A very large percentage of adults will, at some time, experience back pain. This will hopefully be mild and infrequent, but could be serious and debilitating. Good lifting technique, developing and maintaining a strong core, avoiding too much sitting, and good posture can all help reduce your risk of back pain. But, sometimes, back pain just happens.

While pain should never be ignored, mild to moderate back pain can often be trained around. However, if your back pain is severe, or persists for more than a few days, you should get it checked out.

The next time your back is acting up, make these training modifications.

1. Avoid compressive exercises


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Your spine is an amazing structure made up from 33 bones called vertebrae, 23 intervertebral discs, and dozens of ligaments, muscles, and tendons. Pressure from gravity, plus the weight of your upper body, compresses your spine and, especially, your discs.

All this pressure can cause the discs to bulge, which may put pressure on your sciatic nerve, leading to inflammation, irritation, and discomfort. This is one of the most common causes of back pain.

Exercises that involve yet more spinal compression will invariably exacerbate the problem, so avoid any exercises that increase the downward pressure on your spine. That means no (or certainly less) squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses.

2. Minimise repetitive spinal flexion, rotation, or extension  

If your back is sore, the last thing you need to do is keep bending, straightening, or twisting it. If it’s inflamed and painful, these movements will probably make things much worse. Replace exercises like crunches and sit-ups with planks and Pallof presses, which work your core without involving spinal flexion, extension, or rotation.

3. Sit down


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The best strength exercises tend to be performed standing. They are more functional, and will burn more calories too. However, if you have a sore back, standing may be uncomfortable.

If you have back pain, it is more than acceptable to do more seated exercises, especially on a bench with an adjustable backrest. You aren’t being lazy; the backrest provides your weakened lower back with much-needed support. Set the angle of the back rest to just below vertical for comfort.

4. Favour machines over freeweights

The balance required to use freeweights is part of their benefit, as is their relative unpredictability and instability. However, if you have back pain, what makes freeweights so useful is also why you may wish to avoid them.

To reduce stress on your aching back, make the switch from freeweights to machines until your pain has gone. The predictability, balanced load, and back support means that you can exercise without making your pain worse, and while maintaining at least some of your fitness and strength.

5. Cut down on impact


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High impact exercises like running, jumping, and group exercise classes can compress your spine. Each time you land, your body is exposed to a lot of downward stress. That stress can add up to several times your bodyweight. While your feet and bending your knees will absorb some of that shock, a lot of it ends up in your spine.

When your lower back is sore, cut down in impactful activities to avoid making the problem worse, or delaying your recovery.

6. Avoid unsupported forward flexion

Bent over rows, seated rows, and any other exercise that involves unsupported forward flexion should be avoided when you have lower back pain. While your muscles SHOULD take the strain during this type of exercise, if you round your back, your ligaments and discs end up bearing the load instead.

Even with good technique, if you have lower back pain, unsupported forward flexion could make things worse. Instead, look for ways to support your torso such as chest supported rows.

7. Decompress


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Even if you avoid impact and compression, gravity and your bodyweight still have a compressing effect on your spine. Reduce the pressure on your spine and decompress your discs by hanging from a chin-up bar. This will increase the distance between your vertebrae, realign your spine, allow your discs to rehydrate, and may help take pressure off your sciatic nerve.

After hanging, don’t just let go and drop to the floor; this could undo any benefits of decompression. Instead, step down rather than jump down.

8. Stretch it out

A lot of back pain is caused by tight muscles, and general immobility, often caused by prolonged sitting. After a workout, and while you feel warm and loose, take a moment to stretch your hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors to reduce muscle tension and tightness. This may help stop your back pain from returning.

Back pain is no laughing matter, and make many everyday tasks uncomfortable or difficult. However, with a few modifications, you may be able to continue exercising. Exercise can help prevent unwanted stiffness, and increases endorphin production, both of which can help reduce pain and speed up healing.

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