Regular exercise has many proven health benefits, but not every type of exercise is good for the spine. In fact, anything that puts too much stress on back-supporting muscles or directly on the spine and its cushioning discs can do more harm than good. Before you hit the gym, Santa Monica spine surgeons recommend being cautious with the following exercises, any of which may be harmful if you don’t pay attention to form or if you have an existing back condition.
Squats (with Knee Bends)
Bending the knees while doing squats shifts the burden of the weight from the pelvis to the lower back. This shift of weight may excessively strain large paired muscles in this area (erector spinae) or other soft tissues. If you insist on doing squats, avoid misalignment of your spine by:
- Spreading your legs wider so the weight is distributed in a more even pattern
- Placing the bar on the rear of your shoulders, not the top
- Tightening your entire body to gain more overall support
- Doing an alternative version of a squat using dumbbells or a ball
Lat Pulldowns (Behind the Head)
Behind-the-head lat pulls aren’t always bad for your back. However, this exercise could become a potential source of pain if you don’t have flexible shoulder joints. If you are experiencing upper back or neck pain after doing lat pulldowns, work the same muscles in a safer way with pullups, pullovers, or inverted rows.
Tight hamstrings can contribute to lower back pain. However, improper hamstring stretches can make it worse and possibly contribute to disc-related disorders. The potential risk comes if you do a stretch where you reach all the way down to touch your toes. The initial stretch may feel good, but the extra stress on your backbone places extra pressure on spinal discs. Reduce your risk of injury from hamstring stretches by:
- Lengthening and reducing tension in your hamstrings (do this gradually)
- Bending forward at your waist with your arms down and legs straight
- Stopping your bending motion when you feel a slight pulling sensation in your hamstring muscles
- Doing hamstring stretches from a chair (gently reach to touch your toes, but focus on one leg at a time)
With upright rows, you’ll be grabbing the weight in the middle of the bar, pulling it up toward your chin, and then lowering it. This motion may compress nerves in your upper back and shoulder area. The lateral raise may be a safer alternative if you are experiencing discomfort from upright rows.
Deadlifting is a powerlifting exercise where a fully loaded barbell or bar is lifted off the ground and then thrown down. The potential source of spine pain with a dead lift is when you bend at your waist to lift all that weight. Deadlifts build muscles, so you may not want to skip them entirely. But you can do deadlifting in a safer way by:
- Keeping your midfoot under the bar
- Bending your knees without letting your midfoot move away from the bar
- Locking your hips and knees
- Not leaning back or going out of form as you lift
- Lowering the bar by keeping your legs straight and moving your hips back
Minimize the risk of harming your spine with the exercises you do by doing a proper stretch first. Doing so warms up your muscles and increases flexibility. Also, pay attention to proper form with any exercises you do. Working out with a partner can also be helpful since you’ll be able to help each other out with correct form. If you do experience any sudden or lingering spine-related pain, see your doctor.
If you’re experiencing severe spine pain that is affecting your quality of life, you may need a minimally invasive procedure such as spinal fusion or decompression surgery. Santa Monica patients can rely on Dr. Hyun Bae and his team of expert surgeons to diagnose the source of their pain and help them find relief. Call The Spine Institute at 310-828-7757 to schedule an in-person evaluation.