Lower Back Pain for Athletes: Common Causes and How to Prevent Them

Lower back pain is caused by a myriad of factors that can lead to chronic bad posture, muscle imbalances, stiffness, and long-term damage to your body.

Afflictions such as Sciatica (often manifested as pain shooting down the leg) and/or herniated disks can be excruciatingly painful, often placing an athlete out of action for months.

Strengthening your body through training is one way to significantly reinforce your back, but only if it is done with cognizance, good technique, strong movement patterns, and smart loading progressions.

This article is a guide, always consult a physician if you are experiencing severe lower back pain. Although we have a high level of clinical knowledge, we feel strongly the best person to advise you is a certified clinician who has examined you and knows your case history.

REASONS FOR LOWER BACK PAIN – POOR FORM

There is never a valid reason to sacrifice good form while lifting heavy weights.

Poor form and dodgy reps, for the sake of slightly faster WOD times, are not acceptable. On the other hand, it is important to also recognise the difference between optimal form and acceptable form.

The snatch, for example, is an exercise that takes years to perfect. Watch weightlifter Mattie Rogers for a great example of optimal form, created by years of practice. Acceptable form is safe form that will allow you to progress, avoid injury, and have fun with your training, without being 100% perfect

LUMBAR STRAIN – INCORRECT LOADING AND PROGRESSION

To put it simply, don’t lift weights that you aren’t prepared for. The combination of poor form, bad movement patterns, and too much load is a recipe for disaster and lower back injury.

Symptoms of lumbar strain can range from sudden and severe pains, spasms, stiffness, to general soreness.

Annie Thorisdottir lifting lower back pain

Prevention is the best cure. Enlist the help of a qualified coach.  Progress gradually over time will allow your body the proper amount of time to adjust, adapt, and grow stronger.

STIFF ILIOPSOAS – TOO MUCH TIME SPENT SITTING

Sitting in the office for hours then lifting heavy weights at the gym right afterwards can stiffen your hip flexors to the level when your lower back hurts on regular basis. The hip flexor is combined of two muscles:

  • Psoas – long deep muscle which runs from spine to femur
  • Iliacus – a flat muscle running from hip to thigh

An insufficient warm up and/or lack of mobility work can often be the precursor to lower back pain linked with tight hip flexors. Add both active and passive stretching into your training and always complete the full warm up that your coach programs before every workout. Additional time may need to be spent if you are training after sitting for extended periods of time.

TIPS

  • Hold lunges for 45 seconds, repeat with three sets, each leg
  • Also stretch your hamstrings and glutes while keeping your back straight (not “cat curved”)

A WEAK CORE

Great abs are pointless if they aren’t part of a strong and functional core that protects your body and does its job. Weak core stability is one of the most common causes of lower back pain. The core consists of multiple layers of muscle groups that support and stabilise full body movement and protect the spine.

Deep trunk muscles such as the transverse abdominis and the internal abdominal obliques are also vital, assisting with the movement of the spine and pelvis.

A weightlifting belt can be a great tool when it comes to strengthening your core strength, body, technique and max lifting numbers. Never use a belt to cover weaknesses, always treat it as an important addition towards helping you progress as an athlete.

The Rehband X-RX is the belt of choice for top athletes such as Rich Froning and Annie Thorisdottir. This adjustable lifting belt has a strong hook-and-loop fastener that offers high stability support for the abdomen and lower back, and provides the perfect combination of stabilization and compression.

THE PURPOSE OF A WEIGHTLIFTING BELT

In a nutshell, a lifting belt provides a wall for your abs to push against. The added force with limited space means increased anterior pressure for the spine, helping to stabilize it. This gives you a more rigid torso with better transmission of force from the hips to the bar, plus a more stable foundation for overhead lifts.

Rehband X-RX Lifting BeltSource: Rehband

It’s not due to the belt supplying the support, it’s due to the way that the body reacts to the belt that supplies the spinal support.

Find the right belt for you

A lifting belt also prevents your stomach from sagging forward, which in turn prevents your lower back from hyperextending. A belt helps your abdominal muscles and lower back do their job. Think of it as an extra set of abs, and it will give you a good indication of how it augments your body.

BENEFITS OF USING A WEIGHTLIFTING BELT

  • Reduces the risk of injury
  • Reminds you to stay tight and breathe deep into the abdomen
  • Maintains and increases intra-abdominal pressure throughout the entire lift
  • Belts can improve your bio mechanics
  • Protects the spine
  • Provides an added sense of confidence and security

X-RX Lifting belt_front_LRSource: Rehband

Wearing a lifting belt reduces the amount of spinal flexion (forward bend at the spine), spinal extension (bending back of the spine), and lateral flexion of the spine (bending side to side), but increases the amount of flexion at the hips and knees. In other words, a belt forces you to lift more with your legs than your back, which is precisely the biomechanical position you want to use when lifting something from the ground.

These are also the biomechanics you want to use during deadlifts and squats with a barbell.

CAUSES OF LOWER BACK PAIN – A WEAK POSTERIOR CHAIN

The posterior chain is the backside of your body and its primary muscles include the lower back, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and calves. This area is often ignored and misunderstood. Is assists the following functions.

  • Multifidus (spine support)
  • Erector Spinae (back and spinal extension)
  • Gluteal Muscles (hip extensors, femoral rotation)
  • Hamstring Muscles (hip extension, knee flexion)
  • Gastrocnemius or Calf (plantar flexes ankle, knee flexion)
  • External Obliques (back and spine support, in tandem with anterior core)

Many people sit for 8-10 hours per day. Because of the seated position the quadriceps become short and tight and even impede the glutes. The glutes then weaken in their primary role as hip stabilizers and extensors. Weaknesses in these areas, or in the posterior chain as a whole, will result in an increased chance of back injury and pain.

HOW TO USE A WEIGHTLIFTING BELT

A belt works in conjunction with your body. However, if you simply put it on and start lifting, you will be unlikely to realise its full set of benefits. In order to optimise the effects of a lifting belt, you must know how to use it properly.

Rehband weightlifting beltSource: Rehband

Bracing and Breathing

In order to maximise the effects of a belt then you must learn how to control your breathing when lifting.

The pressure in your belly is called intra-abdominal pressure. The act of creating intra-abdominal pressure is called the Valsalva Maneuver. This is an important technique for all athletes to learn.

Valsalva Maneuver

The Valsalva maneuver is basically the process of taking a big breath and holding it throughout the full range of motion for a heavy lift. During the eccentric phase (or slightly before depending on the movement being performed) is when inhalation should take place as this provides the most capacity for oxygen to enter the lungs.

This phase is the part of the movement that requires less effort to perform, such as the lowering movement of the squat or pull-up. During the concentric phase, (the “working” part of the movement) exhalation should be performed (such as at the top when you are standing up from a squat for example).

Taking a deep breath before performing a big, heavy lift can also help the athlete with bracing, as it is a reminder to keep the midline tight. The Valsalva maneuver is very important when it comes to lifting heavy weights effectively.

Rehband Weightlifting belt deadliftSource: Rehband

Only use the Valsalva maneuver when you are lifting heavy weight (80 to 100%) for low reps (1-5x). Basically, the strength portion of the performance, fitness, or competition workouts. Remember this technique should be used for moving heavy loads relatively quickly. For example, squats, snatches, deadlifts, cleans, jerks, presses, pulls… NOT wall balls, double-unders, pull-ups, burpees, ring dips, etc….

Lifting Tip: Breathe down into your belly whilst keeping your lower back neutral, you don’t want to hyperextend your back and push your stomach out. Before each rep take a big gulp of air and breathe it right down into your stomach. A good cue is to imagine that you are trying to ‘eat’ the air.

The belt is not only a great support, but (if the sizing is correct) will also serve as a reminder to take a deep breath in before each rep and to maintain intra-abdominal pressure.

Lower back pain weightlifting beltSource: Rehband

Belt Placement

When it comes to placement, personal preference reigns supreme. Experiment and find what feels best for you. The following information is only meant as a guide because individual differences and physique always play a role here.

Squats

For squats, place the belt directly over your belly button. If it is placed any lower then it may shift upwards as you hit maximum depth. Too high and it will probably feel awkward.

Deadlifts

For deadlifts, try placing the belt a little higher. Even above your belly button. If the belt is worn too low for deadlifts then it may graze your thighs and pull your stomach in too far, which may prevent you from keeping your lower back tight.

PREVENT LOWER BACK PAIN: SUPPORT YOUR BACK AND BODY

Lower back pain can become a problem for life, hindering not just your performance in the gym, but also your life in general.

Healthy spinal discs act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae and allow the movement of the spine, they keep it flexible. Putting too much stress on it through extreme physical exertion, heavy lifting without good form, can damage those discs and cause them to bulge or break.

The pain is caused by the slipped or ruptured disc pressing on the nerve. This leads to severe, excruciating pain, numbness, weaknesses, even loss of balance and bladder control. In any case, you should seek medical treatment immediately.

Only a healthy athlete can be a successful athlete. So make sure to support and treat your body correctly.

 Guard yourself against lower back pain

Latest articles

Related news