Bikini season is upon us and, this time of year, many of us are hitting the gym, cramming in some workouts before heading to the beach. However, it is important to keep back health in mind when attempting to achieve that killer summer “bod”. In this article I will expose some common training mistakes and some great ways to strengthen your core, without putting your spine at risk.
1) Mistake: Dead-lifts.
A common source of controversy, dead-lifts have a bad rap for causing back pain. In many cases, dead-lifts are a good exercise to promote gluteal and low back strength. But for those of us without years of weight training experience, and without exceptional hip mobility and strength, dead-lifts can be a risky exercise.
Dead-lifts require the use of some large powerful muscles, namely the gluteus maximus and latissimus dorsi, to produce the extension movement. In addition, the small muscles surrounding the spine are required to stabilise the lower and mid back, throughout this movement. These small stabilising muscles have evolved better for endurance-type activities. In other words, the small muscles surrounding the spine are good at low-load activity, but not inherently good at high load movements like dead-lifts.
Dead-lifts become the most risky when we use too much weight for our individual strength. When we do this, we sacrifice our form, flex our backs, and risk pulling the small muscles and injuring the inter-vertebral discs. A great way to injure a disc is to flex your back while lifting weight (trust me, I’ve done it).
Dead-lift Alternative: Single Leg Dead-lift with Light or No Weight
These are a great way to build hamstring strength and challenge the small muscles in the spine and pelvis appropriately.
Standing on one leg, one is forced to depend on the pelvic stabilizing gluteus medius. When the pelvis is well controlled, the back is protected.
Ensure you have sufficient hamstring flexibility before doing this exercise. Also, avoid curving (flexing) your back as you do bend forward. Bend at the hip instead.
2) Mistake: Two-Legged Back Squats
Back squats, or any weighted squat can place a significant amount of shearing forces through the lumbar spine. Like deadlifts, the squat exercise will work many of the small erector spinae muscles in the back. With enough force, for example when doing weighted squats, these muscles will contract forcefully and cause a compressive load through the vertebrae.
Depending on where the weight is positioned, you may also expose your lower lumbar vertebrae to undue shearing forces which could lead to injury. In addition, the two-legged back squat requires little relative use of the small, pelvic stabilizing gluteus medius muscle. This puts your back at risk. Finally, two-legged back squats are commonly perceived as a good gluteus maximus exercise however research has shown that the gluteus maximus is only active late in the squat and not throughout the whole exercise.
In addition, to perform a good and safe squat, one needs excellent hip mobility. Without it, we sacrifice hip flexion for lumbar flexion, putting extra stress on the intra-vertebral discs and ligaments of the spine.
In other words, you won’t get much bang for your buck if you are using back squats as a core or gluteal exercise. And if you have a bad back to begin with, forget ‘em.
Back Squat Alternative: Single Leg Squats
Single leg squats will do a much better job at promoting gluteal strength as the gluteus medius is active immediately on initiating the exercise and the gluteus maximus is active much sooner in the movement than in the two legged squat. These muscles are both “back protecting”. The gluteus medius will provide stability to the pelvis and prevent lateral shearing in the spine. The gluteus maximus will produce the extension movement and take load off the smaller erector spinae of the lower back.
Ensure you keep your toes, knee, and hip on your standing leg in one vertical line.
3) Mistake: Weighted Side Bending
Another common myth is that weighted side bends will dissolve unwanted love handles, or effectively strengthen the abdominal obliques. This exercise will get the abdominals working, however it may also wreak havoc on your facet joints – the tiny joints that lie in between each vertebra of your spine. The facet joints in our lower back become compressed when we bend sideways and rotate.
The slightest lapse in technique and/or rotation will cause undue stress and strain on the facet joint. It will cause compression at the joint surfaces and potentially injury.
Side Bend Alternative: Side Planks
Side planks are a great exercise for the spine. They will strengthen surrounding muscles such as the external and internal abdominal obliques and the pelvic stabilizing muscles quadratus lumborum and the gluteus medius. Keep your shoulder supported using your opposite arm and ensure your gluteals are engaged by pushing your hips slightly forward.
4) Mistake: Sit-Ups, Especially with Added Weight
The sit-up exercise has long been known to be a bikini bod booster. However, this exercise can be especially spine-compromising. During a sit up, the spine undergoes approximately 730 lbs of compression force (McGill). In addition, sit-ups require repetitive flexion and extension of the spine. Repetitive flexion and extension have been shown to be a cause of disc injury.
Thinking of adding a weight? We’ll see you in the clinic.
Sit-Ups Alternative: Prone Planks
Planking will save you from the repetitive flexion and extension by getting your abdominals working isometrically. Be careful during this exercise not to let your lower back arch (extend) too much and sink downwards towards the floor. This will cause undue strain in your back.
Before beginning any exercise program it is always a good idea to check in with your local physiotherapist. Your physiotherapist can help determine which exact exercises are appropriate for you based on your goals and injury history.
If exercises cause you pain, it is best to discontinue them and contact me, Loring Rochacewich, at Nose Creek Physiotherapy to help determine and address the cause.
McGill, S. (2004) Ultimate back fitness and performance, Waterloo: Wabuno.
Waterbury, C. (2012, March, 8). An interview with Dr. Stuart McGill – Part 1. (Web blog post). Retrieved May 30, 2017 from https://www.t-nation.com/training/interview-with-dr-stuart-mcgill-part-1