I’ve never had a back injury, however, more than 10 reps of anything these days throws my lower back into some sort of spasmic, continuously aching, burning, sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head…oh wait, that’s a NyQuil commercial, and I vaguely remember something resembling a sinus infection. Anyway, reps equal lower back hell. Why?
Conquering the Weak Lower Back
Simply put, my lower back is weak. If I give it an inch, it will take a mile. Or a kilometer. Any time off, and my back thinks it’s on a permanent vacation. There are important muscles back there, and when they don’t get enough attention, they scream and complain like the pouty little wimps that they are whenever I prod them to do the least amount of work. Want to know the first thing to give out when I do kettlebell swings? My lower back. And when I do deadlifts or cleans? Yep, lower back. And when I mop the floor? Ridiculously enough, lower back. What is going ON back there?
The Lower Back. Seriously.
Your major lower back muscles have a lot of work to do, and so it’s important to make them stronger. (I’m guilty of letting mine get weak, which is where I get into trouble.) When your back muscles are weak, they will allow you to fatigue more quickly, and that’s when you’ll feel that familiar ache or burn, and sometimes even a spasm. Your major lower back muscles, the erector spinae muscles, run along your spine and are responsible for helping you straighten your spine from a flexed position. These muscles also work in tandem with your abs to help keep your spine straight. If you think about how much you activate these muscles throughout the day—and alternately, how easy it can be to slip and let these muscles relax into a slouching position—it’s pretty easy to realize what a big role they play in the body’s day-to-day functionality.
In addition to the erector spinae muscles, your obliques, which are on your sides and allow you to twist from side to side, also deserve attention when it comes to strengthening your back. Tightness or weakness in these muscles, as well as tightness or weakness in the erector and/or piriformis can cause discomfort and aching throughout the lower back, hip, and butt. So, not only is a weak back a pain in the back…it can be a pain in the butt, too!
Remedy the Situation
Just like most of the answers you’ll get at CrossFit, this one revolves around good, old-fashioned hard work. Weak abs can tighten the hip flexors, and that can cause your spine to curve. It’s all connected—and that means it ALL needs your attention.
Remember going to the doctor and getting a shot as a kid? He would usually tell you, “It’s going to hurt a little.” Well, this is going to ache a little. Just like any other muscle group, when you strengthen your back, you’re conditioning muscles. And when I work to make my back stronger, I’m going to pay the price for letting it grow weak. It’s not going to feel great, because those muscles I’m waking up in my back, abs, and hips…they’re probably going to scream at me. But that’s ok. One, I did it to myself. And two, I’m making myself stronger.
So, put on your big kid pants, and get ready for a little burn.
Check out some of the things you can do to specifically focus the lower back area and whip things into shape:
- Good mornings. If you’ve been at the box for a little while, chances are pretty good you’ve had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with good mornings, but if not, ask one of the friendly coaches. They’ll be more than happy to get you started! Basically, while supporting a weighted bar, you’ll bend your knees slightly and bend forward with a straight back, feeling a stretch through your hamstrings. Your load doesn’t have to be too heavy to start, especially if you’re working a weak lower back, and you’ll work sets of about 10 reps. And you’ll feel them the next day.
- Back extensions. Again, if you’re starting with a fairly weak lower back, your coach will likely start you on these unweighted, but don’t be surprised when weight gets added as you improve.
- Kettlebell swings. Well, hello there, lower back. You’ll learn to keep your back in a support position while moving weight around—which is also great training for moving heavier weight, like deadlifting.
- The power clean. It may not sound like it at first, but running through drills, especially the slow-motion and step-by-step walk-throughs, to properly clean is where you will feel some burn, and that’s because your back performs an integral function in this movement. It must be powerful enough to hold a strong, correct position while you transfer and receive weight, and that means your back is doing some serious work.
- Deadlifts. Yes, you must have strong legs, but don’t forget about the transfer of power that happens in this movement as well. Your back can’t be left out of any movement, and that includes the heavily-loaded deadlift. While needing to maintain a safe position throughout the lift, your back supports an up-and-down load throughout the movement—requiring quite a bit of strength throughout the core.
Long story short, there are plenty of movements you can do to strengthen your lower back. If your back is aching, or if you’re simply getting fatigued sooner than you’d like because of your lower back, it’s time to look at your overall core. In addition to warm-ups, stretches, and targeted strength work, remember to focus on form throughout every movement in the box—because your back and your core play integral roles throughout every WOD.
Ask your coach how you can strengthen your back to get the most out of every WOD!