Sore glutes or biceps after a tough workout can feel a little satisfying — the sign of a job well done. But there's nothing gratifying about a stiff and achy back.
If you wake up the morning after a workout with back pain, check the list below to make sure you're not accidentally committing any of these common workout errors. And if you are, learn how to fix your form.
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1. Bending Too Far Backward or Forward
There's a reason trainers prioritize form over weight and reps when strength training: Bending the spine too far back (over-extending) or too far forward (over-flexing) when trying to lift heavier weights puts you at risk for back pain or injury, says New York-based physical therapist Sam Becourtney, DPT.
When you lift a weight overhead or pick something up off the ground, you want your spine in a neutral alignment — somewhere between arching and rounding, according to Becourtney.
"Typically, we see excessive rounding during forward bending exercises (like deadlifts) and excessive arching during overhead lifts (like a shoulder press), so these are good exercises to keep a close eye on form," he says.
Focus on tucking your pelvis under (the opposite motion of arching your lower back) and keeping your rib cage in line with the rest of the body (draw the two front sides together), Becourtney says.
You can also work on these mechanics while on the floor to make it a habit while strength training. Exercises like dead bugs or planks are a good place to start to strengthen your core and perfect your alignment.
Move 1: Dead Bug
- Lie flat on your back (on the ground or any flat, stable surface) with both arms reaching straight toward the ceiling.
- Lift your feet off the ground so your legs are bent at a 90-degree angle.
- With control, lower one arm and the opposite leg away from each other and toward the floor.
- Lower your limbs as far as you can while keeping the lower back on the ground. Fight the impulse to arch your back by tightening your abs, pressing your bellybutton down to anchor your lower back to the floor.
- Exhale as you return your arm and leg to the starting position with the same controlled movement.
- Repeat with the other arm and leg, then return to the center again.
Move 2: Plank
- Get down on all fours on the floor and put your elbows and forearms on a comfortable surface (like a mat, towel or carpeted floor).
- Extend your legs back behind you and push up into a plank, creating a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Keep you neck in neutral alignment by looking at your hands.
- Hold this position without moving. Keep your hips level and squared to the ground and don't let your lower back arch.
2. Using Momentum to Lift
Although it may be tempting to grab a heavy dumbbells right off the bat, pick a pair that's comfortably challenging to start. Grabbing weights that are too heavy for you can cause you to rely on momentum, making your exercises ineffective and potentially painful for the back, according to Becourtney.
This happens pretty often with biceps curls. If you grab a weight that's too heavy, it's common to swing the dumbbell up, as the biceps aren't strong enough by themselves, Becourtney says. This motion can put tension on the lower back, causing tightness or pain.
"Select a weight that you can comfortably control without using excessive momentum," Becourtney says. You can also watch yourself in the mirror to ensure you're not compensating for heavy weight by swinging, arching or over-extending the lower back. And when necessary, drop the weight in later sets or lower your total reps per exercise.
3. Skipping Your Warm-Up
Before strength or cardio, starting with a well-designed warm-up routine is absolutely essential if you want to keep your back pain-free. Running through dynamic warm-up exercises helps increase the temperature and flexibility of the muscles, helping prevent injury during your workout, according to the American Heart Association.
"A warm-up regimen should include some element of mobility, focused on opening up the hips, upper back and shoulders," Becourtney says. "Immediately afterward, follow up with some sort of stabilization work, specifically focused on activating the glutes, the back core muscles, obliques, and shoulders in both the forward and backward direction."
To keep your back free of injury, begin every single workout with at least a 3- to 5-minute warm-up. Focus on dynamic mobility exercises, like clamshells or inchworms, followed by activation or stability moves, like dead bugs or bird dogs.
Move 1: Clamshell
- Lie on your left side with your knees at 90 degrees and positioned slightly in front of you.
- Contract glute muscles and lift your right knee a few inches.
- Hold for a second before lowering back down.
Move 2: Inchworm
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bend at your hips with your knees only slightly bent (not locked).
- Place your hands on the floor in front of you, then walk them out until you're in a high plank.
- Perform a push-up by lowering your chest to the floor (or as low as you can).
- Push back up, walk your hands to your feet and stand up.
Move 3: Bird Dog
- Begin on your hands and knees on the floor.
- Lift your left arm straight out in front of you.
- At the same time, lift your right leg straight back behind you.
- Hold for a second, then return to the beginning position.
- Do all your reps on one side before switching to the other arm and leg.
4. Neglecting One-Sided Exercises
Also known as unilateral exercises, one-sided strength moves, like single-leg deadlifts or single-arm chest presses, are challenging but crucial if you want to keep your muscles balanced and free from injury, according to Becourtney.
Single-leg or single-arm exercises help train both sides of your body equally, preventing you from using a dominant arm or leg from taking over, per the American Council on Exercise. Plus, unilateral moves help address muscle imbalances, which can be a potential cause of back pain while working out, according to Becourtney.
Try to include one or two unilateral exercises per strength training workout. Swap your standard hip thrust for a single-leg variation. Or, try a dumbbell alternating shoulder press instead of a barbell overhead press.
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