Nothing shows a display of strength quite like an impressive Squat or Deadlift.
There’s just something about throwing some chalk on, stepping up to the bar, and firing away.
Obviously, you’d never skip leg day. But sometimes, traditional leg exercises can bring about unbearable back pain.
If you can’t even look at a Squat without wincing, you’re not alone. Back pain plagues more people now than ever. According to the American Chiropractic Association, up to 80% of adults experience back pain in their lives. Regardless of our shared plight, you shouldn’t have to just grin and bear it. Always check with a doctor if you’re experiencing numbness, tingling, or severe immobility to make sure it’s not something serious.
But as long as you’re cleared for exercise, potential back pain is no reason to have chicken legs.
Fortunately, there are ways to push your lower-body strength outside of the traditional methods, allowing you to continually get stronger without sacrificing your back.
What Not Do With Back Pain
If we’re going to talk training despite back pain, we’ve got to cover what definitely not to do first. The following are what I believe to be a few non-negotiables to avoid while dealing with a back injury (obviously, recommendations from a medical expert may also change/add to this list).
Don’t compromise your core.
Back pain commonly stems from a musculoskeletal issue. While your spine is meant to move freely in multiple directions, it also has a neutral setting. Sometimes, when we’re stronger in one area and weak in another, things get pulled out of line.
Furthermore, a lack of hip mobility leads to compensation in the spine, which is meant to stay stable under heavy loads. Bracing your core pulls everything back into place.
Much like a Grecian column, your core supports a strong structure. Create a strong pillar between your rib cage and pelvis before any lower-body movement. Not only will you protect the spine, but the focus shifts to your legs. You might not be able to hit “perfect depth” (that’s a topic worth its own article), but that’s perfectly OK.
Don’t compromise a solid core in the name of achieving a certain exercise or hitting a certain number. Lower the weight, drop the ego, and take care of your back!
Avoid heavy spinal loading
You know better than to load a ton of weight onto a broken table.
The same goes for your back.
Pain is a sign that something’s wrong, so why would you ignore it? Heavy spinal loading adds compressive forces to an already fragile structure. Even if it’s just a tight muscle, you’re asking it to work overtime, compounding the issue. Instead, work around it and let it rest while you’re actively healing.
Avoid a front-loaded bilateral hip hinge
Bilateral hip hinges are not bad. In fact, the Deadlift is a fantastic exercise if used properly. But if you’re battling back pain, you’ve got smarter options at your disposal.
Spinal stability and hip mobility need to work in tandem in order to properly hinge. However, as bilateral hinges lock your feet into the floor, you can’t adjust your legs if a problem arises. And remember, pain is a sign of a problem.
Therefore, what happens when you try to overcome a heavy front-loaded movement? Your back absorbs the brunt of the force.
Movement does heal, but it needs to be the right type of movement. Get a good prehab/rehab program to get things back into working order. And while you’re sorting your back out, use these exercises to maintain that coveted lower-body strength.
1. Belt Squats
Belt Squats essentially take the weight off the top of your back and place it around your waist. Since it loads the lower body without affecting the spine, it’s an ideal workaround for back pain.
A Belt Squat setup helps you squat with a vertical spine, reducing unnecessary curvature (spinal flexion), especially if you have a weaker core. Most belt squat machines come with a little bar to hold for balance and support. That added stability can help you move some serious weight (but you might be surprised at how hard they are).
Don’t have access to a belt squat machine? No problem.
Grab two stable, elevated bases to stand on. Any regular gym bench or boxes of even height will do. Attach some weight plates to a dip belt, stand on the benches, and squat away. You can also use a dip belt around a barbell in a landmine setup.
You’ll have to control some slight instability, and you may not have something to hold on to. Start light, challenge your core to stay tight, ensure your setup is safe, and progress from there.
2. Sled Pushes
Sled Pushes mimic movements you’re already doing, such as mowing the lawn, rearranging furniture or zooming your kid around in a stroller.
Therefore, they tend to be pretty easy to execute correctly. Moreover, they essentially force you to brace your core. Unless you’re using virtually no weight, if you don’t brace your core, the sled isn’t going anywhere. You have to keep a tight core to redirect the force in front of you.
Not every gym will have access to a sled and the free space to use it, but if yours does, you’re in luck. If you’ve got back pain, the sled can be your best friend.
They’re one of the best low-impact, high-intensity exercises to train your legs. Load up the weight for slow, deliberate marches. Remove some plates and pick up the pace for conditioning. You can even pull a sled behind you for more speed or acceleration-oriented work.
To train for strength, load anywhere from 70-90% of your max on the sled and push it 10-20 yards. Think of two steps (one each leg) as a single rep in a Squat. Does your strength program say 6 reps at 75%? Add the appropriate load and march the weight forward 12 steps. Since you’ll be working for longer, your total workload increases and fatigue kicks in quickly.
Make sure you recover enough between sets that you don’t sacrifice core stability, even if you’re looking for some conditioning.
3. DB Split Squats
There are about 500 different Single-Leg Squat variations, but when training around back pain, Dumbbell Split Squats rule the day (at least in my eyes).
First of all, they create a more stable base than most other varieties. Pistol Squats, Skater Squats and even Lunges require you to shift from two points of stability to one. I’m all for building single-leg stability in most cases. After all, humans are built to move while upright, constantly shifting from one single-leg stance to the next. But the health of your back and the strengthening of large lower-body muscle groups is the bigger priority in this case.
Once you add a heavy load to an exercise where you have just one point of stability, all sorts of compensations can pop up. A slight shift in balance could exacerbate existing pelvic torsion. Maybe you lean forward to stay balanced and compress your sciatic nerve even further. It’s just not worth the risk.
Dumbbell Split Squats, on the other hand, de-load the spine and provide some stability, while still hammering the legs. As you’re limited by the amount of weight you can hold (or the highest dumbbell in your gym), these work best with higher volume.
8-20 reps per leg in a set can still give you strength gains. Even powerlifting purists who scoff at anything above 5 reps will benefit from a bit of single-leg volume.
If you’re tied to the heavy stuff, experiment with lower rep ranges. You’ll quickly recognize any unilateral discrepancies, however. Make sure you’re not making up for them by compromising your core.
Instead of adding weight, you can increase the intensity in other ways. For example, you could add a step to a traditional Rear-Foot-Elevated Split Squat to increase the stress. You can even combine this with the belt squat for a serious burner.
4. Band/Cable Pull-Throughs
By training posteriorly loaded hip hinges, you maximize glute engagement.
Cable Pull-Throughs literally pull you backward, creating a stretch in the glutes/hamstrings before you start.
They also naturally force you to engage your core. Otherwise, you’ll fall over. Pull-Throughs put you in an ideal, braced position from the get-go, limiting the risk of damaging movement compensations.
Of course, you still have to pay some sort of attention. You can’t just bend over, look between your legs, and hope for the best. Control your extension through the glutes from start to finish, and lock it out at with a nice squeeze at the top.
5. Incorporate Tempo Training
Want to upgrade your leg training immediately? Take whatever exercise you’re doing, and slow it down.
If you want to build strength, your body can handle higher loads eccentrically (during the lowering portion of an exercise) than with concentric action (the lifting portion of an exercise).
Take Belt Squats, for example. Descend for 5 seconds, pause for 5 seconds at the bottom, and stand up. Keep your core tight the whole time and consciously engage your glutes. You really shouldn’t need more than 5-10 seconds of total time under tension per rep with a moderate load. In just a few reps, you’ll be shaking like a leaf.
Why does it work?
One of the main purposes of muscle tissue is to resist movement. That’s how they protect your joints.
By asking them to resist external force for a prolonged period of time, you’re training the fibers in a totally new way. Isometrics, in particular, help increase muscle fiber recruitment. By spending more time in a position, you’re literally reprogramming your nerves. It’s like pointing a giant sign at them saying, “Hey, these are important!”
Once you get back to your regularly scheduled programming, you might be surprised to find you’re even stronger than before.
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