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Keeping Your Back Safe In the Gym

Keeping Your Back Safe In the Gym

Ever since our primitive ancestors stopped living in trees and started walking upright, the human body has evolved - in some aspects rather less than perfectly - and the back in particular would probably not win many awards from the Design Council. Anthropologist, Jeremy DeSilva of Boston University, says that our “anatomy isn’t what you’d design from scratch – evolution works with duct tape and paper clips”. As our bodies adapted to carrying a skull with a larger brain and in the case of the female of the species, to giving birth to babies with bigger bodies and brains than those of our ape-like predecessors, the spine became elongated and S shaped. Our curved backs, carrying a heavy head, may be vulnerable to injury if we don’t exercise to strengthen them and treat them with respect when working out in the gym.

Recent studies have shown that back pain badly affects one in ten people worldwide and up to 84% of people experience it at some time in their lives. It can be both debilitating and distressing, and is a leading cause of disability and absence from work. It can be triggered by poor posture while sitting or standing, bending or twisting awkwardly or lifting heavy objects incorrectly.

However, doctors and physiotherapists agree that exercise is good for your back and that you should: -
  • Exercise your core muscles to provide support to your back and avoid injury.
  • Do low-impact cardiovascular exercise, such as walking or swimming, which increase blood flow to the spine, supplying it with healing nutrients and keeping it hydrated.
  • Lift heavy weights correctly by bending at your hips and knees and keeping the load close to your body.
  • Correct your posture – avoid slumping or hunching over your desk.
  • Take a short break from sitting twice an hour.
  • Lose excess weight, which puts a strain on your back.
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable and supportive.
  • Manage stress by learning relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or yoga.
  • Stop smoking, which reduces the blood supply to the discs between your vertebrae, causing them to degenerate.

Personal trainer, Zsolt Nikodem (known as "Niko") has a half a dozen tips to confirm or add to these pointers for looking after your back, especially in the gym: -

  1. Stop doing crunches and leg raises. Most people have adapted to a seated position, where the hip flexors and the rectus abdominis (beach ab muscles) are in a shortened position, which means the hamstrings and the quadratus lumorum (a deep muscle in the lower back) have adapted to a lengthened position. Further strengthening the rectus abdominis by doing crunches and hips flexors (leg raises) will just worsen that seated position.
  2. Train more on the transverse plane. If you only train on the sagittal (or longitudinal) and frontal plane, you will get really stiff at rotating our ribcage over your hips, which is how you run, walk and function generally.
  3. Correct your posture. Without the correct static and dynamic posture, gravity is pushing you down day in, day out, which will ultimately lead to an even worse posture. You can’t escape gravitational forces compressing your spine, and if you put a barbell on your back or have it in your hands you will only increase that compression.
  4. Breathe correctly. Breathing is contracting and stretching all the core stabiliser muscles and you breathe over 20,000 times a day. Breathing correctly can definitely help with relieving lower back compressions.
  5. If you already have lower back pain, don’t stretch it or foam roll it! Just because the pain is there, that doesn’t mean the problem is there too. Pain is a signal that something is wrong. Getting a lower back massage or stretching your back may turn off the signal, but the problem is not solved!
  6. Don’t expect the same exercise to work the same way for everyone. Lower back pain is a result of multiple movement dysfunctions done every day and those are different from person to person.

The NHS offers some useful advice on protecting your back when doing a variety of common exercises and you can find out more about this here. Also, don't forget that as part of your gym membership, you're entitled to a half-hour taster session with one of our experienced personal trainers. You could use this time to ask them how to do a few basic exercises correctly, without jeopardising your back, and how to exercise your core to help protect and strengthen your back. You could also try one of our classes, such as yoga, Pilates or Core on the Floor, which include exercises to make your back flexible and strong.

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