There are very few aches and pains more mysterious and frustrating than lower back pain. You could just have a sore back, or it could be much more serious. Working out with lower back pain should be approached with caution. The right workout can actually alleviate pain and help you recover. The wrong workout, however, can make a bad situation worse and keep you from staying active longer-term.
Knowing a little more about the common causes of back pain and which activities can help or aggravate the situation can help you plan your workouts and recover quickly.
DISCLAIMER: You should always seek professional medical advice for any potential injury. Use this information as a guideline, but always comply with your doctor’s orders to stay healthy and active.
Where does lower back pain come from?
Many of our day-to-day activities and fitness endeavors can lead to lower back pain. This includes sitting all day at a desk, having poor posture, lifting too heavy, old injuries, repetitive motions, sleeping funny, and even issues with internal organs.
Of course, lower back pain is not always about your back either. Strain or misalignment of the hips, gluteals, hamstrings, knees, ankles, and shoulders can all cause “referred pain” in the back. Referred pain is when the pain or discomfort is felt in a different part of the body from where the injury or strain has actually occurred.
Suffice it to say, back pain is a complicated thing. When you are experiencing pain or discomfort in your lower back you should take it easy and pay attention to your body as a whole.
Pain vs. Soreness
Sometimes lower back pain is confused with muscle soreness. Do you know the difference? Think about when you do a hard workout, or you try a new exercise that you have not done before. How do your muscles feel afterward? If your back pain is similar to that feeling, you may actually have a sore back.
As with muscle soreness in other areas of the body, massage, stretching, and light activity can help the discomfort work its way out. Even if you “just have a sore back” you still want to be cautious. The back is a sensitive area and it is better to be conservative than to ignore it and make it worse.
Should I work out if my back hurts?
If you are unable to walk, have any tingling or numbness, are having trouble controlling your bowels or bladder, or you are not able to move your body parts voluntarily then you should seek immediate medical attention. You should not work out with any of these symptoms until cleared by a doctor. Rest and recover.
If you are able to move around freely but have pain or discomfort in your lower back, you may be able to do some light exercise. In fact, staying active can actually help alleviate the pain. The key word here is “light.”
Exercises to try.
When you have an achy back, gentle, low-impact exercises can help. You want to engage in activities that allow you to maintain proper alignment and freedom of movement without heavy strain. Some good options are:
- Light Yoga
- Light Stretching
- Light Strength Training
- Bicycling (in an upright or recumbent position)
With any activity you want to make sure that you are properly warmed up. Go at your own pace (READ: go slowly). The point is to stay active and keep active, not to aggravate an existing injury. If anything is making the pain worse or causing the pain to spread, stop immediately.
Form is key when working out with back pain. Be hyper-vigilant about maintaining proper form, and let this slow you down. When we focus closely on form we usually cannot rush through any kind of workout. Use slow, controlled movements. Your back will thank you.
Finally, make sure you have the right gear. Wear supportive shoes that cushion the impact of your stride. Every step we take loads somewhere between 2.1 to 4.3 of our body weight into our feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back. Having appropriate shoes is so important for recovery and prevention.
Exercises to avoid.
The general rule of thumb is not to engage in movements that put added strain on the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones in your back. This means exercises where you bend, twist, or load the back heavily. You should avoid exercises like:
- Heavy Strength Training
- Aggressive Yoga
- Road Bicycling (in a forward position)
- Forward Bend Motions (like sit-ups, toe touches, etc)
This is not the time to be competitive, either. If you have back pain, you need to focus on yourself and your recovery. If you have a workout buddy that you just cannot help competing with, tell them to stay home. No kidding. Getting worked up and pushing yourself in the moment can do some serious damage.
In conclusion, it can be safe to exercise with lower back pain under the right conditions.
If your lower back pain is very severe or you are having other symptoms like the ones mentioned above, you should not exercise and should seek immediate medical attention.
If your lower back pain is not preventing you from free movement then you should engage in some light exercise and monitor your form closely. Avoid strenuous activities and competitive environments that may push you further than you can safely go. Don’t be afraid to take a rest day if light exercise is aggravating the condition.
Finally, take a look at your lifestyle out of the gym for back pain triggers as well. The shoes you wear, the way you sleep, and your posture can all affect the health of your back. Sometimes lower back pain that we think is exercise related is actually from our daily (in)activities.
By staying active and taking stock of your daily habits you can recover from and even prevent lower back pain.