It’s a lot. We really suffer for our art here at Woodshed when titling blog posts.
Anyhow, let’s talk back pain. Not big-time back pain, which is probably just about as mysterious and stygian as it gets short of actual disease, but minor discomfort–the sort of thing newer folks might very well experience within their first month here. “Deadlifted on Monday and my low back’s been barking at me since.” Or, “not sure what happened, but my back hurts.”
There are a few things we can do in here right away to help. The better you are at the simpler things, the closer we are to bombproofing your back as best we can in here. Nothing is foolproof, of course, but lifting weights and strengthening your abdominals and lower back is an incredibly potent hedge against lumbar degredation.
Here’s a quick checklist of things you can do to protect your back, whether it’s your first month or fifty-first:
1. Breathe properly. We think breathing in here is so important that we now make you drill it during warmups every few days. Fill your stomach and back with air before each rep or couple of reps (sometimes on an overhead press set I will try to do 2 or 3 reps per breath). That air in your belly and back acts as a pneumatic brace around your spine and hedges against overextension (bending back too far) or flexion (rounding forward too much). A simple way to practice this? Stand tall with your hands on your hips, then breathe in deeply through your nose, concentrating on pushing air into your hands and especially your thumbs at your low back. Done correctly, this should feel almost like you are holding in your stomach instead of expanding forward. Do this before every rep or cluster of reps. If you practice this on the light sets, it will become second nature on the heavier ones.
2. Brace properly. As with breathing, so with bracing. Just as important, just as easy to overlook. When you bend to pick something up from the floor–whether it’s a PR deadlift or a 26 lb kettlebell–practice the art of the brace. First, get yourself down to the ground by hinging at the hips and knees, not by rounding your back over until your arms are close to the mat. Then set your back tight by picking your chest up. Take in your air and hold it, look straight ahead, and you are braced. Yes, even when you pick up an Ab-Mat. It may seem penny foolish to be pound wise, but how many times have you heard someone say they hurt their back doing something relatively innocuous? Right. So practice the brace.
3. Put yourself in traction. When we lift, particularly as we increase load and/or time under tension (reps), we are compressing the spine. This is as it sounds: things get closer together and have the potential to bump into each other, and that is just as that sounds. Fortunately, we can ameliorate–spend proportionate time in traction to ease tension. Traction, though it sounds like punishment for folks with bad backs, simply connotes the stretching out of your spine. So hang from the pullup bars (this is outstanding), do tons of broken tables (not quickly, and hold that stretch), or lie face down and reach for one wall with your hands while you reach for the opposite wall with your feet. In all, get as long as you can. This will help!
4. Stretch your lower body. Tight hamstrings and hips can certainly shunt too much of the load onto your low back during compound movements. Find one stretch that works for your hip flexors (I love the samson stretch for this), your hamstrings (love simple band stretches here), the unsung psoas (google “Supine Psoas March”), and of course your piriformis (we do this in class all the time). I say ‘one stretch’ because finding one you can stick with and put into a little routine or circuit makes it that much likelier you will make this a habit. 2-3 minutes every day will do wonders.
Hasten to note here that this is not meant as curative advice across the spectrum of back pain. We’re talking here about relatively low-grade pain in your lower back that manifests as something like a tightness. If this is you–and it often is for many folks early on–try this stuff out and be diligent about it! Don’t hesitate to ask your trainer for help here.