Exercising has its risks even though the benefits often outweigh the risks.  At times your daily training quota may give you some aches and pains—back, shoulder, neck, and so on. Some are due to the “too much-too soon” effect while others are blamed on overuse or risky exercises like the squat and deadlift, which place a great deal of stress on the back muscles.

Many studies report that weight training can improve and prevent lower back problems by strengthening the deep and surrounding muscles of the back, thus reducing the pressure in this area. Yet experts point out there are many factors to consider when performing exercises that engage the lower back, such as age, gender, height, weight, fitness level, overall health, and exercise techniques like standing or sitting and machine or free weights.

This is particular true when performing the squat.  A person with a long torso and short limbs reduces the stress on the back by flexing the hips (the torso will tilt only a little). In comparison, a long limbed individual will lean forward too much and add more risk to the back.

Switch It Out

Many common exercises place a lot of pressure on the back. This is not necessarily bad. In fact, these exercises provide plenty of benefits to strengthen the lower and upper body along with your core in an integrated way, which is important for sports and daily life tasks. Likewise, they often help to increase bone mass and prevent its deterioration.

However, there are times when you need to give your back a break, whether it is due to physical limitations, previous injury, or simply the need for variation.  

Christopher J. Sims, BS, NASM CPT/PES, private trainer at The Sports Club LA/MIA, explains why each of these common exercises put the back in a risky position and which moves you can swap out to save your back, but still get the muscular benefit.

Barbell Squat

Why? This exercise requires you use a forward leaning torso posture to keep the weight centered over your base of support. This forward leaning torso places the vertebrae, especially the lumbar vertebrae, in a vulnerable position for disc herniation if you do not maintain neutral spinal alignment—or are unable to—during ascent and descent of the squatting movement.

Swap it: A substitute leg exercise for the squat is the lunge. It allows you to maintain a more neutral spinal alignment through a greater range of motion.

Standing Overhead Press

Why? This exercise places the latissimus dorsi (located at the back sides of your trunk) in a stretched position as you attempt to straighten your arms overhead. If you do not have adequate flexibility in the lats, enough core stability, and proper strength in the deltoids, upper trapezius and triceps, your spine may be pulled out of alignment. You may inadvertently or intentionally arch your back for more leverage, which places the vertebrae in a vulnerable position.

Swap it: A substitute to the standing overhead press is the seated overhead press, but you should remain cautious of excessive lumbar arching while also seated. (Exercise Not Shown).

Deadlift

Why? The deadlift shares a similar body positioning as the barbell squat. If you try to deadlift the weight by flexing then extending the spinal erector muscles—in addition to extending the hips and knees—you are placing your body in a vulnerable position for disc herniation. The vulnerability can be worsened when you have a large differential of strength between the two major hip extensors, the hamstring group, and the gluteus maximus.

Swap it:  A substitute exercise is leg curls to isolate the hamstrings (the muscles of the back of the legs). However, the deadlift is such a complete exercise that it is hard to find a similar all-around movement that also challenges the posterior kenetic chain—the trapezius, back, core muscles, glutes, and hamstrings.  So a substitute exercise that also targets these key areas while decreasing the spine pressure is the leg curl on the physioball. When doing this exercise keep your core tight and  don’t let your hips fall. Bring the ball in by using the hamstrings (the back of the leg muscles) as you lift up the torso. Control the lengthening phase by using the same muscles and do not let your leg touch the floor. Do one leg and then the other.  If this too hard do it with both legs at the beginning.

Front Shoulder Raises

Why? Front shoulder raises are often accompanied by a person excessively leaning backward, which can stress the back.

Swap it: Most people overwork the front part of the shoulders because the anterior deltoid is used when training the chest with exercises like the bench press and flyers. There is no need to do front shoulder raises if you already do incline dumbbell chest press. However, if you want to isolate this part of the shoulder muscles, you can do incline dumbbell front shoulder raises. You will use less weight due to the more effective isolation of this area—all while your back remains against the bench. To perform this exercise, set up the bench as you were doing an incline chest press with your arms rested to the side. Lift one arm up to shoulder level as you do when performing front shoulder raises; alternate with the other arm. Do not lift your head and/or the upper body off the bench. The movement should come from the anterior part of the shoulder although the pec muscles will assist on the move.

Bent Over Row

Why? The bent over row shares the same postural risk factors as the squat and the deadlift.

Swap it: A suitable substitute is the prone dumbbell row from the plank position, or the prone single-arm dumbbell row using a weight bench for support. Likewise, a squat to pulley or tubing row can effectively target the middle back muscles with the legs benefits added. (See below). Keep the elbows close to your body and squeeze the muscles around the scapula. Keep your back straight and core tight.

Kettle Bell Swing or Dumbbell Swing

Why? The bottom phase of the swing pattern places you in a similar forward leaning position as the deadlift, albeit with less weight and more repetitions. If repeated (even subtle), spinal flexions and extensions occur along with your hip and knee extension (as opposed to a stable spinal structure with hip/knee extension). Due to its unique compression and shear load ratios in the lumbar spine, there is an increased risk for disc herniation.

Swap it: The swing involves a powerful strength transfer from the legs to the upper body in which the abdominals and the spine muscles act as stabilizers by resisting the external force. A good exercise that taxes the same muscles and exercise power abilities is the pulley or tubing squat to overhead arm extension. This exercise should be performed in a single powerful and controlled movement where you use your legs to transfer strength to the upper body while the mid-section stabilizes and controls the move.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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