Working Out with Weights?

Tips for Keeping Your Lower Back Safe

We hear a lot about the benefits of weight-bearing activity for women, including weightlifting. We are told that add­ing some heft to our exercise routine can help tone our bodies, increase fat burning, and, importantly, slow bone loss and prevent osteoporosis. The secret to effective weightlifting, whatever your goals, is to perform these activities safely. Your lower back is particularly vulnerable to injury when you lift weights. With a little know-how, however, you can safely hit the gym and enjoy the ben­efits of weight-bearing exercise.

Here are some basic tips to keep your back safe in the gym. To ensure healthy spine practices, talk with a certified personal trainer or physical therapist.

Strengthen Your Core. A strong core is an important defense against back injury, and that means your entire core. Most of us think of “core” as our abdominal muscles, but this vital region also includes muscles around the sides of your waist area, lower back, and buttocks—so you will want to support a weight-lifting program with exercises that strengthen these areas. A fitness trainer can help you build a person­alized routine, and gyms are increas­ingly offering core-specific classes. Pilates and many yoga practices also focus on core stability.

Always Use Your Core Muscles. To make any weight-lifting exer­cise safer, “activate” your core. This means tighten those core muscles so that they support your spine, whether you are doing squats with a heavy barbell or some lightweight biceps curls. An activated core will keep your spine stable and in a safe position as you go through the movements.

Learn Proper Technique. Even with tons of evidence telling us about the benefits of exercising with weights, don’t rush to the nearest gym and start pumping. Done correctly, many weight-lifting activities can be quite safe; but done incorrectly, the same activ­ity can put your spine at great risk. Consider booking a session with a personal trainer to get started. If a regular training appointment is not in your budget or isn’t your style, you can learn basic techniques in one or two introductory sessions. For a lower-cost and more social option, your gym may also offer group classes using weights. Be sure to pay attention and even take notes, especially when it comes to safety-oriented instructions. These will mostly involve posture and correct positioning—how you keep your spine in a safe position, with an activated core, as you move through the exercises.

Know When To Take A Break. To avoid a long-term or chronic injury, it is important to avoid overstress­ing any part of your body that is sore or fatigued. This is especially true of your lower back. This area is not only integral to your workout—it also supports your body through everything you do, from sitting at your desk to carrying groceries. In other words, your lower back never really gets a break, and injury to it will not only keep you out of the gym but also interrupt your daily life and keep you from the activities you enjoy. So be kind to your back! If it starts to feel sore, give it a rest. Consider reviewing your exercise routine and technique with a trainer. If you do not feel better quickly, consider seeing a doctor or physical therapist. Simple exercises can help you restore and maintain a healthy spine; and if you do have an injury, early treatment will speed the healing process and help you avoid a major complication.

—Mia James