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The Top Three Things You Do In The Gym To Screw Up Your Lower Back

Therapeutic exercise has consistently been proven to be the best way to manage lower back pain.  It has a better long-term outcome than injections, medications, and surgery.  Unfortunately, many people end up injuring their lower backs in a well intentioned, but misguided effort to get fit.  Below are the top three lumbar spine mistakes I see people making in the gym.  

You Exercise Sitting Down
The muscles and joints of the lumbar spine, pelvic girdle, hips, and knees are an interconnected team.  To get the team playing more efficiently, your body needs to be challenged by gravity and trained in an upright position.  A basketball team would never get better if they practiced while sitting at a desk.  You should run away from anyone who straps you into a machine in an effort to help you with a back pain problem.  By the way, you already sit way too much.  You drive, computer, television, and sometimes sleep in a seated position.  Prolonged sitting creates much of the tissue shortening and muscle weakness that makes you more prone to lower back pain.  

No Consideration For Compression
This is an issue that is particularly important for individuals with prior episodes of lower back pain.  Most people are unaware of the many gym activities that create compressive forces on the lumbar spine.  Treadmill running (more if you hold on the handles), leg press, crunches, and leg lifts create a compressive loading of the lumbar joints and discs.  Be aware of the cumulative loading on the lumbar spine, and alter your training schedule so that you perform certain exercise activities on different days.  Do not perform squats on the same day you run on the treadmill.  If you are going to perform 50 incline sit ups, do not do it on the same day you deadlift.  If you are uncertain of what activities place a compressive load on the lumbar spine, you need to work with a physical therapist or certified trainer.  

You Are A Flexibility Freak And A Stability Geek
Creating spinal flexibility without the strength to keep your spine stable sets you up for injury.  Many lumbar pain patients I evaluate are able to flex the spine forward and palm the floor.  They can bend their spine like an overcooked noodle, but they are unable to summon the muscle control to hold the lumbar joints in a stable position.  These patients often report a long history of dedicated stretching, yoga, and Pilates training.  They fail the lumbar stability tests, and are often unable to perform the overhead squat or in line lunge functional mobility tests secondary to a lack of core stability strength.  These same patients are often surprised at their poor performance in the core stability tests because they “strengthen their abdominal muscles” with crunches and leg lifts.  Training to improve spinal stability and exercising your abdominal muscles are completely different things.  Every gym goer needs to learn the difference.

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS



In our physical therapy clinics, we get to treat elbow pain every day.  The pain is usually brought on by some kind of repetitive activity.  Tennis players get pain on the outside of the elbow.  Throwers and golfers get pain on the inside of the elbow.  Fitness clients commonly end up in physical therapy with complaints of elbow pain.  The cause of the pain is usually some sort of triceps isolation training, and the biggest offender is the “triceps kickback” exercise.  The kickback is a Shape magazine standard that appears to be a favorite with female gym goers.  The triceps kickback is more likely to give you elbow pain, than to produce thinner and more shapely arms.  

Three things make this exercise problematic for the elbows.  The kickback exercise creates a bad force curve.  The resistance is the strongest when the triceps muscle is at its least advantageous position, and this places the majority of the load on the elbow joint in a fully extended position.  When I see this exercise performed in the gym, it is usually executed with a swinging of the dumbbell.  The momentum of the weight forces the elbow into excessive end range extension.  Kickbacks are often performed for high repetitions.  It is not uncommon to witness someone perform three or four sets of twenty repetitions.  That is sixty to eighty high speed, end range repetitions under a stressful force curve on each elbow.  

From the elbow pain patient I hear, “But I don’t feel any pain when I perform the kickback exercise.”  Most golfers, tennis players, and throwers don’t feel pain during their participation in sports.  The elbow pain usually sets in later that day or the next morning.  Another common concern is that they will not be able to reduce fat on the back of the arm without direct triceps work.  This is the “spot reduction myth” that just won’t die and keeps many a physical therapists employed.  Avoid the trainer that tells you a specific exercise will take subcutaneous fat off an area of your anatomy.  

Elbow irritation that creates scar tissue and inflammation is often difficult to eliminate.  The pain in the elbow can get so bad that it limits other training activities.  The good news is that elbow pain is often self-inflicted, and with a little education, we can avoid the pain.  Watch the video, dump the kickback exercise, and start training your triceps with some push ups and presses.  Your elbows will thank you.  

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS


The Sure Cure for Gluteal Amnesia

Your hamstrings and gluteal muscles always work together as a team.  Strong, coordinated hamstrings and gluteals are your lower back’s best friend.  They anchor the pelvis and hold a stabilized spine in a tight and tall position.  They work with the other posterior chain muscles to keep stress off of the sensitive structures of the lumbar spine.  Patients with chronic lower back pain often have weak and even atrophied gluteal muscles.  Building strength and coordination in the hamstrings and gluteals is often difficult for patients with lumbar spine pain problems.  Hip lifts are lower back friendly exercises that can restore the function of hamstrings and gluteal muscles.  

Hip Lifts
There are many different types of hip lifts and all are beneficial.  The two basic hip lift drills discussed below work well for most fitness clients and physical therapy patients. 

Feet On Ball Hip Lifts
FOB Hip Lifts photo

This exercise will strengthen your posterior leg muscles and spares your spine any stress.  Lay supine with a physioball under your heels.  Place the arms at the sides and push down into the floor with the arms to stabilize the body.  Keep the feet together and aimed up at the ceiling.  Brace your abdominal muscles and squeeze the legs together.  Use the butt muscles (gluteals) and posterior thigh muscles (hamstrings) to lift you up off the floor.  Hold the suspended position, in one long line from ankle to shoulder, for three counts.  Lower with control and repeat for five to fifteen repetitions.   

Bench Hip Lifts
Bench Hip Lifts photoThis drill coordinates hip extension and lumbar spine stability.  It is very beneficial when progressed to the single leg version.  Lay with your shoulders across a bench with the head supported.  Place your arms out to the sides.  Plant the feet on the ground with the knees bent 90 degrees.  Drop the hips to the floor and then push back up with the gluteals and hamstring muscles.  Hold at the top for three seconds and repeat.  Perform five to ten repetitions.  As you get stronger, progress to performing the exercise one leg at a time.  From the same starting position, lift the left leg up off the ground.  Lower slowly and using just the right leg, lift back to the starting position.  Make sure the right foot stays flat on the floor and you push up through the heel.  Perform five to ten repetitions on each leg.  Switch over to the left and repeat.  If you find one side is more difficult, perform an extra set on that side.  Eliminating performance asymmetries in this exercise often resolves long standing back pain. 

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS




Personal Training Question Number One

crunch photoI get this question from many of my fitness clients at the end of their personal training or group coaching sessions.  Somehow crunches are viewed as an essential part of fitness.   Instructional DVDs are sold with an hour of abdominal exercises—I counted 12 different types of crunches and sit ups in one very popular infomercial product.  In physical therapy, I get to treat the patients who in a valiant, but misguided effort to regain fitness launch into a series of crunch / sit up exercises only to wake the next day with searing lower back or neck pain.  I was recently asked to e-mail my no crunches answer–so here we go.

Sensei Slumpo
Most fitness clients are already have earned a black belt in spinal flexion.  Their thoracic and lumbar vertebrae are bent forward for many hours a day– sitting too much, driving too much, television too much.  Most are proud at how easily they can fold the thoracic and lumbar spine over and “palm the floor”.   The last thing they need is to pull the ligaments, discs, and joints of their spine into further flexion with crunches and sit ups.

Your Mother’s Eyes and Your Grandma’s Spine
As we age, our thoracic and lumbar spines tend to fall into a flexed over “crunched” position.  Why would you want to accelerate the pace of this degeneration by performing activities that accentuate the slumped over forward flexed spinal posture of old age.

The Other Spot Reducing Exercise
Your abdominal muscles or “six pack” will not become more visible with lots of crunches, sit ups, rip twists, belly blasters, or any other targeted training.  There is no such thing as spot reducing.  The table push away is the best exercise to improve the visibility of any muscle.  Unfortunately, it is the least utilized exercise in America.

A Little Kinesiology
The function of your abdominal muscles is not to create movement but rather prevent movement.  They work with a team of other muscles to act as anti extensors, anti rotators, and anti flexor muscles.  The six pack muscle or rectus abdominus makes up a portion of the cylinder of muscle that serves to support your spine in tall and stable position–not bend it forward.  Think “movement preventers” and not “movement producers”.  Crunches and sit ups train your abdominal muscles to do the wrong thing.

The Pros Don’t Use Them
I cannot think of any athletic activity that emulates the motion of a crunch or sit up.  It will not improve your ability to run, jump, throw, or compete.  The strength and conditioning coaches that get paid big money to make athletes more successful and keep them injury free do not use crunches or other repeated trunk flexion exercises in their programming.

Maybe Not Now, But Soon And For The Rest Of Your Life
Your lumbar spine hates combined flexion and rotation, and it really hates it if you throw in some compression from an exterior load like a medicine ball, weight plate, or kettlebell.  Lumbar spine injuries are cumulative.  The stresses build up until one day you bend over to pick up a pencil and your back “goes out”.  Crunches and sit ups serve to accelerate the rate of accumulated spinal stress.  I know you have a friend who does one hundred twisting, medicine ball crunches a day and has never had a problem.  I have a friend who has smoked for twenty years and says he feels fine.

Michael S. O’Hara, P.T., OCS, CSCS

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