Complete Guide to Lifting With a Back Injury
No matter how well you warm-up, cool down, stretch, foam roll, and lift with proper form, you’re bound to experience some sort of injury during your lifting career. It’s one of the few unfortunate side effects from a lifetime spent in the pursuit of bigger, better gains.
While the occasional strain, sprain, or tendonitis flare up is nothing to be overly concerned about, there’s one injury that will bring even the fittest among us to their very knees - a lower back injury.
The lower back isn’t as flashy as a bulging bicep or outer quad sweep, but if you’re lower back is “whack” you can’t do jack. Lower back injuries can happen while attempting a max out on deadlifts or simply sneezing a bit too violently. Regardless of how it happens, a lower back injury can severely hinder your ability to train intensely and your general day-to-day movements outside of the gym.
Needless to say, having a lower back injury blows, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence to your training schedule. Sure, you probably won’t be able to max out on your compound lifts for a while, but there are several ways to train around a lower back injury as well as some lower back specific exercises you can perform to strengthen this weak link and “injury proof” your body to reduce your risk of tweaking your lower back in the future.
Ahead we’ve got a complete guide to help you come back from a lower back injury and how to still lift around an existing injury.
How to Train With a Lower Back Injury
Avoid direct spinal compression
When trying to train with a lower back injury, it’s best to avoid directly loading the spine, i.e. back squats. Avoiding this axial loading enables you to train pain free while still being able to push yourself hard in the gym.
Compressive loads on the spine increase shear forces in the lumbar spine and instability of the core, heightening your risk of further injuring yourself or re-injuring yourself while rehabbing your lower back. By keeping the weight below the injury site, you’re reducing the risk of taxing your lower back excessively and re-injuring the area.
The easiest way to do this is by holding the weight in your hands in the “hang position.” In this position, the shoulder acts as the fulcrum, thereby accommodating the change in center of mass of the load. This decreases shear forces on the spine, which is the goal of training around a lower back injury.
Train on One Leg
Just because you’re dealing with a lower back injury doesn’t give you the freedom to skip leg day. Don’t be “that guy.”
Yes, you’re injured, but your lower half isn’t broken. You just need to modify your training for a while until you’re fully recovered, then it’s back to normal squats and deads. This is where single leg training comes to the rescue. Single leg work will now be the focus for your lower body strength and hypertrophy gains.
When dealing with a lower back injury, single leg work absolutely needs to be programmed first, with heavy weight, especially if you’re interested in building strength. Bilateral work can still be performed on lower body days, but it will be done towards the end of your training sessions, in the form of finishers or conditioning.
The goal of going hard and heavy with single leg exercises in the beginning is to pre-exhaust the legs so that when you do get around to the bilateral movements, you don’t need to go as heavy on the weight to fatigue the muscles.
For single leg exercises, choose one knee-dominant exercise and one hip-dominant exercise for the following categories:
- Single Leg
- Split Stance
Some options to include in your leg workout could be:
- Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (Bulgarian Split Squats)
- Pistol Squats
- Lunges (Forward, Reverse, Lateral)
- Single Leg Stiff Leg Deadlifts
- Ski Squats
- Step Ups
- Leg Extensions
- Sissy Squats
- Swiss Ball Leg Curls
- Single Leg Hip Thrusts
To avoid directly loading the spine while still exhausting the legs, you’re inevitably going to have to increase your total work volume. This will be accomplished through a mixture of increased sets and reps.
For your single leg strength movements, you’re going to have to push as hard and heavy as possible, i.e. choosing a weight that causes you to fail in the 4-8 rep range. Volume must increase in these primary single leg exercises so as to effectively replace the traditional strength / power work done with heavy back squats/deads in the 2-4 rep range. As long as you can maintain proper spinal alignment and positioning, pack on the weight and aim for a total of 50 reps per leg on your single leg strength exercises.
Also, when performing any of the single leg exercises, make sure to complete all the prescribed repetitions on one leg before switching to the other leg. This allows you to maximize tension in the muscle without having to constantly reset your spinal position.
Embrace Hip Thrusts
The good part about doing hip thrusts and other posterior chain movements is that it helps decompress the spine since training the glutes forces you to posteriorly tilt the pelvis, subsequently creating more space between your spinal vertebrae.
The best thing about hip thrusts is that there are NO downward forces on your spine. You’re horizontally loading the hips, which minimizes forces on the lower vertebrae.
Don’t be Afraid to Modify
When you’re injured, in any manner, and still want to train, don’t be a bonehead and train through intense pain all in pursuit of greater gains. All that will do is prolong and worsen your injury. When dealing with an injury, you can still train, but you have to modify.
Yes, the squat, deadlift, bench, and overhead press are foundational movements to increase muscle and strength, but no one ever said you have to only do conventional back squats, deadlifts, and barbell rows to grow. There are multiple variations of the core lifts, you just need to use the variation that allows you to train pain-free and won’t further aggravate your injury.
Iron Proof Your Backside
Training around your injury is one thing, but there will come a time when you need to focus on strengthening the muscles of your lower back, to help prevent any future injuries to the site. Now, if you’ve just injured your lower back, DO NOT attempt these exercises. These strengthening exercises are meant to be performed once you’re not experiencing any lower back pain and gotten cleared by your orthopedist/physical therapist to perform these exercises.
- Deficit Deadlift
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Quadruped Arm/Leg Raise
- Side Plank
The goal of these exercises is to strengthen your abdominals, lower back, pelvis, and intercostals. Doing so will help injury-proof your body so that they’re stronger, more conditioned, and more durable when you do earn the right to put the heavy bilateral lifts back in your training program.
Training with a back injury is definitely a challenge, but it is by no means impossible. Sure, you won’t be able to max out on your back squats and deadlifts for some time, but use that to your advantage.
Use the time to get rock-solid on single leg work, attacking it with the same tenacity and ferocity as your bilateral work, and you’ll come off of the lower back injury bigger and stronger than you were before.