So you have lower back pain – should you strengthen it or rest it?
Around 60% of us will experience lower back pain in our lives, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). But right now, the number of complaints about the problem seems to be greater than ever. One reason for that is because of how our lives have changed since lockdown, including doing less exercise and being more sedentary thanks to home working.
But what does exercise for a healthier lower back look like? Often, the advice is to avoid feeling your lower back when you exercise – keeping a straight spine and utilising your glutes, lats and abs to avoid ‘loading’ the area. But should we only focus on building our core, or actually work the lower back itself?
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Should you strengthen your lower back?
According to Pennie Varvarides, strength and conditioning coach at Sheffield Kelham Crossfit, the answer is a resounding yes.
“The best way to build a stronger back is to train your actual back. Just like the way to build a better squat is to squat,” they say.
Lower back work can feel scary. Protecting our spine when we exercise is important and, if you already have back pain, bringing sensation to that area makes alarm bells ring. But as long as you have the all-clear on exercise from a doctor or trainer, you shouldn’t be worried says Varvarides.
“People go to the gym and lift weights, and if their quads are killing them for a few hours after or even the next day, it’s seen as a sign of a hard workout. When it’s the muscles in their lower back, people tend to panic, questioning if they did something wrong or if it was too much.
“Usually, it will just be the same muscle soreness from training any other muscle, but the panic means more avoiding, and more avoiding means more pain.”
How to build a stronger lower back
Move through all ranges
Who here has heard that they should always maintain a ‘straight spine’ when they exercise? While that’s the correct instruction for many exercises, it shouldn’t be the only way we move.
“Make sure your training isn’t limited to a neutral spine. Flex, extend, rotate and bend – that’s literally what your spine is designed to do, and by moving through all these patterns you’ll build a strong back that doesn’t struggle to carry a kid or catch a ball or climb a mountain or whatever you want to do with it,” Varvarides says.
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While many of us get fearful when extending (or arching) our spine, practice makes perfect. “You can’t spend hours, days or weeks in one or two specific positions and then not expect the other positions to become difficult,” adds Varvarides.
Start with bodyweight
For that reason, always start light. “Starting with no load and then adding appropriate amounts is always the way to go,” says Varvarides.
And don’t be worried about feeling the resistance through your lower back. “I think people need to get better at differentiating between what it feels like to pull a muscle or injure something in some way and what it feels like to work a muscle,” they add.
Build surrounding muscles
Strengthening and using the surrounding muscles is still absolutely important. “People should do both. To strengthen your bicep you wouldn’t just do forearm, shoulder and tricep exercises, so you shouldn’t do that with your lower back. But you should also build stability and strength in your upper back, obliques, abs and the entire torso,” says Varvarides.
So yes, that advice about strong glutes supporting your back still stands. Whole body strength is the best way to protect all of your bones, joints and muscles.
Work with proper form
Training your lower back is different from ‘dumping’ weight into it as you exercise. If you work with proper form, you will be able to use and strengthen the muscles without injury. “People should learn how to perform exercises like deadlifts properly, learning to hinge their hips without hurting themselves,” says Varvarides.
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“It can be hard to learn how to perform exercises because so many people on the internet post conflicting advice, which is hard to navigate. It’s worth investing in someone to help you if you can afford it, or asking trainers on the gym floor for form tips.”
Four exercises for a stronger lower back
- Set up a hyperextension bench with your feet placed flat (and tucked into the foot pads if you have them) and the upper pads sit in the crease of your hips.
- Cross your arms across your chest, pull your belly button to your spine and squeeze your glutes as you lean slightly forward.
- Hinge at the hips to fold your upper body over the upper pads, bring your head towards the floor.
- Keeping your legs straight, use the back, glutes and hamstrings to slowly lower back up.
- Stand tall with your feet placed together, chest open and shoulders back.
- Tucking your chin in towards your chest and roll down through the neck.
- Continue rounding through the shoulders then slowly through the spine, until your upper body is folded as closely to your legs as possible. Think of folding down one vertebrae of your spine at a time.
- Keep the legs straight through the movement to feel the pull through your hamstrings.
- Unroll slowly back up to standing.
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