Like most forms of exercise, weight lifting has many potential benefits for spinal health, but also has the potential to create or worsen back injuries.

  • Extending or flexing the back muscles against resistance (the weight) during weightlifting and bodybuilding may result in a number of injuries, including muscle strain and ligament injury
  • Certain types of weightlifting exercises can be particularly stressful to the joints and soft tissues, such as:
    • Clean-and-jerk
    • Dead-lift
    • Snatch
    • Squats
  • Older persons (e.g. many over 50 years old) who do weightlifting may already have some disc degeneration and osteoarthritis in their spines, which may make them more susceptible to the strains while lifting weights

Preventing Back Injuries from Weightlifting

As a general rule, before one begins or makes changes to a weightlifting routine, it is important to know the condition of one's back and keep weight amounts within personal limits. If anyone has experienced back pain, it is advisable to first get an evaluation from a primary care physician, chiropractor, physiatrist, or other spine specialist before beginning lifting weights.

Specific guidelines that are useful in helping to prevent back injury include:

  • Use less weight, but do more repetitions when lifting weights
  • Consider using a training machine rather than free weights for certain weightlifting exercises. This point is important to discuss with both a spine specialist and trainer, understanding there is a trade-off
    • A machine may reduce stress on the back (for example, quadriceps done sitting at a machine versus squats holding weights) and can generally be used by someone with little or no supervision
    • But free weights add proprioception (self-regulation of posture and movement in response to the free weights) that a machine does not. Proprioception is an added benefit in helping enhance the body's balance and stability.
  • Use a spotter when working with free weights to protect the back from possible sudden movement or excess strain
  • Consider wearing a belt for weightlifting (first ask the recommendation of an athletic trainer or spine specialist, as there are conflicting studies on the merits of belts). Some spine specialists maintain that while there is no concrete evidence that a belt protects the back while weightlifting, it does help as a reminder to maintain proper form
  • Do not perform exercises such as the clean-and-jerk, dead-lift, snatch, or squat without proper supervision, because these exercises may pose greater risk for back injury and back pain

Dr. Thomas Hyde is a chiropractor who retired with more than 30 years of experience treating spine pain and soft tissue disorders in athletes and active patients.