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Back pain will rear its head on nearly all of us at some point in life. 70-85% of us, to be exact. Exercise has been well-researched as a means to both prevent back pain and support its rehabilitation, but sometimes the very activities one does to strengthen and soothe their back can have the opposite effect if done incorrectly.
If you experience back pain after working out (or at all), it could be the result of a workout mistake—and could have detrimental effects on your long-term health. The good news is that it’s easily correctable. Here’s what to look out forL
Mistake #1: Insufficient Warmup or Stretching
Who among us has never skipped a warmup? We all know we should do it, but lack of time, space, or patience can make it all too easy to skip. If you have back pain, though, a proper warmup should be a priority.
During a warmup, tissue temperature rises, oxygen supply increases, and tissue becomes gradually more extensible, allowing muscles and joints to absorb greater impact before hitting the injury threshold. Stretching supports this by gently taking the joints through a greater range of motion before the more demanding work of exercise.
So what are the components of a proper active warm-up?
5–15 minutes of light to moderate aerobic activity, such as treadmill walking on an incline or low-resistance stationary cyclingMovement-based dynamic stretches, such as leg swings and trunk rotations2–3 warm-up sets of your first resistance exerciseAfter your workout, an ideal stretch session includes three sets of 10-second stretches of each major muscle group
Mistake #2: Neglecting the Core
We’re not saying you’re vain, but it’s a fact that people tend to focus their training on the muscles they can see. Unfortunately, the muscles that strengthen and protect the spine aren’t necessarily the ones that make us look good on the beach.
These muscles—the all-important, stabilizing core—form a box around the lumbar spine and abdominal contents. And while it’s tempting to zero in on your six pack, some of the most important core muscles are deeply hidden, such as the spine-supporting transverse abdominis.
Learning to isolate and engage the complete core is critical for stabilizing the spine during activity and preventing injury and pain. A progressive core strengthening program can help even advanced exercisers weave essential principles of abdominal support into their routines. Ready to go steady? This 30-day program is designed specifically to relieve back pain through a full core circuit.
And when in doubt, plank!
Mistake #3: Failing to Mind Your Technique
Nearly every form of exercise is a dynamic, movement-based activity. And, just like a dancer, every exerciser needs to perform these movements with proper technique, or the consequences could be devastating.
Common pain-inducing errors include:
Lifting too much weightHolding your breath during a liftCurling forward from your back instead of bending your kneesNot stabilizing your trunk during standing reps with a wide squat stanceArching the back during standing movements, rather than tucking in the tailboneFocusing excessively on any one muscle group
To make sure you exercise with proper technique, it helps to work with a certified personal trainer, exercise physiologist, or physical therapist. Even if it’s only once in a blue moon, an expert can assess your technique for safety and pain prevention.
Mistake #4: Over-training / Under-recovering
Most back pain can be classified as mechanical failure, commonly the result of excessive strain or overuse. The easiest way to avoid that? Don’t overdo it!
While post-workout muscle tenderness is natural, spinal pain is not. If you experience back pain during or after a workout, you may just need to dial back the intensity.
Just as bad as overdoing your workouts: Not recovering sufficiently from them. Exercise stresses muscles and joints, and a recovery period—generally 48-72 hours—lets the body regenerate stronger. Resuming stress on those muscles too soon hinders their recovery, making them more prone to injury.
The good news is, there’s more than one way to recover:
Passive Recovery: A complete cessation of exercise…because sometimes you really do just need to lay in bed.
Active Recovery: Light exercise that promotes blood flow and tissue repair without further stressing the body.
Cross-training: When you can’t stand to skip a day, just change up your workouts to alternate focused muscle groups, letting certain muscle groups repair while others are at work
Soft Tissue Manipulation (AKA Massage): We may be biased on this one. By promoting circulation, reducing lactic acid, and calming inflammation, massage works wonders to speed up muscle recovery. Even better, it can be incorporated into your passive and active recovery days and cross-training schedules!
Nutrition & Sleep: While not a recovery method per se, the quality of your diet and sleep has a massive impact on your body’s ability to ward off pain. With a diet rich in whole foods and 7 hours of sleep, your body will be better equipped to heal and protect itself.
We All Make Mistakes
We all cut a corner or overlook a detail here and there, even when it comes to our health. But with back pain being one of the most common reasons for a visit to a medical provider, these workout mistakes should be easy to avoid, given the potential consequences.
So don’t forget to do a stretch, plank it out, tuck your tailbone, and, of course, book yourself a massage.
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