How to Improve Low Back Pain in and out of the Gym

The phrase “lift until fatigue” used to be what my nightmares were made of. Not because I wasn’t up for the challenge, but because I knew the muscle I was about to focus on wouldn’t be the reason I would drop my weights 30 seconds later. And the worked muscle also wouldn’t be the reason I would be sore the next day. The reason for both would be my lower back.

My lower back used to inhibit me from pushing myself past my limits and reaching my goals. Now, thanks to some guidance from the experts, “lift until fatigue” is one of my favorite phrases.

In my quest for information and answers, I spoke to Franco Calabrese, PT and DPT at React Physical Therapy, Lakeshore East location. I also spoke with Dr. Casey Herring, DC, at Airrosti Rehab Center in West Town. Here’s how they helped me, and hopefully, how they can help you, too.

low back pain

Warm up, warm up, warm up.

Right off the bat, both Calabrese and Herring stressed the importance of warming up before a workout.

“My biggest piece of advice to my patients is that they need to prime the body for their desired workout,” Calabrese began. “Whether you are lifting weights, riding your bike or going for a run, it is imperative that you activate your muscles and central nervous system for optimal force absorption. Some of my favorite warm-ups include the 4-way lunge, body weight squats, and side-lying thoracic mobility.”

I thought back to memories of doing many of those movements in class as a warm-up, but realized that maybe the average group fitness class warm-up is too quick for my needs.

Warming up includes foam rolling, too.

Herring suggested that in addition to traditional warm up exercises at the start of class, foam rolling before class could be very beneficial.

“To avoid injury, do something to get the blood following and the muscles warmed up, such as foam rolling: quads, glutes and low back. This improves circulation and flexibility,” Herring explained.

Focus on form.

During the workout, Herring stressed the importance of focusing on form.

“We need our glutes and core to work together to support our low back, especially during exercise!” Herring explained. “Activate transverse abdominus muscles by brining your belly button towards your spine. Squeeze your glutes whenever possible. If you’re in a class, be sure to tell your instructor that you’ve had low back problems and ask them if they could pay attention to your form.”

Calabrese’s advice during class is to start slow. “It is important to start slow and progress accordingly,” Calabrese began. “For example, if you know that weighted back squats increase your pain, start with body weight squats and slowly increase the weight.”

Don’t push it.

If at any point you come across any pain, both Herring and Calabrese say you shouldn’t push though it.

“Push through soreness, but don’t push through pain,” Herring explained. “First, try to come up with a modification. If that doesn’t work, take a break from that activity to foam roll, stretch or ice.”

Calabrese described a similar message. “Pain is your body’s response to a potential danger, so it is crucial to recognize the signs.” However, Calabrese encourages anyone with low back pain to stay active in some way. “Most injuries will heal over time, but that does not mean sitting down and waiting for the pain to magically disappear,” he explained. “It is easy to fall out of a routine when pain arises, so it is extremely important to keep moving and keep working toward your goals.”

In doing so, Calabrese suggests, “Keeping a consistent routine that can range from performing a stretch routine on off days, or simply performing thirty minutes of exercise.”

Stay active.

Even if you can’t make it to the gym, Herring suggests staying active as much as possible at work throughout the day. “Most of us sit for many hours a day, which shortens our hip flexors,” Herring began. “We need to make a conscious effort to ‘reverse’ the shortening.”

Herring continued, “Get up at least once an hour for at least one minute. If you can set a timer for every hour, that’s a great idea. When you’re up, consider doing a hip flexor stretch using the back of your chair. These habits may seem nominal, but they have a major cumulative effect on your overall low back health.”

Overall, the habits you create in the gym make a difference, but it seems that the habits you create outside of the gym are even more important when suffering from low back pain. Even better, take all of this advice proactively to make sure the pain never even starts.

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About Ashley McCullough

Ashley McCullough has been an active advocate of weight lifting, taco eating, city living and not running for as long as she can remember. A lifelong Notre Dame fan, she graduated from Saint Mary’s College in 2012 with a degree in Elementary Education. By day, you can find her organizing objects by color, singing, chanting, dancing around, and reading with her kindergarten class. After the school bell rings, well, not much changes. She continues to do all that. But she also thoroughly enjoys conversing and interacting with adults at group fitness classes and #Sweatworking events. Ashley was born and raised in the suburbs and moved to the city 4 years ago. She never plans to leave… unless she is able to find a beach house on a mountain in a major industrial city on a private island. Then she just might.