Three Movements, Three Workarounds: How to Protect Your Spine While Lifting Weights

May 04, 2019

Man performing deadlift
Kyleigh Roessner RN-BSN

There are a lot of benefits to regular exercise, especially weight training. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular weight training can help you maintain lean muscle mass that is lost through normal aging, strengthen bones, reduce or maintain your overall weight and even increase your overall metabolism.

With these benefits, there are important caveats. It's important to know how to protect your back when lifting weights both to prevent injury and to maximize desired results. So here are a few tricks and tips to help you perform three classic weight training moves.

Squats

Squats are an extremely beneficial whole body exercise, but there is a learning curve to performing them properly to prevent weightlifters back pain and strain on the knees as well.

First, make sure that you follow the general guidelines for proper lifting technique, which includes warming up and stretching, using correct posture and refraining from rounding your lower back. You can watch a demonstration of how to properly perform a body weight squat here.

If going into a deep squat is too painful for the back or knees, you can try a shallower squat. According to Capital Physio, you should also focus on keeping your head facing forward, rather than tucking your chin to your chest, which will help you remember to keep the spine in alignment.

Joint mobility may also be an issue with squats, as the knees, hips, and ankles are all flexing to facilitate the movement. So working on ankle mobility outside of your weight lifting time can also improve your squatting form.

As you increase weight for your squats, you can begin with goblet squats which are less stressful to your spine according to Men's Health.

Many people make form mistakes while squatting, which can lead to discomfort and injury. Rounding out the lower back, bending the knee too far over the toes, and having your knees collapse into each other while squatting are common issues while performing a squat.

Bench Press

The bench press is a complex movement that has a wide margin for error if performed incorrectly. It is, however, an excellent exercise for strengthening chest muscles, triceps, shoulders and back muscles. It seems very simple, but proper form and setup is essential for proper activation of those muscles and safety.

Bodybuilding expert, Layne Norton Ph.D., notes that when bench pressing, in order to prevent injury to your back, you need to maintain solid contact with your back on the bench. For example, as a heavy lifter, he uses chalk to increase his stability on the bench itself.

He also recommends that as you bench press there is a slight arch in the back to maintain the normal lumbar curve. Plant your feet solidly on the ground to provide a solid base for your upper back without collapsing this important natural curve.

It's also very important to be sure that you are handling a weight that isn't too heavy for you, and that you have a spotter helping you to prevent injuries.

Common mistakes with the bench press include:

  • Not using feet to stabilize on the floor
  • Flaring elbows out too far
  • Not arching the back
  • Lifting head off the bench
  • Grip that is too wide or too narrow

Deadlifts

They sound ominous, but there are few better moves to target your legs and back. According to Precision Movement, deadlifts target more muscles than any other weight lifting movement. So, learning how to protect your back when lifting weights is especially important in mastering this incredibly effective exercise.

Start here for a helpful video overview of proper deadlifting technique.

First, Precision Movement recommends that aspiring deadlifters build up their supplementary muscles in order to prepare for the deadlift, these include strengthening the hip flexors and loosening the hamstrings to help your spine maintain healthy alignment.

The trap bar, a modified barbell that allows you to step inside a hexagon of sorts can also help you keep your spine in alignment as you deadlift.

Bumper plates under the barbell can also help you lift without straining your lower back because you won't need to extend your back as far to drop the weight to the ground.

Sumo position deadlifts are another alternate way to deadlift that can prevent weightlifters back injuries.

Another tip: Engage those lateral back muscles as you lift. They protect the spine by preventing the tension of the weight from targeting your weaker lower back muscles. Men's Health recommends that you imagine that there is an orange in your armpit as you lift to help these muscles contract as you deadlift.

Common mistakes to avoid while deadlifting include, rounding your lower back, trying to pull the weight with the back instead of pushing the weight with their legs, hyperextending your back and not keeping your neck in a natural alignment by looking up.

Weightlifting is a very beneficial activity when done correctly, so seek out professional guidance from a personal trainer or physical therapist if you need more clarification on modifications for these moves, and always consult with your personal physician to ensure that you are healthy enough to engage in physical exercise.

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