Treating Back Injuries in Bodybuilders and Weightlifters
by Lloyd Garner
How can a bodybuilder or a skilled lifter injure his back? How can such a trainee who has carefully molded his muscles and developed his strength hurt himself in training?
Yes, this seems like a perfectly logical question. You see these trainees working out in a gym or walking down the street, their muscles bulging and their bodies a seeming symphony of strength. But I’ve found that just like a person who has entered a gym for the first time, these conditioned athletes can also hurt their backs.
Probably the major cause of back injuries among novices as well as among veterans of the game is improper warming up. Trainees often forget that every joint and muscle must be exercised gradually over their full range using moderate weights first before strenuous movements or limit lifts are attempted. In this way the natural oils in the blood can lubricate all working parts of the body before they are called upon for more difficult activities. This is particularly important among older athletes.
Just the same as a car must be warmed up for some time and then driven slowly before it is pushed into high speeds, so the human body must also reach its active peak gradually.
A second fault I’ve found among many bodybuilders is their tendency to improve only those parts of their bodies that will look best in a bathing suit or a T-shirt. They want bulging arms and legs but don’t worry about their backs. They’re too interested in showmanship to worry about their body’s health or its performance.
Too often they are unable to handle heavy weights when called on to do so because their backs cannot stand up to the strain. They forget that a strong back is more important in bodybuilding and weightlifting than arms and legs.
In this, my third of three articles, I would like to first outline the causes of back injuries among bodybuilders. Then I will turn to the reasons for these problems among weightlifters before I discuss treatments for both.
I have found in my gym that novice bodybuilders too frequently use excessive weight before their muscles are ready for it. They do not want to gradually work up to heavier weights, gradually toning the muscles and preparing them for harder work. They forget that the body must be coaxed, not forced.
The novice bodybuilder, who generally wants a strong pair of legs, usually turns to the squat but sometimes isn’t content to work up the scale. He wants to use heavy weights right at the start. And because the back is the connecting link between the upper body and the legs, he usually strains his lower back muscles, causing a variety of back ailments such as sacro-iliac and lumbo-sacro strains.
Because bodybuilders often do much of their training on their backs, they often are notoriously poor in overhead lifting. But too often they are coaxed into an overhead lifting contest or they try to match the weightlifters’ strength. Of course, you can imagine the result. The back, the supporting structure here, gets the strain and often the injury.
Care must be exercised in the squat, which is probably the greatest leg developer of all. Use of excessive weights in the squat forces the shoulders far forward of the hips and tends to round the back. This places considerable strain on the lower back and hips, especially for a person with a long back.
A full squat WITH EXCESSIVE WEIGHT AND BOUNCING OFF THE BODY WHEN THE LOWEST PORTION IS REACHED is one quick way to hurt the lower back because a muscle is always weakest when it is stretched.
This same procedure pulls sections of the tibia and femur apart and jams other areas of them together, often wrenching the knees, tearing ligaments and tendons and damaging cartilages.
For this reason I always suggest parallel squats in my gym, unless a trainee is mindful of the low position of a full squat and avoids bouncing and has learned to lower under control. Heavy weights should be used in all forms of squats only after progress is made gradually from lower poundages.
Care must be taken while squats are performed with an elevated heel or heels on a board. While this places the back in a good position, the knees are open to more severe injury because the lowest position can be reached more easily.
The deadlift, like the squat, is probably one of the greatest all-round exercises for both strength and development. But here again we must guard against too-rapid progression and use of excessive weights relative to the trainee’s level.
At numerous odd-lift contests I have noticed that trainees, when they approach their limit lifts, are inclined to straighten their legs during the movement and finish the exercise with a rounded back. This invites serious injury in most lifters.
For this reason, in my gym I never allow absolute limit deadlifting. We use a weight we are confident in succeeding with and gradually increase this over time. For bodybuilding purposes, we use only a moderate weight for 10-20 repetitions, and for strength we go heavier with sets of 3-5 reps. In this way there is no prolonged strained on the pelvic floor.
In the standing press there is a tendency for the trainee for the trainee to bend backwards when the weight is near his limit. And unless the joints of the lower back are firmly attached and strong, the lumbar and some hip muscles are shortened considerably, resulting in lower back spasms and pain.
No heavy overhead lifting should be performed until the trainee is positive through repetition and preparation that his back is fit for it. Too often in such lifts he tries to cheat, which as in the case of cheating curls, often injures the back. The advanced bodybuilder or weightlifter finds cheating advantageous at times but generally, he, unlike the novice, knows how far he can go.
I would like to offer two tips to avoid back strains during the performance of bentover rowing – slight bending of the knees and / or resting the head on a support.
TURNING TO WEIGHTLIFTERS, I would like to discuss a few errors novices, particularly, make during their exercises. They try their limit too often; they will “rip” the weight off the floor rather than lifting it slowly to the knees before applying the second pull; they will forget to hold their hips down and head up, and so, lift with a rounded back.
Weightlifters too frequently forget that a jerk also requires balance and coordination, rather than just brute strength. As a result they try to “muscle” the weight up, rather than learn to do the lift properly.
So often novices forget to use supporting exercises, many of which are performed with the use of a power rack. Practicing such exercises, using heavier weights than you can jerk, develops strength, balance and endurance so often lacking in lifters who repeatedly miss their jerks.
By strengthening the body far beyond what is required in lifting competition, the trainee can lessen the possibility of injury.
Many lifters never learn proper lifting techniques, even though they can eventually become very strong. This puts an unbalanced strain on the body and invites accidents and injuries.
I can’t stress too strongly that any movements that put the body in an abnormal position invite trouble.
Now that I have pointed out some faults of weightlifters and bodybuilders, I would like to deal with the exercises which can assist in correcting back ailments. Many of these movements will be familiar to the average trainee but in many cases the proper methods of performance are unknown to him.
These exercises, a progression of the movements I outlined in my second article, are broken down into three groups, which must be followed in the order given. These exercises make use of weights, the value of which I cannot stress too strongly. They are by far the best way of obtaining maximum strength and development. So if you do not own weights, buy some or go to a good professional gymnasium.
Before starting these exercises, the back should be thoroughly warmed up, preferably with a heat lamp, and a good muscle rub. A sweat suit will retain the necessary heat during the exercises. In fact, injured backs should NEVER be allowed to get cold.
The first exercise I advocate in Series 1 is the bench press (Fig. I-A) Because congestion is the basic cause of all pain, including lower back trouble, the bench press draws the blood away from the injured part and exercises the large muscle groups in the arms, shoulders and chest. You will notice on completion of this initial movement how the blood is drawn to the heavily worked muscles and how much more the back is relaxed.
In the second exercise, the pulley pulldown (Fig I-B), we are doing several things. While we are keeping the blood in mainly the same areas, the large muscles of the arms and shoulders, as we did in the bench press, we are stretching the spine and muscles in the spinal area. At the same time, we are providing the lumbar muscles with work through static contraction. Such static contraction exercises are movements in which the muscles are worked without being moved. The new isometric-isotonic method of training is a good example of this.
The third movement, the parallel bar dip (Fig. I-C), pulls the spinal vertebrae apart. This is accomplished by working the body up and down with the weight of the legs dragging on the spine. The blood here again is pulled to the arms and shoulders.
Having been relaxed by the two former exercises, you will feel, and maybe hear, little snaps in the lower back while performing this movement. These are merely adhesions breaking away. However, no additional weight must be added because this would contract the lower back muscles and cause spasm rather than relaxation.
The next exercise, the hip thrust with the weight on the abdomen, is merely a progression of a similar movement I outlined in my second article. Here weight is being placed on the abdomen. Here weight is being placed on the abdomen (Fig. I-D).
These exercises must be performed until all the back pain disappears before the next series is attempted.
In the series I have just outlined, the first two movements can be performed with fairly heavy weights in three sets, if desired. The third exercise should be done in fairly high repetitions. This provides a longer drag on the back and helps to break down adhesions. Hanging, without moving, will not obtain the desired results because without movement the blood is not being drawn to the working areas in sufficient quantities.
Only one set should be performed in the third exercise and one or two are sufficient in the fourth movement where fairly heavy weights can be used. Care must be taken not to arch the back in the latter movement unless it can be done without discomfort. In some cases, the lumbar muscles could be excessively shortened and cause spasm.
The first exercise I suggest in Series 2 is the modified stiff-legged deadlift (Fig. II-A). By performing it with a barbell on a bench or some other support, you do not lower the weight below the knees. I want this exercise done by bending from the hips with the head looking forward and the posterior (rear) neck muscles contracted. By lifting from the hip position, all the spinal muscles are contracted and injury is almost impossible. Gradually a lower position is attained until the floor is reached, but progress very slowly without pain. Never use a box to stand on.
As you know, strength comes only from contraction of a muscle. And throughout this movement, if it is done properly, the back muscles are contracted.
The modified leg press, the next exercise, works the hamstring and gluteal muscles strongly. Since they have a decided effect on hip tilting, it is imperative that they be well conditioned.
However, since the entire lower spine must be kept in contact with the platform throughout the exercise, the hips must not be farther forward than the feet at any time because this would raise the lower spine off the floor. This can irritate the lower back, since as we have mentioned, a muscle is at its weakest during complete extension.
As the illustration shows (Fig. II-B), the head and shoulders are raised and the abdominal muscles contracted strongly, thereby assuring tight contact between the lower back and the floor. It is wise to lie on an inclined board with the lower back on the higher portion because this enables full leg action with less danger to the lower back.
Any weak spots between the upper and lower sections of the body are detected in the next movement, the squat with the barbell over the head (overhead squat). In this movement, one of the greater back strengtheners, a comparatively light weight is used. The barbell is held at arms’ length overhead with the hands far apart, the heels a comfortable distance apart and the weight held overhead throughout.
Starting with the knees straight and bending only a few inches at first (Fig. II-C), the trainee eventually bends his knees until he is in a sitting position. But as soon as contact is made with the bench the upright position should again be taken. Graduating to a full overhead squat (Fig. II-D) is our ultimate aim but it should not be hurried. One set of 20 repetitions is good and after full strength is achieved the usual set system can be resumed.
The lumbar extension, the fourth movement, is done over a fairly high table. Unless the trainee is careless, complete lumbar extension (Fig. II-E) and flexion (Fig. II-F) are possible without any danger of back injury because gravity has been removed from the spinal discs. Here we have gravity working for us instead of against us.
In Series 3, I have included several abdominal exercises and several advanced back movements which I will alternate. This will balance the development as most of the abdominal type also work strongly on the back and sides.
Using the one-arm side press (Fig. III-A), the first exercise, the legs are held perfectly stiff at all times as the weight is pressed to arm’s length overhead. It is important to look at the weight throughout the movement to completely control it.
This probably exercises the entire midsection, the back, side and front more thoroughly than any other movement. In fact, it should be practiced occasionally by everyone, whether or not he has had a back injury.
My next exercise, the deadlift behind the legs, is performed with the head up, hips low, back completely vertical and the lumbar muscles contracted (Fig. III-B). All the movement is performed by the legs and hips. This is entirely different from the hack lift. This is a great leg exercise and a means of correcting any weak spots throughout the body.
The one dumbell over the head exercise can be performed by bending the knee of the non-lifting arm to facilitate touching of the toes (Fig. III-C). However, after more flexibility has been developed, both legs should be perfectly straight during the entire movement and the toe on the side of the lifting arm should be touched by the opposite hand. This brings into play for the first time most of the trunk rotators. Here again, watch the weight through this entire movement.
Of course, these one-arm movements must be done evenly with both arms. Progress must be slow and moderate with light weights being used first. Even with lower weights, if they are used properly for this particular purpose with 15-20 repetitions, all the muscles involved get a good workout.
In the next movement, the deadlift, the trainee should start with a light weight because some muscles are being used for the first time after injury. Relaxation is important in this performance because basically the exercise is a cross between a stiff-legged deadlift and the regular deadlift. The knees are bent about half way, the bend is more from the waist than from the hips, and the back is slightly rounded (Fig. III-E).
Twenty repetitions are good for our purposes in this exercise. After the first month, the regular deadlift can be tried but when a heavy weight is used, proper deadlifting rules should be observed.
The fifth exercise, the abdominal twist is performed on a fairly highly inclined board. With the feet hooked under a strap and the knees bent, a half-situp position is assumed and held throughout. Then, as the arms are extended to the sides, the trainee swings from the trunk trying to go further every time (Fig. III-F). Because this is an advanced movement, with the abdomen getting a tremendous workout, the maximum position should be reached gradually and never forced.
I have next chosen the good morning exercise, or bendover (Fig. III-D), rather than the stiff-legged deadlift, because it works directly on the spinal erector muscles. In the stiff-legged deadlift, much of the work is done by the lats, which have been given adequate attention in previous exercises.
At first this movement must be carried out by bending from the hips, not the waist, with the head held up and looking directly ahead. This contracts the entire back musculature. It is not necessary to bend too far forward at first but it is advisable later with a lighter weight when the back condition is corrected.
In the final movement, the leg thrust for the abdomen, a position is taken on the incline board entirely opposite to the abdominal twist position. The legs are slowly extended horizontal with the floor (Fig. III-G), held for two seconds and returned to the starting position. This ties together the lower abdomen and upper thigh muscles, leaving no weak spots.
A person with back trouble can always perform pullovers, lying laterals and shoulder dislocates safely by pulling the knees up as closely to the chest as is comfortably possible and by flattening the back against the floor or the bench in the tuck position.
Situps can also be performed by having the knees bent, with the feet held down, if necessary, and the situp movement, itself carried out with a rounded back. A straight back position here can often strain the lower back.
In this series I have tried to steer clear of technical medical terminology which might confuse the reader. I have attempted to outline the causes of back trouble and how such ailments can be eliminated. I cannot overemphasize the seriousness of these problems because the back is the lifeline of the body. At the first symptom of a sore back all straining movements should be substituted by rest, heat and massage. In fact all exercises should be dropped until they can be performed without pain. Any severe pain of numbness down the legs could indicate serious spinal injury; in such a case, self-treatment can be dangerous and expert medical advice should be sought, as your doctor can be your best friend at these times.
I have known many enthusiastic trainees who have made serious back ailments out of comparatively simple ones by being too bullheaded to quit or at least curtail their training until their injuries are corrected. Heavy exercise can never cure a back problem.
Most back problems, except for those few where surgery is needed, can be eliminated with the advice I have given in this series.