Sorry to burst your bubble, but no one cares how much you can lift. In fact, they’ll probably judge you for trying to lift more without having the right technique. One of the most common gym injuries happens because people bite off more than they can chew. If you’re experiencing back pain after working out, it may be because you’re lifting too much weight.
But how do you know when the weight is ‘too’ much? Simple: You look at your form.
How to Know When to Lift More or Less
There’s no point in heavy lifting if all you’re doing is hurting your back. In fact, heavy lifting coupled with bad form won’t only keep you from getting stronger, it can cause serious injury. Before you start trying to figure out how much weight you should be lifting, it’s important that you first have the proper technique down.
Lifting weight that’s too heavy often means you’re sacrificing form. But lifting weight that’s too light means you’re barely working your muscle groups. Think of it like this:
- increases your risk of injury
- makes it easier for your body to cheat, thereby robbing you of the proper ‘pump’
- reduces your time under tension because you’re simply ‘powering through’ the workout instead of taking the time to do an adequate, full rep
- less able to focus on your form because your focus is more on being able to lift the weight
- halts your progress by not effectively working your muscles
- form may be better, but you’re not effectively breaking down your muscles to the point where you could grow stronger. Instead, you’re just lifting a light bar up and down
- may tone muscle, but isn’t properly exerting them
Contrary to what some health professionals may say, recent studies have shown that lifting lighter weights does INDEED help build muscle. In a study conducted by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, participants who lifted significantly lighter amounts of weight were found to gain muscle equality as those who power lifted. The main reason? Because they were able to full reps—not just the halfway up, halfway down power rep.
Back pain’s no picnic. It’s irritating, debilitating, and sometimes extremely painful. It can make even the simplest task feel like a never-ending hell. And it can be expensive. In fact, lower back pain is the most common cause of work-related disability in the U.S., with over $50 billion a year spent on treatments.
As I’m sure you’ve been told time and time again, prevention is always the best cure. That’s why it’s so important to acknowledge back pain as it starts -- that way you’ll be able to help correct it before it gets any worse.
The thing about your muscles is that everything is connected. There are over 600 muscles in your body, and each muscle is linked to another. When you clench your fist, you feel the tension up through your shoulder. The same goes for your back. If you suffer from sciatica, one of the most common forms of back pain, you may feel a sharp tingling or numbness in your foot and leg. That’s because your sciatic nerve begins in the lower back and actually travels down your leg and into your foot. Sciatica can lead to a whole slew of other back-related problems, including poor posture and yup, you guessed it, back pain.
The Key to a Stronger Back
A lot of people who deal with back pain on a day-to-day basis tend to grin and bear it. This is a problem, and a common one. While your back pain may start out as a minor inconvenience, it can quickly turn sour, and left untreated can cause irreversible damage.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make is not acknowledging back pain as it starts. Everyone’s dealt with back pain at some point, and if you haven’t yet, don’t worry -- you will. But while minor back pain usually goes away on its own, sometimes we push ourselves too much, and, unfortunately, only exacerbate the pain.
The key to a stronger back is strengthening the muscles around it. While doing a lot of sit-ups may help your abdominals look nice, it won’t really help your back. Instead, your suave six-pack might be overcompensating for the rest of your core, namely your glutes, obliques and pelvis.
Think of it like the guy whose upper body is enormous but whose lower body resembles that of your 12-year-old nephew. Don’t be like that guy. No one likes that guy. Focus on ALL your muscle groups, not just the glamour ones. Working each of your back’s antagonistic muscle groups is where you’ll find the most benefits.
Finding the Perfect Core Workout
Make it a priority to incorporate compound exercises like lunges, squats and planks into your workout routine (unless you’re already dealing with back pain—in that case you may want to avoid compound exercises altogether, or at the very least do them with low or no weight). These exercises target multiple muscle groups, and when done correctly are incredibly effective at strengthening your core and your back.
Lunges: the key to the perfect lunge is to always keep your head straight. Find something directly within your line of sight and focus on it. Most inexperienced lungers tend to look down at their feet, which means they’re more likely to hunch over and therefore cause more tension on their backs and less on their glutes and quadriceps — where they should be targeted.
It’s important to note that your abdominals and lower back muscles should be acting as stabilizers for this exercise, which will naturally help strengthen them.
Squats: Keeping your heels down will help maximize your squat. When doing a squat, always keep these three things in mind:
- Point your toes out and keep your feet FLAT on the floor—no blocks. Keeping your feet flat will help absorb shock and reduce your risk of injury
- Keep your chest up and shoulders back. Proper form’s a must.
- Slightly bend your knees and make sure your weight is evenly distributed. Some people put a flat workout bench behind them for a reference as to how low they should be squatting. If this helps you gauge your form, use it.
Planks: When it comes to planks the most common mistake people make is collapsing their lower back. This defeats the whole purpose. This happens because A) your core isn’t strong enough, B) your arms are too far apart, or C) you aren’t breathing enough.
The plank is one of the greatest all-inclusive core exercises out there, so you need to be doing them right. When you collapse your lower back, you put an excessive amount of pressure on it.
Imagine this: there’s a tiny vertical wooden block keeping your torso upright, and if you cave your torso in, the block breaks. Reversely, if you extend your back too far upwards, the block falls over. The only way you’re going to really benefit from a plank is by keeping your back straight.
Acknowledging the Symptoms
Question: Is back pain inevitable after an intense workout?
Most cases of severe back pain could have been avoided if people had acknowledged the warning signs earlier, but because the pain is minimal they tend to keep doing whatever it is that caused the pain in the first place. Even the slightest back pain should be acknowledged, as this is often a precursor to something much more serious. While the reasons for back pain may differ, the symptoms are usually the same:
- muscle spasms
- tender muscles
- leg numbness or a tingling feeling
- neck and/or leg pain
If you wake up in the morning and your lower back is a little sore, this is a good indicator to take it easy for a few days. While most bouts of lower back pain go away given time (and rest), prolonged periods of pain often signal an underlying problem. That said, there are simple things you can do at home that can either help ease the pain or prevent it altogether. North American Spine recently published a back pain eBook on DIY tips for improving your back’s health. It’s worth taking a look.
Other Common Causes of Back Pain
Unfortunately, heavy lifting isn’t the only cause of back pain; most people who suffer from back pain do so because they’ve simply worn their back out from their day-to-day routine. Other common causes of back pain include:
- sitting hunched over a desk all day
- sleeping in an awkward position—sleeping on your stomach is a definite no-no for people with lower back pain, as this position can cause extra strain on your back.
- poor posture—whether it’s due to sitting in front of a computer screen all day, carrying a heavy backpack around, or even sitting or standing in place for too long, poor posture can definitely take a toll on your back.
- not stretching—any trainer worth their salt knows the importance of stretching, yet most people who tend to hurt themselves at the gym do so because they didn’t properly stretch.
If you’re suffering from back pain—even if it’s minor—you may want to lighten the amount of weight you’re lifting. In addition, a good all-encompassing back workout should also place a lot of focus on form and your back’s surrounding muscle groups. This will not only help prevent back pain, it’ll make your entire core stronger.
Don’t worry about lifting a specific amount of weight; instead make sure you’re following through properly. Remember, it’s not how much you lift, but how you lift it.
Author Bio: Brad is a freelance health writer who loves learning more about fitness and putting his theories to the test. When not exercising he can be found drumming, reading or perusing the local farmers market.