You are doing it! You are getting yourself in the best shape of your life. Summer 2021 is going to be the year that your beach bod is cut, chiseled, and at its best. You are unstoppable. You thoughtfully and carefully pack everything into your gym bag the night before. You have your water bottle, shaker bottle with protein powder already in it, your towel, and your change of clothes for after. You are locked and loaded with everything in your car. At 6:00 am, you almost hit the snooze button on your alarm, but no! You get yourself up, caffeinated, and ready! It is time to own the day! You make it to the gym (great job!) and get through your cardio warm-up. You make your way to the free weights for a lifting session, and it hits you… your back. Almost out of nowhere, your back feels like it got hit by a ton of bricks, and you can’t, simply can NOT continue working out. What gives?
Back Pain While Exercising
To be completely honest, your back is comprised of a whole lot of muscles layered on top of your spine, rib cage, sacrum, and all your connective tissue. While it appears like a flat surface, there is actually a great deal of anatomy up in there. The cause of back pain while lifting weights could be from any number of things. For example, your lower back pain while exercising is probably a completely different issue and cause than your upper back pain while exercising. We have outlined four common causes of lower (and upper) back pain while exercising below.
YOUR BACK IS COMPENSATING FOR A WEAK CORE
The simplest explanation for back pain while lifting weights (usually lower back pain) is that your back muscles are compensating for a weak core. This means your abdominal muscles are not pulling their weight (literally), so your lower back is stuck doing all of the extra work, quickly resulting in lower back pain while exercising.
Luckily, the solution to this problem is quite simple. You need to strengthen your core. This is both a long-term and short-term strategy. For the long-term, you will need to make a conscious effort to target and exercise the abdominal muscles. For the immediate and short-term, you will need to do some ab work before lifting any weights. For example, holding a plank position (with your wrists stacked directly under your shoulders) will fire up your abs and prepare them to be an active part of any lifting or exercise you may be doing.
YOUR BACK MUSCLES ARE STRAINED OR INJURED
Another reason that you may be experiencing upper (or lower) back pain while lifting weights or exercising is that you are simply overdoing it. You may have strained or injured back muscles. If this is the case, you need to listen to your body and give yourself a break. When you exercise to the point of soreness, what you are actually experiencing is your muscle fibers tearing. (Even though it sounds scary, this is totally normal). When your muscles recover, the fibers heal back together (usually stronger than they were before). If you don’t allow ample time for recovery before working out, you will experience back pain while lifting weights. If the soreness doesn’t dissipate within a few days, you may be dealing with an injury. If this is the case, you should contact your doctor or a health care professional for further advice.
YOU MAY HAVE AN INJURED SPINAL DISC
Your spine is your central structural element in your entire body. It is comprised of bones, also known as vertebrae (24 of them to be exact). In between the bones are discs, with are softer and more flexible than bone matter. These discs allow your spine to move freely in all directions.
If you move too fast, in the wrong way, or apply force with contact to one of your discs, it can be bumped out of place or injured. If this happens, you will definitely experience lower or upper back pain while exercising. Sometimes injuries of this nature will self-resolve, but if you are still in pain after a couple of days, contact your provider.
YOU MAY BE EXPERIENCING SCIATICA
Your sciatic nerve is a massive nerve that runs from your lower back all the way down the backs of your legs, ending at the tops of each of your feet. When pressure is applied to your sciatic nerve (which can occur from a bulging disc, impact, or other natural causes – hello, pregnancy, we are looking at you), you are going to feel excruciating, pinching sensations that may momentarily cripple you from being able to stand or walk.
Sometimes the solution is to invest in better footwear or spend more time warming up before hitting the weights. Remember that impact is a major cause of sciatic nerve pain, so you want to think about providing a softer cushion for your joints. (This can be accomplished with new and better-quality footwear and knee braces.)
You also may find that heat and cold therapy help treat and prevent sciatic nerve pain. You can take a long, hot bath, followed by a cold shower (or ice bath, if you are feeling ballsy). This will increase the blood flow to that nerve and help prevent it from getting pinched or impacted. Another way to keep sciatica in check is to be more conscious of your posture throughout the day. Make sure you sit up straight while working at a computer all day, and try to keep your spine well-aligned when you are lying down to sleep at night. If you are a side sleeper, place a pillow between your knees.