Back Pain: Is Your Gym Training Aggravating or Even Causing Your Back Pain?
Every day, thousands of people worldwide experience this sudden onset of excruciating back pain, and they all have the same questions:
What did I do to suddenly be in so much pain?
How can I prevent it from happening again?
To answer the first question: You strained your back because of either overuse or the wrong use of certain muscles in your body. Now, the muscles reacted in the only way they know to protect your body from further injury: by contracting the muscles. So, in a sense, by causing you to feel the pain, your body saved you from worse.
From my own experience as a back pain sufferer and also working as a personal trainer in several gyms, the reason you are in pain is not the movement you just made or the weight you just lifted. The pain is the result of muscle imbalances somewhere in your body that have developed over the course of your life. These imbalances develop when a muscle in the body is getting too strong, while its opposing muscle has been underused and is therefore weak. An example is the imbalance between very tight thigh muscles, which can be found in many people, while their hamstrings are extremely weak. This imbalance causes the hip, and thus the lower back, to get out of their normal alignment. This, by the way, is one of the most common underlying causes for back pain.
Another common muscle imbalance in the body is a strength difference between the right and the left side of the body. To explain how such a strength difference would affect your gym training, let’s have a look at the Seated Bench Press. As this is a great chest exercise, most people do it as part of their workout routine. If you were new to the exercise, you would start with a low weight, and probably be pleased with yourself that you can easily push the bar all the way up. But then, suddenly, after the sixth or seventh repetition, you feel the muscles in your lower back contract, it is as if you suddenly have a knot on the right side of your spine. You can hardly manage to bring the bar back down, and when you try to get up from the bench, you realize that you can no longer stand upright due to the terrible pain in your back.
What has happened here? Due to what you have done all your life up to this point, like working your job, playing computer games, playing tennis, etc., your right arm may be much stronger than your left, which is actually another very common muscle imbalance in people. Totally unaware of this discrepancy, you start to push up the bar with a weight of let’s say 20 pounds. However, because your right arm is so much stronger, you might actually be pushing 14 pounds with the right arm, and only 6 pounds with your left arm.
But there is more. Not only do you push more weight with the right arm – which strengthens the already stronger side even more – but in order to accomplish that, you actually have to twist your spine when you initiate the pushing up movement. And it is this twisting of the spine that is causing the sudden muscle contraction in your back. This can happen in the very first training, but it can also happen four or six months into the training, when you are starting to lift much heavier weights. Because of the way you have trained so far, you have conditioned your stronger side to become even stronger, so at some point, your right side may be pushing 60 pounds when you initiate the movement, while your left side is only pushing 20! I am not exaggerating, I have seen this happening!
So, instead of actually doing your body some good, you have actually caused some more damage. Not only have you increased the gap in muscle strength between the left and the right side of the body, but what is worse, on top of that you have created a serious problem in your lower back.
However, it does not necessarily take some new exercise to cause your back muscles to contract. If you have a muscle imbalance somewhere in your body, any movement like bending down to pick up a pencil or twisting your body in the car to look over your shoulder can cause it.
As a personal trainer and body awareness teacher, my advice is that you should go and find someone who can check your body for existing muscle imbalances before you take up any weight lifting training, or for that matter, any kind of fitness training. But even if you have already started your training, you should have your body checked in order to prevent injuries caused by muscle imbalances. Once you know what imbalances you have, it is a matter of doing the right exercises for a few weeks to correct them.
The only way to find these muscle imbalances is through a thorough body assessment. Unfortunately, only very few gym trainers, or doctors and physical therapists for that matter, know what a muscle imbalance is, and are therefore unable to tell if you have any. They would not even spot them if they were watching you train. And this is one of the main reasons why people hurt their backs in the gym. Read more here.