It happens to even the most experienced people: the dreaded gym injury. When it’s your lower back that’s crying in pain, you might fear that you’ll never make it back to the gym. Low back injuries are extremely common among weightlifters, primarily due to repetitive straining of the lumbar muscles or improper form during heavy lifts. But rest assured that if you follow a smart recovery protocol and pay attention to how your body responds, you can almost always make a full recovery. If you’re wondering when it’s okay to get back in the gym after a low back injury, read on to find out.
When to Go Back
Every back injury is different, and depending on the severity, there is potential for a lengthy, elusive recovery process. Before you give yourself the green light to get back in the gym, you need to be honest about how your recovery is coming along and whether or not you still experience discomfort.
During your initial recovery period—typically about a week or two in duration—you should perform daily core activation exercises to help stabilize your spine and to strengthen your trunk muscles. Gentle physical activity will also benefit you during your initial recovery period as it prevents your muscles from atrophying as a result of decreased use. Begin by incorporating gentle walking and stretching movements that do not exacerbate your back pain. These daily practices will help build a stronger foundation when you return to your regular lifting routine.
One of the best ways to monitor your recovery is by paying attention to your form: if you can’t perform a squat with perfect form and no pain, it’s not time to resume training. What does perfect form mean? It should look like no shifting of your pelvis during the eccentric or concentric portion of the lift and no lumbar collapse—commonly referred to as “butt wink”—as you settle into the bottom of the movement. Only when you can perform several air squats with perfect form, you can begin to ease back into your normal training.
Ease Into It
However, just because you can air squat with perfect form doesn’t mean you’re ready to charge ahead full-force into your regular training routine. Depending on the severity of your injury, you may need to use substantially lighter weights for several weeks until you’ve made a full recovery. When you first resume training, avoid movements that place excessive loads on your spine such as deadlifts, weighted squats, and barbell rows. If you need to, ease back into your training by using machines that keep your spine stable and properly aligned during each movement. When you can perform machine lifts with perfect form and no pain, you can begin using free weights again. Keep in mind that you’ll need to reduce the loads on most of your lifts to avoid straining your back and re-injuring yourself. Be smart. If you feel strain, lower the weight or stop the movement altogether.
Practice Proper Recovery
When you first resume training, you may be ready to go, but your body is still healing. As such, you need to be mindful of your training frequency. If you normally trained five days per week prior to your injury, you shouldn’t immediately jump back into your normal training frequency. Give your body adequate time to rest so that it can fully repair each muscle group before you train again. Try starting with three to four days of lifting per week—preferably every other day—and assess how you feel the day after each lifting session. If you can comfortably begin each training session with no discomfort in your lower back, only then should you increase your training frequency. Many times, low back injuries occur as a result of overworking the muscles surrounding your lumbar spine. To avoid repetitive strain and injury recurrence, you’ll need to alter your routine accordingly and to build up your core strength slowly.
Low back injuries can be a (literal) pain, but you can certainly make a full recovery if you approach the process conservatively. Don’t let repetitive injuries sideline your training by attempting to get back in the gym before your body is ready. Pay attention to how your body is feeling on a daily basis, and if you feel anything is amiss, adjust your routine accordingly. If you hope to have years of successful training ahead of you, proper recovery and smart training are key.
To avoid back injuries from weight lifting, try following these tips!