Easy ways to train around lower back pain

Posted on September 3, 2020

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(Last Updated On: September 3, 2020)

Let’s say we have one of two scenarios:

  1. You’ve recently flared up your lower back. Namely, any leaning over hurts.
  2. You’re someone (or a personal trainer with a client) who has had longterm lower back problems, but you’re trying to get a good workout in.

You either don’t want to just sit around waiting for your back to feel better, or that already hasn’t worked, and you want to lift some weights, but obviously without being in pain while doing so, or making your back worse.

Or, if you’re a personal trainer with this kind of client, how do you still get this person in better shape? What do you do? How do you do it?

I’ve had plenty of clients who did something over the weekend, pissed their back off, and ask if they should still come to the gym. Yes!

Here are some ways you can get a solid workout even with a lower back that’s not happy:

Pull Motion (back and bicep muscles)

This is easier on the back than say, chin-ups, because the back can be kept stationary (which we’ll see, will be a theme). For example, chin-ups can do this to your spine:

Lower back very extended.

You’ll want to keep your torso perpendicular to the ground; not swing back and forth like you’re in a row boat:

-> You usually won’t have to worry about whether the grip is overhand or underhand here, but if you want to get more granular, an overhand grip will be easier on the lower back. An overhand grip does not stretch the lats as much, making them less likely to extend the back.

More details: 3 Common Tight Muscles

Horizontal Push Motion (chest and tricep muscles)

If the person is able to get down and up off the floor without pain -having a support nearby, like a chair, can really help- then a DB floor press can be one option:

Note one arm at a time is easier than two, because with one you can use both arms to help get the weight into position. If you’re lifting pretty heavy, trying to get two heavy DBs into position can end up ticking the back off more.

One perk of the DB floor press is it helps keep the back rested against the floor, as gravity is pushing it that way. While that’s true with a bench press too, arching is often encouraged in bench pressing. If a person has the habit of arching while benching, it’s going to be hard for them to suddenly break that habit. Considering the point of this post is right away being able to get a workout, we’re not focused on changing longterm habits, where it’s easier and simpler to lay on the floor, changing the person’s environment.

-> Another thing you can do, and you’ll notice in the video above, is have the knees up and bent, making them clearly above the hips. This makes it much harder to arch the back, compared to the legs being straight, or where the knees are below the hips (as is common in a conventional bench press).

If getting down and up off the floor doesn’t feel great, then an old fashioned press machine may have to do, or a pec deck. Again, it’s helpful to be able to sit against a surface, to insure the back is stationary and calm.

If you want to get a little fancier and not have to use a fixed path machine, you can set-up a bench with cables:

-> Setting up the bench so it’s somewhat reclined is friendlier to the back than having it be perpendicular to the floor.

In this instance, I usually prefer using both arms at the same time. It’s easier to twist when seated than when laying on your back, and twisting can irritate the spine.

Vertical Press Motion (shoulders)

In a barbell overhead press, you pretty much have to lean back to help clear the bar from hitting your head-

And then when the weight gets heavy, people tend to lean back so much they aren’t really pressing overhead anymore; they’re instead doing more of an incline press (helping to get the pecs more involved):

You can see this guy’s torso is at like a 45 degree angle!

What we can instead do is go to dumbbells, and stand against a wall:

You won’t be able to lift as much weight, but that’s because your back can’t help you as much, which in this context, is what we want.

-> I often have to emphasize to clients with this one to either bend their knees more and or more their feet further away from the support they’re against. Basically, the more you’re in a squat position while doing this, the harder it is for your back to get involved.

Biceps

We definitely don’t want that swinging that’s so common with curls:

Where a lot of motion happens before the curl even really begins:

Notice how much they’ve leaned forward while barely curling the bar.

Instead, we can stand against a wall:

After all, the point here is not to lift the most weight, but to best target the biceps. Swinging will let you lift more weight, but that’s because you’re using more muscles than the arms.

Lower Body (quads)

The simple ole Wall Sit:

Sometimes people feel this is too easy, but if you do mix it up like tuck your feet some more, change your depth, or hold some weights, for most people this gets plenty hard enough. I’ve had clients hold 80lb DBs if needed, and you can find Youtube videos of people taking it much further than that.

The tough thing about this one is if you do need to add some weight to get a challenge, it can be hard to set-up by yourself, especially if your back is ticked.

One thing you can do to make it so you don’t have to hold as much weight is lift one foot off the ground to make it a single leg version.

Lower Body (hamstrings)

With equipment, seated leg curls are a good one, keeping the back against the surface. You don’t want this,

where the lower back is helping your curl.

If you don’t have that machine, laying on the ground is another option,

However, unlike that video, with an irritated lower back, you want to keep the spine on the floor, and relaxed, letting the legs do the work. (Note this one will actually work the quads some too, due to having to push the plate back out. However, most people won’t tell you they get much of a quad workout from this. The hamstrings are much more of a limiting factor, and thus, where the exercise is really felt.)

 –

Abdominals

This is one to be careful with. Sometimes the back can be so pissed, that any contraction of the abs only irritates it, due to how intertwined they are.

-> Why squeezing the stomach can make lower back pain worse

Usually you can get some work in though. Leg Raises:

Where you make sure the lower back is always on the ground:

If that’s too intense, you can go one leg at a time, bend the knees, etc.

Tempo

One last tip here is slow down with all your exercise. Even with the above, if you go too fast, it’s easy to start using your lower back. You want to make the change from “I’m trying to lift as much weight as I can” to “I’m trying to target X muscle(s) as best I can while leaving my lower back completely alone.” Going slower is another one of those changes where you won’t be able to lift as much, but you’ll still for sure feel the muscles working.

And there you go. Just about every muscle a person would want to hit, while entirely leaving the lower back alone.

So, even if the low back is painful, you should still be working out!

-> Targeting the glutes has purposely been left out. The glutes are so interconnected with the spine, it’s incredibly hard to use them without engaging the lower back. There are definitely ways to hit the glutes without hitting the lower back much, but it’s not as easy as the areas we’ve gone over. Where you’re playing with fire here, to the point it’s usually best to not even bother, letting the back really calm down before attempting to incorporate glute work. (In which case, Pullthroughs are one of my go-tos.)

Again, the point here is to first get a good workout. One of the important takeaways being it’s nice to get someone with a low back flare up to be able to exercise without having to think about the back much, if at all. (Distraction is one of the best pain reducers!) Glute work becomes more contingent on conscious form, whereas much of the above is largely unconscious. (This is why, with some people, I don’t bother with ab work for a while either.) The more conscious the form has to be, the more the person is likely to think about the lower back, taking away from the workout feel, giving way to more of a rehab feel. (Which can be fine, in a different context.)

For more specific help: The Remote Client Process

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