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Few things can be as devastating to a lifter’s progress as an injured back. The more you know about the various types of back injuries, the better chance you’ll have of avoiding them all.
The back is made up of a large sheet of interlocking muscles. As such, the back has incredible potential for muscular development and can be the centerpiece of an impressive physique. Unfortunately, any of those muscles can be strained, and even a small strain in a muscle group as tightly woven and crucial as the back can cause big problems all over. Lifting with bad form, trying to lift weights that are too heavy, or by pushing too far into a set and letting fatigue pull you out of alignment can all cause a muscle strain. Strains are not uncommon and can usually be treated with rest, ice, and improved form.
However, it makes more sense to just avoid strains altogether. Big movements like heavy deadlifts can be a great ego boost, but the gym should be a place to build strength and fitness, not to demonstrate them. Preventing these types of back injuries is usually a simple matter of focus, patience and gradual progressions. Listen to your body, particularly your back, and when it tells you it’s time to stop, stop.
“Lumbar” refers to the vertebrae comprising the lower back. A lumbar strain occurs when ligaments are stretched or even torn. Ligaments are tough bands of connective tissue that hold joints and bones together. Ligaments in the back can stretch or tear when they are subjected to more stress than they can handle. Lumbar injuries are one of the worst types of back injuries and are often the result of people lifting with rounded backs during squats or deadlifts. Lower back pain creeps into everything. It is just impossible to ignore, and lumbar strains can make it challenging to find any movement that doesn’t hurt while it’s healing.
To avoid lumbar sprains, it’s critical that you not lift with a rounded back. While it’s impossible to keep a completely flat back – the body is just not made of truly flat surfaces – if you’re arching your back like an angry cat when you’re pulling a deadlift or grinding through a squat, the weight is too heavy. One easy way to prevent lumbar injuries is to hire a trainer to teach you proper form when you perform movements with the potential for back damage. If you don’t have a trainer, just check yourself in a mirror before you start a lift, dial in your back position, and commit to maintaining it throughout the set. You can also use a weight lifting belt to help you maintain correct form during heavy lifts – especially during squats and deadlifts.
It is smart to strengthen your core in order to protect your back. The abdominal muscles serve as a stabilizer for the spine. A 2016 study in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders showed that patients who performed 8 weeks of abdominal exercises reported a substantial loss in lower back pain.
The spinal column is a stack of bones called vertebrae. Small cushions of tissue called disks separate the vertebrae from each other. Each disk is filled with a soft gelatinous material that keeps you out of pain when your spine is under load. The gelatinous portion is contained within a stiffer outer ring. A slipped or herniated disc occurs when the gelatinous portion of the disk protrudes through or slips around the outer ring. Slipped disks are sometimes a symptom of age. Like any living tissue in the body, discs wear out. However, there are still ways to decrease your likelihood of a slipped or herniated disk, particularly when you’re in the gym.
The first is to maintain a healthy body weight, which is good news. Individuals with an unhealthy amount of weight put unnecessary stress on their disks. If you’re already going to the gym, you’re ahead of the curve as far as this goes, so stick to it.
Next, proper form is paramount to avoiding slipped disks – see the theme here when it comes to avoiding these types of back injuries? You should take great pains to avoid rotating your torso when your spine is under a load you’re not accustomed to, as this misalignment can cause huge problems. All types of back injuries have their unique problems, but slipped disks can make lifting (or even something as simple as walking) a truly awful experience as parts of the vertebrae grind against each other.
The keys to avoiding most types of back injuries in the gym will always be the same: warm up before you lift, practice some restraint, and use good form. In order to have good form, you must learn what it is, and means booking some time with a knowledgeable personal trainer. You must also learn to trust your own body and know when it’s time to shut a workout or an exercise down. Nothing in the gym deserves more vigilance than the protection of your back.