One of the biggest mistakes athletes often make during their playing career is training through pain rather than training around it.
Sure, lifting weights isn’t supposed to tickle. There will be some discomfort. But that’s different than pain. There should be intense amounts of physical exertion, sometimes to the point that you hit your absolute limit. That’s not pain, either.
Pain is something you do not want to incur during training, or ever, for that matter. The psychological and neurological side of pain can intensify the physical symptoms, and vice versa. Pain during training is usually classified as something that debilitates you from feeling what you’re supposed to feel, moving how you’re supposed to move, or limits you—physically or mentally—from your standards of performance.
There is no medal of honor for training through extreme levels of pain. It doesn’t make you a badass. It actually makes you an idiot. When you’re training through pain, your form likely won’t be as good, the move won’t be as effective, and the pain will only increase from that point forward. There are many ways to achieve similar training adaptations with smart pain-free options instead of just plowing through set after set of a painful exercise.
One of the most common hotspots for pain? The lower back. While this is nowhere near an exhaustive list, here are three common lifts that could be causing/continuing your low-back pain, and three substitutes you can use to train around it.
Bench Press Out, Floor Press In
People don’t usually correlate low-back pain with the Bench Press. After all, what does an upper-body, chest-dominant lift like the Bench Press have to do with a cranky lower back? It’s a valid question.
Let me be clear by saying that no exercise is inherently good or inherently bad for you. Application and individual needs will be the key factors in that conversation. In terms of how the Bench Press could be contributing to your lower-back tightness, the issue could be caused by your initial lift setup.
Wedging yourself into the bench with a proper “arch” is something of great benefit for big benchers. This helps stabilize your shoulders, decreases the distance the bar has to travel, and ultimately puts the lifter in an optimal pressing position.
The downside is that many athletes have a tough time disassociating their T-Spine from their Lumbar Spine, and sometimes from their Pelvis, as well. This may result in an athlete who is already constantly in an extended posture furthering that poor position under a heavy load.
Those who don’t possess the levels of mobility and strength needed to set up for a Bench Press can utilize Floor Press variations to help bridge the gap.
Working on your heavy presses this way will buy you time to work on your bench setup and you can ultimately progress to a full Bench if you so desire.
The Floor Press requires far less of an arch than the traditional Bench Press, as some actually prefer the back to be flat on the ground with no arch at all. Since this exercise utilizes a partial range of motion due to the ground being an immovable object, arching to minimize ROM even more doesn’t really make sense in this situation.
To recap, a significant arch during your Bench Press set-up is not a bad thing—until it starts to cause you pain. Athletes who live primarily in an anterior pelvic tilt (rib cage flared up, extended posture) may experience bouts of low-back tightness and limited function. Rehabbing that through anterior core work, pelvic stabilization and proper breathing while you switch the Floor Press can get you back on the bench in no time.
Here are a few of my favorite Floor Press options.
Bilateral Squats Out, Split Squats In
Another huge lift is the Squat. I want to focus on all bilateral variations for the sake of this article, regardless of where the loading is, so Goblet Squats, Barbell Back Squats, Front Squats, etc., let’s link them all together.
Bilateral squat variations are essential, of course, but what happens when you can’t find a pain-free option? Turning to a unilateral (single leg) option will often be an extremely beneficial move.
For starters, most athletes are not getting the single-leg work they need, sadly. Sports and athletic movements often occur in a unilateral fashion, so training those movement patterns is a wise idea, anyway.
In a bilateral squat, many people will compensate for lack of ankle, knee or hip mobility by arching their lumbar spine. In a perfect world, the ankles would produce enough dorsiflexion to allow the knees to track properly and put the hips in a position that allows the torso to stay partially upright as the spine stays neutral.
In the real world, many ankles are stiff and immobile, causing the heels to elevate as a compensation for mobility. When an athlete feels themselves “falling forward,” they try to counterbalance that by pushing their weight back, but since their heels aren’t in contact with the floor, they really end up extending the low back to give themselves the sensation of weight moving backwards.
Depending on how the exercise is loaded, this can cause a lot of pain over time and make it harder and harder to master this squat pattern. This is the cycle of pain. The harder the movement becomes, the more the athlete compensates, which makes it even harder to execute, and so on and so forth. Not to mention the amount of shearing or compressive forces that may be involved as the rotten cherry on top of an already poor movement.
Using single-leg options like a Reverse Lunge, Split Squat or even a Step-Up allows the athlete to lock-in proper body positioning while working one leg at a time. Since there is only one prime mover (one side) instead of two (both sides), there are less chances of compensatory movement.
Again, you can always return to standard squat variations, but focusing on single-leg versions will allow you to build the strength and stability you need while working on the mobility required to pursue bilateral options.
Below are a few of my favorite single-leg movements.
Crunches Out, Dead Bugs In
Crunches seem to be the default, go-to “core” exercise for everyone. I can see why. They’re easy to learn, easy to coach, have been around forever, and are frequently associated with shredded six packs.
I’m not a fan. Just because it’s easy or traditional doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon. In fact, doing something a certain way just because it’s “traditional” in strength and conditioning will lead to a lot of ineffective or inefficient practices.
A Crunch is essentially just spinal flexion, which is thought to target the core muscles in some magical way. Sure, you may get some superficial activation of the rectus abdominis, but at what cost? The way many people perform Crunches is rushed, sloppy and in massive amounts of volume.
Just like any other exercise, using poor form for a lot of reps is eventually going to catch up with you. Not to mention, the very movement of rapid spinal flexion into rapid spinal extension has been known to wreak havoc on the lumbar discs.
Do you want abs, or do you want a strong core? That’s the question you have to ask. Do you want to function at your peak performance levels? If so, then you want a strong core. And a core is so much more than just your rectus abdominis.
It’s time to think and work deeper. Using Dead Bugs allows you to work the anterior core muscles in a spine-safe position while also addressing potential hamstring and/or hip tightness. This also allows athletes to tap into their breathing patterns, learn to brace properly and ultimately still build those chiseled abs, but on top of a midsection tuned for high performance.
It’s a win-win. You can have your cake and eat it too. But not literally—cake and abs don’t really go together. Try these variations out to start.
Try these three swaps to get yourself out of pain. Remember, look for solutions to root causes of your pain while you train around the pain instead of through it. That’ll allow you to get stronger, build a more resilient body, and save yourself from both short and long-term pain. It’s a lot wiser than simply using the same pain-causing exercises over and over and over again.