunches and sit-ups are effective exercises for their intended target—the abdominals—but they do their job while putting significant pressure on and posing risk to the low back.

Protect Your Back: When performing crunches, do them on a stability ball, which supports the curve of your back and allows for a fuller range of motion. This method also integrates the hips and gluteal muscles, reducing any strain on the spine.


Lat Pull-Downs

The overhead pull-down machine at the gym can help strengthen your arms, shoulders and upper back. Many people have a tendency, however, to jut their heads forward in order to pull the bar down behind them—a position that can strain your neck and upper back.

Protect Your Back: When using this piece of equipment, lean back slightly, bracing your abdominals, and pull the bar down in front of your body to the top of your chest.


Deadlifts

Deadlifts can be a good exercise for strengthening your legs and back, but using your back muscles to do most of the heavy lifting—instead of the stronger muscles in your lower half—is a common mistake that can lead to pain.

Protect Your Back: Practice proper form with a broomstick, which will help align your spine and force your body into a position that employs your legs to do the lifting. Reach behind you with both hands to hold the stick vertically against your back so that it’s in line with your head, back and butt. Knees slightly bent, slowly bend forward until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings to come back to standing.


Cycling

Riding a bike is a great low-impact cardio exercise, yet as many as 60 percent of cyclists experience back pain, largely due to poor riding form or a bike that doesn’t fit correctly.

Protect Your Back: Get your bike fitted by a professional to make sure the position of the seat and handlebars are suited to your body size. When you ride, make sure you’re distributing your weight evenly: Squeeze your glutes; drop your shoulders away from your ears; bend your elbows slightly to help absorb shock; and be sure to push and pull the pedals as you spin. If you’re on a stationary bike, adjust the seat to a comfortable level and try to avoid leaning your forearms on the handlebars, which can throw off the balance of your bodyweight and strain your back muscles.


Treadmill Running

Running on the treadmill can be an excellent way to weather- and traffic-proof your workout. But concentrating on the moving surface can sometimes cause you to change your natural gait or stare at your feet, which could lead to a sore back and neck.

Protect Your Back: Whether you’re running indoors or outdoors, keep an upright posture with just a slight forward lean and maintain an eyes-straight-ahead gaze. Reaching both arms straight up overhead before you take off can help set your form.


Stretching

That on-the-floor, V-formation stretch you’ve been doing since grade school could be contributing to low back pain without you realizing it. Though it may loosen up your legs, reaching for your toes in this way can lead to excessive forward flexion that compresses the lumbar spine.

Protect Your Back: Stretch your hamstring by lying on your back, raising one leg toward the ceiling, knee slightly bent, with your other leg extended straight on the floor. Place your hand behind your knee and gently pull your leg toward you and hold for 20 seconds before switching sides.

Reference(s) 
American Council on Exercise
Harvard Health Publications
The International SportMed Journal (2010)
About the author 
Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie is a Syracuse, NY–based health and fitness writer, an American Council on Exercise–certified personal trainer and the author of Tone Every Inch (Rodale).