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You don’t have to back squat twice your body weight to put pressure on your spine. Activities such as sitting, standing, walking, and running also place compressive forces on the intervertebral discs of the spine. These discs act as shock absorbers, and they are placed under even more stress when we lift weights. This makes the low back more vulnerable to injury. The lowest discs in the spine are between L4 and L5, and L5 and S1, and about 85-90% of disc herniations occur at these levels (Triplett, 2016). Injuries occur in this region more frequently because these discs absorb most of the external forces placed on the spine.
There are several risk factors for low back injuries caused by lifting such as excessive magnitude and repetition of compressive loads, repeated full lumbar flexion, and repetitive lifting, pushing, and pulling. However, this should not discourage athletes or active individuals from lifting weights because experts have shown that insufficient loading can compromise strength of the lumbar spine (McGill, 2002). Decreased strength could ultimately result in injury of the lumbar spine due to the lack of muscular control & stability.
There are several ways to decrease the incidence of low back injuries when lifting weights. Proper technique should be the priority. When performing a back squat, deadlift, and other similar exercises involving the low back, the lumbar spine should maintain it’s normal lordotic spine position, which is also called the neutral back posture. This position has been proven to be safer than a rounded back posture, and is more effective in preventing injury to the discs, muscles, and vertebrae in the back. The muscles of the low back are also capable of exerting more force when the back is in neutral, which can result in better performance (Triplett, 2016).
It is important to remember that there is no need to increase the load on the spine if your technique is going to suffer as a result. The previous blog article “Risk Management of Resistance Training Injuries” stated that proper progression is essential when it comes to decreasing the incidence of injuries related to weight training. This is especially true when the goal is to protect the lumbar spine. Following a strength program that gradually increases the volume and load according to your experience and ability is a safe way to advance to heavier weights without increasing the risk of injury.
Weightlifting belts are often used by novice and elite athletes to support the low back during lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and the clean and jerk. Using a belt can help increase intra-abdominal pressure during resistance training, which stiffens the trunk and prevents tissue strain or failure from buckling (McGill, 2002). However, overuse of a belt can prevent the abdominal muscles from getting enough training stimulus to effectively stabilize the spine without assistance (Triplett, 2016). Therefore, a weightlifting belt should only be used for near-maximal and maximal sets, and with exercises that directly affect the lower back. Use of a weightlifting belt is not recommended for isolated upper body exercises, or for lighter sets under 80% of your 1 rep max. It is important to mention that individuals with cardiovascular risks should be evaluated by appropriate medical professionals prior to using a weightlifting belt, because the increased abdominal pressure could increase heart rate and blood pressure (McGill, 2002).
Reducing the incidence of low back injuries during weight training can be done by maintaining a neutral spine posture, and ensuring proper technique is utilized while performing all lifts. Technique should never be sacrificed for heavier weights. Gradual progression of a resistance training program should be implemented to prevent a sudden increase in compressive load that the spine is not ready for. Finally, weightlifting belts should only be used selectively for heavier sets that involve the low back to increase the rigidity of the trunk. Belts should never be used as a replacement for trunk stability training. If you’d like help with your fitness training program, please give us a call at 310-534-1900 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
Haff, Greg, and N. Travis Triplett. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Human Kinetics, 2016.
McGill, Stuart. Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation. Human Kinetics, 2002.