Weight Lifting the Back-Friendly Way

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Orthopedic spine surgeon Dr. Praveen Kadimcherla explains how weight lifting can harm the spine and offers tips to prevent injury.

Dr. Praveen Kadimcherla

Practicing good form while bodybuilding is the top way to prevent back injuries.

Back pain among bodybuilders is so common that there’s a term for it: “weight lifter’s back.” The back strain resulting from poor lifting technique, too-heavy weights or other factors combine to make this condition highly prevalent – but not inevitable – among bodybuilding enthusiasts, according to orthopedic spine surgeon Dr. Praveen Kadimcherla with Atlantic Spine Center.

A safe and balanced regimen of lifting weights is designed to both strengthen the back and maintain its integrity. That’s why it’s ironic, Dr. Kadimcherla says, that many weight lifters succumb to mistakes that actually put their spines at increased jeopardy. Unfortunately, back pain and weight lifting often go hand-in-hand, Dr. Kadimcherla says.

“The discomfort caused by weight-lifting usually strikes the lower back and can range from mild, occasional jabs and twinges to chronic, intense pain,” Dr. Kadimcherla explains. “Inside the back itself, that pain can manifest from a pulled muscle, damaged spinal disc, degenerative spine disorder or wear-and-tear from aging. So there are many types of spine injuries can result from weight lifting, which stem from many reasons.”

How weight lifting can stress the spine
Incorrect lifting technique – also known as “poor form” – is responsible for many back injuries related to bodybuilding, according to Dr. Kadimcherla. But what, then, is “good form?” In the weight-lifting world, good form means the appropriate posture and movement to maximize safety and minimize injury while lifting a weight, Dr. Kadimcherla says.

Specific types of weightlifting exercises can prove especially stressful to the joints and soft tissues in the back, Dr. Kadimcherla notes. These include the clean-and-jerk; dead-lift; snatch; and squats.

Additionally, carrying around extra abdominal weight – affectionately known as a “spare tire” – can increase the odds of back injury while weight lifting, Dr. Kadimcherla notes.

“A large abdomen distributes weight too far in front of the spine, affecting body alignment and causing people to lean forward too much,” he says. “To compensate, many people adopt a ‘swayback’ position that overloads spinal discs and the joints between them. While this can pose risks to the back even among sedentary people, it’s especially risky while hoisting large amounts of weight over the head.”

Tips for avoiding back injury from weight lifting
Here’s the good news: Most bodybuilders are aware of their form and technique, Dr. Kadimcherla says, and are in optimal shape to avoid back injuries. But poor lifting techniques, particularly with higher weights, can exacerbate any existing back problems or create new ones.

Dr. Kadimcherla recommends that anyone beginning or changing a weightlifting routine know the condition of their back. Those who have experienced prior back pain should also be evaluated by a physician, he adds.

To avoid spinal damage from weight lifting and its associated back pain, Dr. Kadimcherla suggests:

  • Lowering weight amounts and increasing reps if you start experiencing back pain.
  • Losing weight if you carry a “spare tire” around your middle, ideally with the help of low-impact aerobic exercise.
  • For people who already have degenerative disc disease, avoiding weight lifting that increases the weight in line with the spine, which can worsen pain. These exercises include leg presses, deadlifts, military presses and lunges with the weight load on the shoulders.
  • Maintaining a straight spine during lifting. Bending or flexing the hips and knees may be required during a weight-lifting exercise, but curving the back is not.

“Practicing good form while bodybuilding is the top way to prevent back injuries,” Dr. Kadimcherla says. “But strengthening back muscles by weight-lifting can also help protect people from everyday back injuries by developing strong back muscles and surrounding tissues. It’s a win-win, if done correctly.”

Praveen Kadimcherla, MD, is a board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon at Atlantic Spine Center.

Atlantic Spine Center is a nationally recognized leader for endoscopic spine surgery with several locations in NJ and NYC. http://www.atlanticspinecenter.com, http://www.atlanticspinecenter.nyc

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