What exercises should I not do if I have back pain?


As Chiropractors, we often get asked – “what exercises should I avoid with back pain?”. This is a great (and important) question to ask, as many people who experience back pain go straight to strengthening their back in an attempt to fix it.

Going straight to strengthening the back can be a problem for a few reasons:

  • If you have a strained or sprained a muscle or joint in your spine, you may strain it further by applying forces to your back.
  • There is a myth going around saying that sit-ups or other ‘core strengthening’ exercises are good to do when you have back pain. A strong core is important, however exercises involving rotation or flexion/extension motion into the spine can put excessive pressure on your spinal discs. It is important to be careful with these exercises.
  • Some muscles in your back or core may be overactive, causing a preference or dominance of one side over the other. If you are unsure which muscles these are, you may make the problem worse by doing exercises to strengthen your back.

This blog post will cover what are the common symptoms of back pain, what are the common causes of back pain, as well as the exercises you should avoid with  back pain.

Many people experience back pain and the type of pain depends on the cause. 

Common symptoms of back back can include: 

  • A feeling of vulnerability when attempting to bend or twist
  • A persistent ache that can be worsened by standing for long periods of time
  • Pain around the sides of your back
  • Pain travelling into the buttocks or thighs
  • Pain travelling into the groin
  • Sharp pains on certain movements of the low back

If you experience these symptoms, it is recommended to consult with a health professional to find out where the pain is coming from.

Common causes of back pain or back injury can include: 

  • Bending and twisting your back under load (such as lifting a heavy object)
  • Falls
  • Repetitive movements that places stress on your spine (such as working overhead)
  • Prolonged sitting at a desk or driving
  • Car or motorcycle accidents
  • Poor posture
  • Using a poor mattress or pillow

These common causes of back pain occur for different reasons, however they all have one thing in common – they all place excessive stress on the spine which in turn can cause problems.

Exercises to avoid if you have back pain

‘Body weight’ exercises to avoid

If you don’t have access to any gym equipment (particularly at home), but still do exercises using your own body weight, here’s five exercises you should avoid if you have back pain.

1. Sit-ups

Sit-ups do two things that may cause problems resulting in a painful spine:
– A sit-up pressures your abdomen, pushing against the front of the discs between your vertebrae.
– When you do a sit-up, you push your spinal discs into a wedge shape.
The combination of these two factors means you may increase the likelihood of causing an injury (such as a disc bulge).

2. Walking lunges with rotation

One exercise I see people do all the time are lunges, alternating between the right and left leg to walk forward. Like squats, this is actually a good way to strengthen your posterior chain of muscles. However, many people combine this exercise with turning their body towards the side of the forward leg. Sometimes this is done with a medicine ball or other weight which is even worse. This movement is supposed to ‘activate your core’, however it almost always simply places a large amount of pressure and stress on your spinal discs.

3. Toe touches or toes to bar

This exercise is more frequently done as a stretch, however I can think of no faster way to load up and place stress on the spinal discs than to stretch your arms down towards your toes. This stresses the spine in the same way as sit ups, however with this exercise, you are also using gravity to possibly injure your spine.

4. Leg lifts

Leg lifts are like sit-ups, except you are lifting up your legs instead of your upper body. This places stress on the spine in a similar way to sit ups, however loads up the lowest discs in your spine the most, as there is often less of an ‘abdominal crunch’ involved. Most people lie on their back and simply lift their legs from the waist. If you have a pre-existing low back injury this is definitely one to avoid.

Weights and equipment exercises to avoid

If you go to the gym to exercise, or use weights and gym equipment at home, here are four exercises that you should avoid if you have back pain. 

1. Deadlifts

Deadlifts are a great exercise to do, since they are very good for strengthening your entire spine, gluteus muscles and hamstrings. However, if you are experiencing back pain, deadlifts can be not only detrimental to your spine, but dangerous, if not done properly. Deadlifts involve heavy weights, with many people being able to lift nearly twice their body weight! This is a good exercise to get coaching on!

2. Leg press

The leg press can put excessive pressure on your spine if there is any curving in your low back. This curving often results in having hamstrings that are too tight – in order to extend your legs out in front of you, your back curls to reach further. This also removes the glute part of the exercise, since your hips will be far less flexed.

3. Medicine ball slams

This exercise is a fast, high load, dynamic lumbar flexion exercise. Ball slams are often performed as part of a circuit in group training sessions. If you have low back pain, you should avoid this exercise as ball slams stresses not only compress the spinal discs but the small facet joints at the rear or your vertebrae. 

4. Clean and jerk

The clean and jerk is a dynamic, high power exercise that involves lifting from the ground into an overhead position. When poorly executed, you stress the spine in flexion, placing pressure on the discs, as well as stressing the spine in a second position, upright and under the load of the lifted weight. This exercise should be practiced without weight first, and only once your back is stable and pain free.

In summary, your back is one of the most key, crucial parts of your body and it is important to take care of it. Any exercise you don’t feel confident completing correctly should be avoided, particularly when you are experiencing back pain. In addition, if you are experiencing back pain, it is always better to do lighter weights for more repetitions, rather than trying to lift heavy. 

Always start slow and work your way up to more difficult exercises. If you are experiencing back pain, it is always advised to seek professional advice before attempting exercises which have the potential to make the problem worse. 

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