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Back Injuries and Weight Training

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You Can Lift A Lot

Designed to push and pull, lifting takes a little more finesse

The human body is designed to push, pull, and lift. These are all concepts that come into play when weight training and bodybuilding, but few amateur lifters are aware of the science that goes into determining lift and load. Failing to observe that science can result in a number of injuries, with the most severe being that of back injury. At a minimum, it can leave one in a brace or bedridden, and at worst it can cause permanent spinal damage. This can require ongoing therapy, chiropractic maintenance, and in some cases leave one in a wheelchair. It is a serious consideration that many overlook until it is too late and they’re already hurt.

The science behind proper lifting is particularly complex from a mathematical standpoint, but in practical terms it is common sense. The hands are farthest from the lower back area, and therefore anything lifted with the hands will apply the most stress to the lower back. For weight training, using a bench when performing chest presses, or lifting with the legs are all commonly taught practices that should always be observed, but there are other lifting guides that can also benefit the amateur weight trainer.

Foremost among the guides on proper lifting is the NIOSH Lifting Equation, as provided by the CDC. NIOSH stands for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is a U.S. federal agency tasked with conducting research and making recommendations to prevent work-related injuries. However, their work on the subject of lifting is readily applied to weight training with little adaptation. In particular, the mathematical formulas can be directly translated into safe lifting parameters, and married with a training program. The end result is a safer and more effective work out.

This is critical to sustained well being and spinal health. Failing to observe proper lifting protocols can result in back injury, particularly after an intense work out. In fact, according to chiropractor Alan Jordan from Broadgate Spine and Joint Clinic in London, “…proper exercise instruction and avoiding extreme lifting are the most well documented preventative measures…” for making sure we don’t hurt ourselves while working out. (source: Powerhouse Fitness Blog).

In addition to the NIOSH guidelines, there are a few other simple steps one can follow to help prevent back injury:

  1. Stretch and warm up before every work out. Failing to stretch and warm up will result in decreased circulation, and a less limber body. The application of weight to a body in this state can result in severe damage to ligaments, muscles, tendons, and the spine.
  2. Don’t overdo it. If performing a new exercise, or one that involves a step up in weight, start out with a machine. The machine will allow more focus on the target area, while minimizing risks to related muscle groups and the spine.
  3. Whenever possible, work out with a partner when weight training. A partner can make sure you don’t overextend yourself. Failing to do so can permanently end weight training due to back injury.
  4. Take breaks between working out. In most cases, heavy lifting should only be done twice, or at most three times per week for a given muscle group, and never two days in a row for the same muscle groups.
  5. Make sure to cool off after working out. This can be done by walking, light swimming, or simple stretching and aerobics. Failing to cool off can result in unexpected muscle strains and injuries due to the buildup of toxins while working out. This is of particular importance where the spine is concerned.

As with all exercises, taking care of the body, and in particular the spine, is key to weight training. Knowing the scientific limitations of the spine, and how they relate to your individual level of fitness can make the difference between being fit, or needing a lifetime of therapy.

Image Credits: Human Design (Featured Image) and Lifting

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About Henry Buell

A world traveled analyst, Henry has lived through political upheaval, revolutions, and war. He writes from a different perspective, with a passion for life, tempered by experience. More information can be found on Henry Buell's website.
  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    In my experience, the better strategy is to lift lighter weights with more repetitions.

    • http://www.henrybuell.com/ Henry Buell

      Great advice Dr. Maresca. You’re absolutely right too – lighter weights and more reps for the long lasting white muscle, and less chance of injury, but power lifters are a different breed.

      I’m a fan of super slow lifting the lighter weights, as it is the resistance that counts in my work outs. However, my friends who lift mostly want to be the next Conan, which involves lifting much more than I have ever tried.

      I’m content with aerobics, light weights, and maybe the cover of GQ one day.