Back pain sucks. It affects your training, your mood and most importantly your daily life. Whilst there are several causes of low back pain, some beyond the scope of this document, we can commonly say it is caused by one or several of the points below:
Your Lumbar spine doesn’t have the stability or strength to support the exercise you were doing.
You didn’t have enough strength endurance to withstand what you were repeatedly doing
You lack the flexibility in the surrounding areas, most importantly the hips and thoracic spine.
You lack the necessary core stability to resist excessive spinal movement
Your posture sucks
You were being stupid with the weights
While I can’t address you going HAM on the weights we can address the other issues and build your back from the ground up.
When we look at Gray Cooks joint-by-joint approach we can see different joints have different requirements to function correctly. The lumbar spine (lower back) is meant to be a stable joint whilst the hips and thoracic spine (upper back) are meant to be mobile joints. Based on this approach, the first thing I would advocate is to stop stretching out the lower back! The surrounding musculature is supposed to have a degree of stiffness to stabilise during movement.
We must then look at your posture to help determine a potential intolerance to either low back extension or flexion (arched back or rounded back). Some people may just live in one of these and carry it over into their training, putting the lumbar spine under constant load. One way to help determine this is do you suffer with more pain whilst sitting or standing? If it’s sitting, chances are it’s a flexion intolerance and for standing an extension intolerance. What this means is if your flexion intolerant you should be aiming to restore a more neutral/flat low back so if you can’t achieve that in the bottom of a squat or deadlift then start pulling off blocks and using box squats until optimal function is restored as you are doing more harm in the long run. If it’s extension intolerance you should be looking at owning your rib cage position and not over-arching during your squats and deadlifts. The pvc pipe is your friend and you should aim to have 3 points of contact with the pipe and only a small degree of space between the pipe and your lumbar spine.
Now that you have stopped stretching your low back and are more conscious of your overall posture in training, we can start to address your pain through breathing and alignment. We want the rib cage stacked on top of the pelvis to give us a stable structure from which to move from. If the pelvis is out of whack, this can put the whole system out of alignment and thus cause compensations. I’ve already talked about breathing here but going further, if you live in extension you should carry out your breathing drills with a bit more of a flexion bias such as:
If we are in more of a flexed posture we want to flatten that back out a bit and we can start on the ground
You can simply add these in to the start of your warm-ups for 10 good belly breaths aiming for 360-degree expansion of the mid section and followed by a full exhale whilst driving the ribs down to the pelvis.
Next we can look at mobilising the hips and thoracic spine, which are supposed to have a degree of movement. This means you need adequate flexibility in each to get into the correct positions without compensation at areas such as the lower back. We also need adequate flexibility in these two areas to build the stability we want in our low back and core. If you scored a 1 on your Deep Squat, Inline Lunge, Hurdle Step in your FMS, chances are you need to address this first. Try some of the exercises below, always re-testing to note improvement and ensuring you are on the right track.
Now we’ve worked on breathing and flexibility of the surrounding areas, we can focus on stability of the core and the low back. Remember we need stiffness in these areas to correctly utilise them in stabilising the spine during movement.
To start with you should own the basics:
Once you can manage these without low back pain/tension we can progress onto stability exercises with movement. We want to start on the ground first to give us the most support.
While they may seem simple, you should look to control these as slowly as possible whilst maintaining the posture we have already mentioned. You can also use the banded dead bug if you don’t have access to KBs.
We can then move on to the quadruped stance to challenge stability even further with the following:
Once these feel good progress onto
Again we are looking to own these with control and no tension/pain in the lower back. Once this is achieved we can progress on to the kneeling stance whether it be half kneeling or tall kneeling. With an even smaller base of support we add new stability challenges and lower body flexibility.
Hopefully at this point you should feel comfortable and see a reduction in pain/discomfort. You can then utilise some or all of these exercises as part of your warm-ups in preparation for the big lifts and to re-enforce. Just to re-iterate though, these exercises are useless if correct posture/spinal position is ignored. These exercises are about skill and control not speed and load lifted. Own each exercise before moving on.
The final piece of the puzzle is to build some posterior chain (glutes, erectos and hamstrings) strength and re-enforce core strength with more advanced exercises.
Take things slow and build quality movement before load. Get used to dialling in posture with breathing and rib control when lifting big and keep ion top of flexibility/accessory work.
This is by no means an all encompassing solution to alleviating back pain and I would always recommend consulting with a physio/chiropractor first to ensure you are safe to carry out training of this nature.