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10 Exercises Causing Your Back Pain at the Gym

10 Exercises Causing Your Back Pain at the Gym

10 Exercises Causing Your Back Pain at the Gym

The saying, “No pain, no gain,” is often referenced when working out — some discomfort is to be expected with exercise. That said, there’s rarely any gain to be had when you’re experiencing immense pain from working out, especially back pain.

Learn how to prevent lower back pain when exercising and how working out can cause lower back pain below.

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Why Does Your Back Hurt After Working Out?

If you’re experiencing back pain after working out, you may attribute it to the usual post-workout discomfort. This pain occurs as your muscles tear slightly, repair themselves and grow back stronger.

While some discomfort is normal, you shouldn’t experience significant back pain after working out. In most cases, the cause of your back pain is either improper form while working out or performing exercises that are hard on your back.

10 Workouts That Can Cause Back Pain

Diagnosing the reason you’re experiencing back pain isn’t always a straightforward process. There can be numerous reasons, and certain exercises could be one of them.

Here are 10 different exercises that may be causing you back pain at the gym and what you can do to prevent back pain.

1. Sit-Ups

Sit-ups cause back pain by pressing your lumbar against the floor and working your hip flexors so that they pull on the lower spine. Your hip flexors are the muscles that run from your thigh to your lower back. By drawing on the lumbar spine, sit-ups also reinforce incorrect posture and movements.

The core strength benefits that sit-ups provide only activate your rectus abdominis. You may know your rectus abdominis muscles more colloquially as your “six pack” or “abs,” extending from your rib cage to your pubic bone. Since daily living activities involve our muscles working together, exercises that work muscles in isolation have minimal benefits. In this way, sit-ups have limited application and benefits for your daily life.

Here are some alternative exercises that keep your spine in a neutral position and engage more of your core than sit-ups:

  • Pallof presses: This exercise prevents lumbar extension and trains the muscles around your spine to resist rotation. It involves pulling a cable or anchored resistance band toward your chest while keeping your spine straight and maintaining excellent posture. Besides your core, the Pallof press strengthens your rotator cuff, upper back, tricep and pectoral muscles.
  • Side planks: Although sit-ups were once considered the gold standard for improving abdominal strength, planks have taken their place, as they engage your core more holistically. Planks activate the obliques, rectus abdominis and lumbar spine muscles. To perform a side plank, lie down on your side with your feet together and forearm beneath your shoulder. Contract your core, push up with your forearm and raise your hips. Your body should form a straight line. Hold this position for a set time and repeat with the other side.
  • McGill curl-ups: The McGill curl-up modifies the traditional sit-up and abdominal crunch by supporting the lower back. This support ensures minimal spinal motion as you activate your core. To perform a McGill curl-up, lie on your back with one knee bent, one leg straight on the floor and both hands underneath your lower back. Tuck your chin to maintain a neutral spine position and lift your head and shoulder off the floor. Hold that position for at least 10 seconds while engaging your core.

2. Squats

Unlike sit-ups, squats are a full-body workout. They strengthen your glutes, hips, core and upper body — mainly when you use weights. Many health experts consider squats an essential exercise in any workout regimen.

Still, improper technique can nullify the benefits of squatting by introducing increasing back pain and other problems. When squatting in an incorrect position, your knees are less supportive and your back takes on increased pressure.

Focus on your positioning and technique if you’re experiencing back pain from squats. To prevent back pain when squatting, make sure you practice the correct squatting technique and positioning by:

  • Keeping your feet and toes facing forward
  • Sustaining a straight-ahead or upward gaze
  • Maintaining your spine in a neutral position
  • Slightly bending and angling your knees outward
  • Increasing joint flexibility with other exercises

3. Deadlifts

Like squats, back pain due to deadlifts is a symptom of inefficient movement and positioning. Correct movement with a deadlift involves:

  • Engaging your glutes and hamstrings
  • Maintaining relaxed but still shoulders
  • Keeping your gaze upward or straight ahead
  • Sitting your hips back with slightly bent knees
  • Leaning your torso forward
  • Engaging your core and keeping your spine in a neutral position
  • Lifting with your chest up and lower back straight

If deadlifts are executed without this proper form, they can put too much pressure on your lower back. The increased pressure could cause a sprain or strain.

4. Push-Ups

Improper form is the usual suspect when push-ups cause back pain. When performed correctly, push-ups work your chest, shoulders and triceps. Back pain can occur when you perform push-ups incorrectly, such as letting your hips sag as you lower yourself before pushing back up. This form increases pressure on your spine as you perform push-ups.

It’s also possible to experience back pain when maintaining correct form during push-ups. Different push-up variations increase the activation of lower back muscles, while standard push-ups compress intervertebral spinal joints where the backbone sections join. Push-up variations that increase lumbar spinal muscle activation include:

  • Forward push-ups: With this push-up variation, you place your hands around 8 inches in front of your shoulders, keeping them shoulder-width apart.
  • Backward push-ups: A backward push-up variation involves placing your hands about 8 inches behind your shoulders, also maintaining shoulder-width distance.

Since back pain increases with these variations, it’s extra important to practice proper form with your hips when performing push-ups.

5. Burpees

Burpees move your entire body, making them an excellent exercise for improving metabolic function. They keep the core engaged, increase heart rate and target the upper and lower body.

The primary positions of a burpee session are standing, squatting and planking. To perform a burpee, you start with a standing position, lower into the bottom of a squat, transition to a plank, return to the squat and rise to an upright position once more. These exercises are generally timed, so you continue doing burpees until the timer ends.

While burpees provide many strength and conditioning benefits, they also strain your hip flexors and lower back. Each time you move from the squat to the plank and back again to the squat, you flex your hips. This hip flexion pulls your lower back muscles to a greater or lesser degree, depending on your hip muscle flexibility. To minimize lower back stress with burpees, it’s essential to confine movement to the hips as much as possible, keeping your spine straight and neutral.

Further, since squats already risk back pain with improper technique, the quickness with which you perform burpees exercises increases that risk. It’s important to go slow enough with burpees to maintain proper form when performing the squat.

Unlike sit-ups, the overall benefits of burpees outweigh the back pain risks. Still, because those risks exist, it’s extra important to practice caution and proper form when performing burpees. If you’re already experiencing back pain, you may want to save burpees for another day when you feel better.

6. Toe Touches

If you’re dealing with a lower back condition, toe touches can aggravate your pain. When performing toe touches, making slow, controlled movements is essential. You should also warm up your muscles by bringing your knees to your chest beforehand. Quick movements with toe touches can strain back muscles and pressure spinal discs. Avoid toe touches if you’re dealing with a lower back pain condition like sciatica.

7. Superman

Ironically, the superman pose makes you vulnerable — not invincible — to back pain. To perform the prone superman pose, lie down on your stomach with your arms extended in front of you. With this position, you’ll look like a prone superman — hence the name. Once you’re in the pose, you raise your arms and legs off the ground at the same time.

The range of motion involved with this exercise is quite limited. Thus, it’s unlikely that you’ll strengthen your lower back, glute and hamstring muscles much with the superman pose. Further, it’s also possible to experience back pain and spasms with this exercise. Like sit-ups, the proposed benefits of the superman exercise don’t necessarily outweigh the back pain risks.

8. Glute Bridge

When performed correctly, the glute bridge is an excellent exercise for your back. Here’s how to perform a glute bridge properly:

  1. Lie down on your back with your feet hip-distance apart.
  2. Bring your feet toward your hips, so your knees are over your heels when you lift your hips.
  3. Engage your core and glutes to lift your hips, being careful not to overextend them.

Your glute muscles should be the driving force lifting your hips. Problems occur when you lift too high, such as hyperextension of the back muscles. When you lift your hips too high with a glute bridge, the lower back muscles take over and hyperextend. This movement can compress spinal discs and worsen any existing back pain. So, to avoid back pain from a glute bridge, perform this exercise correctly and carefully.

9. Forearm Plank

The forearm plank is a low-impact workout that activates all core muscles at once. While planks work your core muscles with great efficiency, many people experience a pinching sensation in their lower back when performing a forearm plank. As with most other exercises on this list, improper technique is the common culprit with forearm plank back pain.

Here’s the proper form for a forearm plank:

  1. Lie on your stomach with your legs extended and feet together.
  2. Bring your forearms beneath your shoulders and raise your body until it forms a straight line from head to toe.
  3. Keep your gaze to the floor and hold this position while engaging your core muscles.
  4. Breathe evenly and steadily as you hold the plank position, and make sure to keep your hips from rising or sagging.
  5. Try to maintain the position for 30 seconds, then lower your body back to the ground and repeat.

Some common reasons why you may experience pinching sensations in your back with a forearm plank include:

  • Tilting your pelvis too far forward so that you arch your back
  • Lowering your hips too close to the ground so that your back is rounded
  • Raising your hips too high, so your body is in an upside-down V-shape

As such, ensure you maintain proper form when doing a forearm plank to reduce back pain risks.

10. Torso Twists

We twist our spines every day — getting out of the car, bending over to pick up a dropped object and other activities all require us to rotate our spines. The twisting makes these movements difficult when we have back pain.

If you’re experiencing back pain, exercises that twist your spine can aggravate your injury or condition. In these circumstances, you should avoid exercises like torso twists.

When performing a torso twist in general, it’s essential to keep your lower back still and only twist your mid-back — thoracic spine — and hips. Twisting the lumbar spine can lead to various injuries or back conditions. The standing torso twist helps stretch your core, while prone torso twists have minimal benefits and can increase your risk of injury.

Should You Workout if Your Back Hurts?

The answer to this question is yes and no. Various exercises alleviate back pain, while others contribute to it. In general, you should perform gentle exercises that stretch the muscles around your back but don’t put excess pressure on them. Save the intense workouts for a day when your back feels strong and healthy.

It’s also essential to warm up before working out and perform gentle stretches after exercising. Warming up before working out increases blood flow to your muscles before you start exercising, while gentle stretches after exercising help them recover.

Trust Metropolitan Pain & Spine Institute With Your Back Pain

The Metropolitan Pain & Spine Institute is proud to help patients dealing with back pain throughout central New Jersey. Our providers include board-certified interventional pain medicine doctors, orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine specialists and radiologists. With such expertise readily available, you can trust you’re in good hands when visiting us for help with back pain.

Our board-certified doctors foster a caring environment where patients feel heard and understood with their pain concerns. Schedule an appointment with one of our spine specialists today!



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