If you are reading this, you’ve likely suffered a back injury in the past. You’ve likely recovered since then, but maybe you haven’t. Either way, you may have wondered how you could orient your training in a way to support your back and lower the risk of the injury reoccurring, and that is exactly what we’re going to cover in this article.
The most important thing to note is that there are MANY ways to go about this. The methods were going to go over are just my way of doing things that has been cultivated over almost a decade of experience. So I would like to stress that, the ultimate, most important factor is that you use your back, load it, challenge it, and meet your physical activity guidelines (3hrs of resistance training and 150min of cardio a week). If you just do this, you are already hugely stacking the deck in your favor. You can do this through resistance training--which we will go over, as it is my favorite method—but you can also do yoga, pilates, core strengthening, etc. There is no wrong way to do this, so long as the way you pick involves movement and gives you improved confidence in your back.
The second most important thing to note is that there is no such thing as INJURY PREVENTION. It is frankly impossible. Anyone can get injured anywhere, at any time, for almost no reason. You can crash a bike at 30km per hour and barely get a scratch, and you could step off a curb and break your ankle, no to ways about it. So understand that the goal here is INJURY RISK REDUCTION. We are working to stack the deck in your favor to make it much less likely for you to get hurt.
Now that that is out of the way, lets get into what I personally think is the best way to go about this. These are the major factors to consider:
1. Normalize your range of motion
2. Strengthen through full range of motion
3. Strengthen your back
4. Strengthen your legs
That’s it. But trust me, it’s enough.
Normalize your range of motion
If you always feel like your back is stiff and lacks the flexibility to do normal daily activities or lifts in the gym, you need more range of motion. If you can’t touch your toes without feeling like a 100 year old person, you need to work on flexion. If you can’t put your hands on your butt and bend backwards, you need more extension. If you can’t turn to look behind you without moving your feet, you need more rotation. This lack of mobility can be anywhere in the spine, but it’s important to note that I don’t want you to start over analyzing your back and creating problems where they don’t exist. I only want you to work on one of these movements if they are limiting your daily activities/training.
Here are my favorite exercises to start working on increasing limited movements in:
1. Flexion: Childs pose 10 reps, 5x a day
2. Extension: Cobras 10 reps, 5x a day
3. Rotation: Seated Chair Rotation Stretch, 10 reps each side, 5x a day
Strengthen through full range of motion
Over time, I’ve found that stretching only really gets the ball rolling. It gives you a temporary relief and temporary increase in range of motion, so to make the changes you’re working on more permanent, not only do you need range of motion, but you need control over that range of motion. So start off with stretches if you’re afraid of hurting yourself, or very stiff or both, but as soon as you feel comfortable, focus on strengthening those movements (Flexion, Extension, Rotation). Strengthening those movements through full range will give you more strength, confidence, and flexibility. It really is superior to just stretching.
Here are some of my favorite exercises to work on strengthening your back through its full range of motion:
1. Flexion: Jefferson Curls 2-4 sets, 10-20 reps, 2-4x a week
2. Extension: Reverse Hypers, Pendlay Rows, Supermans, etc. 2-4 sets, 10-20 reps, 2-4x a week
3. Rotation: Wood Choppers 2-4 sets, 10-20 reps, 2-4x a week
Strengthen your back
So your range of motion isn’t limiting you anymore, that’s not really what’s lacking. What’s lacking is strength, or at least your perceived ability of your back to put in the work. Well, there’s a simple (in theory) fix to that! USE IT.
It may sound simplistic, but it really is as simple as strengthening your back through exercises that use your back. Some of my favorite ones to consider are:
1. Deadlifts/Romanian Deadlifts
2. Jefferson Curls
3. Good Mornings
4. Reverse Hypers
5. Lumbar Extensions
6. Seated Cable Rows/Bent Over Rows/Pendlay Rows
7. Wood Choppers
8. Etc. if it uses your back, it’s a good exercise
How much to program it in? Well a good rule of thumb would be to try and get a total of 15-20sets in per week. So pick a mix of your favorites, your less favorites, the ones you know you’re good at and the ones you know you should work on, and try to get 15-20 sets of back exercises per week.
Strengthen your legs
Where your legs end and your back begins is kind of a useless discussion. Often when people think they’re dealing with low back pain, they’re actually dealing with glute (butt) pain, but they don’t realize how high up the glutes really go.