When you're experiencing back pain, your impulse may be to keep your back immobile so you don't trigger further pain. This seems like it would be especially true of adding resistance to your workout in the form of weight machines, free weights, or resistance bands.
But some studies have shown that most types of weight training not only are safe for those with chronic back pain, they can help relieve pain and improve function. Read on to see how you can safely participate in strength training to help your back.
Studies show weight training is safe and effective
Just stretching your back may seem risky, let alone adding weight or resistance to the equation. But a large review of over 100 studies examined the safety of exercise for those with arthritis, osteoporosis, and low back pain. The review found that even patients with acute low back pain can safely do physical activity that doesn't trigger pain, and resistance training was fine for people with low back pain.1
As for strength training's effectiveness in treating back pain, a few small studies have shown that it leads to significant results. One study found that a 16-week program of free-weight based exercise resulted in a significant improvement of pain, disability, and quality of life for participants with low back pain.2 Another study with an 8-week weight training program and a follow-up period of 2 years found that between 50 to 80% of participants reported a decrease in perceived pain intensity and disability for both short- and long-term follow-up.3
Dos and don'ts for strength training with back pain
Although resistance training is generally safe for those with back pain, there are some people for whom it's not a good choice, such as those with a spinal fracture or tumor. It also must be done with care following surgery. Talk with your doctor before beginning a strength training program to find out if it's right for you.
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If you're ready to give weight training a try, keep these tips in mind:
- To reap the most benefit from strength training, aim to do it 2 or 3 times a week for half an hour.
- Focus especially on exercises that can build strength in the core muscles of your back, abdominals, buttocks, and hamstrings.
- You don't have to join a gym or buy expensive equipment to do strength training. You can do it at home, and the resistance can come from small hand weights, resistance bands, or even gravity.
- To protect your back, avoid exercises that involve extreme or abrupt moves such as dead lifts or clean-and-jerks. Instead, focus on slow, steady resistance training that takes advantage of flexion and extension action in the muscles.
- Regulate the impact of weight training by using smaller weights and doing more repetitions.
- If you're experiencing a flare-up of back pain, take some time off from strength training until it subsides.
- Warm up for a few minutes before exercising, and don't forget to stretch afterward too. You can use ice therapy to help ease any muscle aches after a workout.
- Some soreness is okay and to be expected, but sharp pain is not normal. If you feel any sharp, sudden pain while exercising, stop right away.
With a few precautions, you can use strength training as a great tool to help manage low back pain.
- Evidence-based risk assessment and recommendations for physical activity: arthritis, osteoporosis, and low back pain. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2011 Jul;36 Suppl 1:S49-79. doi: 10.1139/h11-037.
- The effects of a free-weight-based resistance training intervention on pain, squat biomechanics and MRI-defined lumbar fat infiltration and functional cross-sectional area in those with chronic low back. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2015 Nov 9;1(1):e000050. eCollection 2015.
- High load lifting exercise and low load motor control exercises as interventions for patients with mechanical low back pain: A randomized controlled trial with 24-month follow-up. J Rehabil Med. 2016 Apr 28;48(5):456-63. doi: 10.2340/16501977-2091.