Do you feel pain in your lower back after a workout? Are you blaming it on age? Dr. Jonathan Su, the Get-Fit Guy, shares the real reasons your back might hurt after a workout and what you can do about it.
Have you ever stood up from a chair hours after a workout or gotten out of bed the morning after exercise to discover a stiff, achy, or painful lower back? Few people can honestly answer no to this question, especially when you consider that lower back pain is one of the most common reasons people visit healthcare providers and nearly 4 out of 5 people will have it at some point in their lives.
Unfortunately, improper form during exercise or overdoing it during a workout is an all too common way to strain the lower back. Even as a physical therapist, I find myself waking up more often than I’d like with a stiff and achy lower back the morning after a good workout.
If you’re in your 40s or older like me, it’s tempting to blame lower back pain on age. It’s true that the body changes in ways that we don’t like as we get older. But from my experience working with people from across the age spectrum, there are usually more important reasons for post-workout lower back pain than age.
The good news is that, unlike age, most of the reasons for lower back pain after a workout are things that you can control. Here are four common reasons your back might hurt after a workout and what you can do about it.
Too much forward or backward bending of the spine
By far the most common reason for lower back pain after a workout is too much forward or backward bending of the spine. Take a look at the people around you the next time you’re at the gym and you’ll see what I mean.
Too much forward bending of the spine commonly happens when performing exercises such as deadlifts, single leg deadlifts, situps, or crunches. The lower back ends up bending forward too much, making a rounded shape which can strain the lower back muscles and cause too much compression on the spine.
Too much backward bending of the spine commonly happens during exercises such as squats, overhead presses, or while rowing on a rowing machine. The lower back ends up bending backward too much, making an arched shape which can also strain the lower back muscles and cause too much compression on the spine.
The lower back should ideally be close to a neutral position without too much forward rounding or backward arching. Most of the bending should come from a hinging motion from the hips.
One way to avoid rounding your lower back when bending forward is to stick your butt back as far as it’ll go on your way down, like you’re trying to reach your butt for a chair that’s too far behind you, and to thrust your hips forward on your way up without overextending at the top of the motion.
One way to avoid arching your lower back when bending backward is to prevent your chest and hips from thrusting forward at the same time. Interestingly, you’ll see this simultaneous forward thrusting of the chest and hips with someone who is performing the bench press with too much weight.
Too much resistance or too many repetitions
Even if there’s not too much forward or backward bending of the spine, you can still strain your lower back if you’re using too much resistance or if you’re performing too many repetitions of an exercise. The body does have a limit and when you exceed that limit, it’ll let you know in a not-so-friendly way.
So avoid going on an extra-long run if you’ve recently gained some weight and maybe you don’t really need to hit the weights after back-to-back cardio kickboxing and spinning classes.
When I wake up with a stiff back, it’s usually when I overdo it on the rowing machine trying to achieve a personal record. Sure, I beat my old personal record by 1 second, but now I’m dealing with back issues for the next two days.
Unwanted twisting or side-to-side motions of the trunk
Unwanted twisting or side-to-side motions of the trunk can happen while running, biking, swimming, or lifting weights. Twisting and side-to-side motions by themselves are not bad and can be a natural part of a movement that optimizes force production.
The problem is when these motions are done when they’re not supposed to be done or overdone when they’re supposed to be done. These then become unwanted motions that can result in lower back pain.
For example, you might notice that your trunk motion increases to assist with force production when your arms or legs get fatigued while exercising. Now if you’re observant and you notice that you have a stiff back the next day every time you do this, and you don’t have a stiff back every time you don’t do this, you’ve just figured out the cause of your back pain.
The problem is that unwanted twisting or side-to-side motions of the trunk may be subtle and difficult to spot or the line between wanted and unwanted motions may be hard to distinguish for a novice exerciser. That’s when getting one-on-one feedback from someone who is experienced like a good trainer or a physical therapist can be helpful.
One way to overcome this issue without the assistance of a trainer or physical therapist is to engage your core muscles when you start feeling fatigue during exercise. This will prevent unwanted twisting or side-to-side motions of the trunk, which will help you avoid a stiff, achy, and painful lower back.
Having a weak core or not properly engaging your core
When you stiffen or engage the core muscles, your torso becomes a rigid yet flexible cylinder, like a natural back brace or weightlifting belt, that supports your body and offloads harmful compressive forces from your spine. So it’s no surprise that a strong core is important for helping to prevent lower back pain.
What is surprising to most people is that having a strong core is not enough. Being able to engage your core muscles on command during exercise is just as important as having a strong core. Check out the episode from Dec 2021 called The Right Way To Engage Your Core to learn how to engage your core the right way.
I’ve also published a book recently called 6-Minute Core Strength: Simple Core Exercises to Improve Posture, Build Balance, and Relieve Back Pain which takes you step-by-step through the simple science of building core strength quickly, safely, and effectively, with little or no equipment. Learn more about 6-Minute Core Strength by going to sixminutefitness.com
5-day lower back pain prevention challenge
Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day lower back pain prevention challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to follow the tips from this episode during your workouts. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at email@example.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104.