When your back is thrown out, strained, or otherwise hurt, it can be sheer hell. There is very little movement we do that doesn’t engage the back at least a little bit. Even lying down comfortably can be a struggle. So you want to be careful in your daily activities not to put undue stress on your back, especially once you hit middle age. You can still maintain a great workout routine, but it might be best to skip the following exercises and avoid getting laid up with a bad back. No one has time for that!
Sit-ups have been considered the consummate abdominal exercise for many years, but in reality, they only engage about 20% of your abs. What a waste! And in the process, sit-ups put a lot of pressure on the discs of your spine. If your ab muscles aren’t yet built up, you are also likely to transfer the strain of the move to your back and neck. That can cause pain in anyone, regardless of their age or condition. Instead, do planks that target your core without twisting the back.
Squats are designed to strengthen your legs and glute muscles, which they do very well. But because proper form is tremendously difficult to maintain, squats can also be dangerous for your back. If you have been doing squats forever they shouldn’t be a problem for your back, but beginners are best to start with chair squats. When you perform the move over a chair, you have support in place to catch you if you become unbalanced.
Surprise! It’s not that great for your body to be taking a lot of punches. Twisting away to avoid impact and contorting when you do get hit can cause injury. But boxing can be especially troubling for your back due to the sharp torso rotations involved in throwing punches. If you’re punching a bag during your workout, you must keep your core engaged the entire time. This provides a “corset” effect that makes you less prone to back injury.
Running is one of the highest impact workouts you can do. Every time you lift your foot and bring it back sharply to the ground, shock waves of impact travel up your legs and jar your joints. This can have a devastating impact on your back as well. Running is also notorious for limiting flexibility because the movement is entirely front-and-back, no side-to-side. Take care of your back and your joints by getting cardio from lower impact activities like biking and swimming.
It’s true that jumping rope is a fierce fat burning activity that also tones muscles. And who doesn’t like multi-tasking their workouts? But just as in running, jumping rope is very high impact and can create massive wear and tear on your joints and back. Plus, to be honest, it requires quite a bit of coordination to do safely. The risk of tripping and falling is pretty high, which can obviously injure your back as well. For a safer double-duty exercise, try rowing.
Heavy Overhead Lifts
Any weight lifting activity that causes your back to arch puts excessive compression on the vertebrae in your spine. If you have been a weight lifter for years and your form is perfect, it’s okay to keep doing. But if you are just starting out, you need to work up slowly to overhead lifts. Inexperienced lifters are quite prone to vertebrae injuries.
Incline Leg Presses
That leg machine that puts you on your back with your legs above your head creates a totally awkward position that flexes your back in a risky way. There are other leg machines that don’t increase your risk for a muscle tear or other back injury. The sort of agony you could experience doing incline leg presses comes out of nowhere in a flash – it doesn’t build up slowly. For your back and your dignity, choose a different leg machine.
Foam rolling (sometimes)
Foam rolling is essentially a self massage that relies on a foam cylinder and the pressure of your body rolling slowly over it. It can release tension and tightness in muscles and stimulate blood flow in the process. It’s a great post-workout practice, but you’ve got to do it right to avoid hurting your back. In fact, avoid your lower back all together while foam rolling. There are not enough bones there, only large muscles, which can be overstrained by the pressure.
Good Back Exercises
There are a lot of things you can do to help strengthen back muscles, and any work on your abdominals also adds a layer of support for your back. Pilates, for example, is designed to strengthen your core but also focuses on the mind-body connection that teaches muscles how to support the loads imposed on them. It is a good thing to be able to direct impact away from your back to be absorbed by your core instead.
Balance exercises are also recommended for people who worry about their backs. Good balance allows you to avoid sudden, abrupt movements that can injure your back. Better balance also helps keeps you on your feet when you sustain an impact, preventing dangerous falls.
And finally, yoga is a great all around exercise because it builds both core strength and flexibility in those areas of your trunk and torso that support the back and spine. All yoga poses can be modified for those who experience pain in their backs or any part of the body.
If your back has been troubling you, we hope you can make your peace with skipping the boxing ring and instead rocking the lanes at the pool. Critically injured backs – whether it happened all at once or over several years – often require surgery to repair. That’s a costly and extremely painful prospect. Other treatments involve wearing a back brace and reliance on opiate painkillers, neither a great option. If you have recently recovered from a back injury, we wager you never want to go through that again! Stick to our advice to both protect and strengthen that critical part of your body.