We have all done it.
Carefully bending over to grab something off the ground, and there it goes, your back gives out. No warning, no prior symptoms, it just happens. And it happens to all of us. I have had my fair share of back problems from abusive years playing ice hockey and moronic training.
We also see our fair share of people who have back pain at GAIN, given our client demographic is middle aged to 70+. Almost everyone I have a consultation with has some history of back pain, they say that about once a year, no matter what, their back gives out for a week or so.
I don’t have the magic solution for it either. However, improving strength, learning how to stabilize and owning ranges of motion certainly make your body more robust. Seeing a qualified physical therapist if you are in pain is non-negotiable. If there’s pain, get some help.
Here’s what I like to see people who have back pain improve upon:
- Can you properly hip hinge?
A hip hinge is one of the fundamental movement patterns that we see often in everyday life. We make sure to do some type of hip hinging, whether bilaterally or on one leg, at each and every workout at GAIN.
We think it’s that important of a skill to own.
Hip hinging, when done properly, keeps your back in a solid, braced position, forcing you to get the range of motion from your hip joints and not from moving your spine and becoming unstable. It loads the posterior chain muscles like your hamstrings and glutes, and uses those to stand up, opposed to the back muscles.
The problem I often run into here, is that people are unwilling to trust their hinge. That happens, and it is part of the learning process. But doing a weird, super-wide stance, squat type of thing, is just a Band-Aid. You need to know how to pick stuff up. You likely need a regression to start, especially while you work towards gathering the requisite range of motion.
This is common at GAIN. We love barbells, but realize it isn’t he right tool for every job. Doing kettlebell or dumbbell deadlifts or even something raised higher than that can be a good teaching tool here to build confidence in a strange movement.
- How’s your hip mobility?
If your hips are ultra-wound up, it may be difficult to hinge properly. If you cannot flex, or close your hips, think folding your belly on your thighs, it is going to be difficult to get to the ground or the object without losing spine position.
This is where you can work with a PT to improve range of motion or add in some dedicated mobility training to your plan. I like to see improvements in hip flexion and ankle dosiflexion for anyone who has trouble getting to the bottom position. This is another time that we would modify the lift – so we can still get a training effect, while working within the safe range of motion. Then, before adding more weight to the bar, we can progress the movement by adding in a bigger range of motion. Eventually adding load to challenge to new found positions and ranges.
3. Can you get stable?
Can you create a stiff trunk?
What I mean, is can you get into a proper braced-neutral position, without any load. When we teach deadlifting, the first position we teach is the finish position. This helps you maintain stability throughout the lift.
The purpose of the hinge is to challenge this braced position while requiring the hips to move, i.e., keep the torso stiff while the legs do the work*. Ever hear the saying lift with your legs not your back?
We teach stiffness (the popular thing to say is a strong core) using other exercises to demonstrate, and educate you on what it is supposed to feel like.
For example, if you are someone who sags their hips when doing push ups, I’ll be willing to bet that you have a hard time keeping a stable core when deadlifting. So we can work on creating the proper stiffness through the anterior core when doing push ups, loaded carries and a host of other plank and core progressions. That way, when it comes time to deadlift or pick something up – you know what right feels like.
A common problem is excessive arching of the lower back. We find that when people have trouble creating stability, they hang on their spine to find it. This especially holds true with formers athletes and many runners we see.
So what can you do?
- Find exercises that allow you to train around any painful ranges of motion. Single leg exercises are typically ideal here, along with sled pushing, upper body movements that allow you to stay stable and low level core drills to practice the proper positioning.
- Work with a coach to develop a proper hip hinge and core stability. It’s all about positioning and body awareness here.
- Work with a PT or a coach to improve range of motion – if you need to. Sometimes, this lack of range of motion can be a stability issue – meaning, you have the range of motion available, but cannot access it because your body feels unsafe in those positions. Developing core strength, total body strength and the ability to properly brace and breathe are all invaluable here.
At the end of the day, training and spending time in the gym is about getting you outside of the gym. Train to make these new positions and movements your default. It takes time, dedication and effort, but you don’t want to blow your back out picking up a pen off the ground. Create awareness, practice diligently and be patient.
*Exactly what running is, by the way…