Leg Training With Lower Back Injuries – 6 Steps To Improved Lower Body Training.
Back Pain, If you haven’t already had it you can pretty much rest assured that at some point you will have to deal with it. Some people may get lucky and only have minor injuries that go away with very little work, others (like myself) will have to deal and work around back pain for a very long long time.
I hurt my back about ten years ago doing a personal best on deadlift of 585. I didn’t get the lift, and on top of that I injured my back enough that it would hinder my training up until today. Does that mean I don’t train anymore? Not even close, you just need to find ways to work around it!
Just because you have back pain or an injury does not mean you can not train, It just means you have to modify your training. If anything the change of training could benefit you in terms of motivation, exercise selection and the challenge of doing something different in the gym.
Before I jump into the exercises and training information I recommend these exercises based on personal experience keep in mind i am not a doctor, and with any injury you should always consult your doctor.
Step 1 : Injury Check – Determine what is wrong.
One of the biggest problems with back injuries is actually knowing what your injury is! I have been conducting some research on back pain and saw a crazy statistic that about 60% of lower back pain injuries are undetermined. Basically someone has pain, and the doctor or chiropractor can not actually find anything mechanically wrong with the back.
Sometimes back pain can be a lot more than just something wrong with your back! But that is another article all together. The first step should be trying to find out what is causing the problem. It could be simple, it could be complex. Find a good Doctor, Chiropractor, Physiotherapist and learn from them.
Step 2 :Assessment – Determine what you can & can’t do.
First thing I want you to do is take a pen and paper and write down ALL the lower body exercises that cause you pain. The list can be small, or long, but i want you to WRITE IT DOWN. Here is my list quickly.
– Bar Back Squats
– Bar Deadlifts
– Heavy normal stance stiff leg deadlifts
– Heavy rotational core work
– Heavy squats of any kind.
That is my list briefly. These are exercises that when I do them I know I am going to pay for it later.
Now do the following. Take your list, read it top to bottom, and then STOP DOING THESE EXERCISES! When you get a lot of pain from an exercise it is your body telling you to stop doing what you are doing, something is wrong. It is like driving a car, when a red light comes on your dash saying “Check Engine” that does not mean drive the RPM’s up and drive as hard as you can. It means stop, evaluate, try to fix the problem!
Step 3 – PreHab & Mobility
Prehab & mobility work is another article I will write down the road, but I wanted to touch on it briefly. Everyone wants to get to the gym, hit it hard and go home. Keeping in mind when you train you are breaking down your muscle tissue, nervous system and more. It is a good idea to get your body READY for the workout ahead.
Prehab basically means prehabilitation, which is the opposite of rehabilitation. Rehab is what you do AFTER you are injured. Prehab is what you do to MINIMIZE getting injured. Why get injured if you can prevent it! More on this down the road.
Mobility work is around the same lines as prehab. It is good to get your body moving and firing properly so that it can do the job that you want it to do. Let say your goal is a sprint workout. If you do not do any warm up, or dynamic stretching, just go dive right into your sprints. This is great IF you want a hamstring tear! So prehab & mobility should always come before any workout. It will take 8-20 minutes depending on age, training experience, type of training. But it is ALWAYS worth it. Consider this the seat belt of your car. Always buckle up!
Step 4 : Getting Ready For The Exercises
A few factors that i always take into consideration with back pain/injuries and training are the following.
- ROM (Range of motion)
Lets start with load. For load lets just keep this simple. Load is the amount of weight you use for an exercise.
For example lets say you are squatting. If you are squatting the bar (45lb) without problem, then squatting should be ok right? Well lets say you put 315 on that bar (assuming you are strong enough to do it) and that weight causes you pain/discomfort. then the load is too high. If you can do an exercise with LIGHTER weight and complete the exercise this is a good thing. It just means you have to LOWER YOUR WEIGHT. I know, everything you read tells you to “Lift More”. Well when you are injured this is the wrong thing to do!
However, if you can do an exercise without pain with lighter weight we can introduce the next thing, Tempo.
If you are familiar with tempo then skip to the next paragraph. if not let me summarize quickly.
Tempo is the speed at which you execute an exercise. Tempo has 3 ranges I will explain using a bench press as an example.
Eccentric : Lowering (Once you take the bar off the rack and lower it to your chest)
Pause : When the range is at its fullest (IE on the bench press it is when the bar touches your chest)
Concentric : The positive side of the lift. IE Pushing the bar off your chest on bench press)
A tempo principle would be written like this
Tempo 6 – 1 – X
6 = 6 seconds down
1 = 1 second pause
X = Move the weight as fast as you can back to the start of the rep
Simply put if you have an injury SLOW DOWN. Using less weight with a longer TUT (Time Under Tension) you will benefit greatly from it. Your muscles will get work and your joints will thank you!
Next up is stability training. Stability training has really gone strange over the last few years. You see bosu balls everywhere, and everywhere I see stability training i see people doing things they should not be doing!
When defining stability at the moment we want to look core stability. Keeping the TVA (Transversus abdominis muscle) stable during lower body exercises is very important. If your core is unstable and you have a lower back injury or weakness you will only make matters worse.
What I mean for this is keep your stomach tight, your core strong and stable, this will help reduce back injury and also injury prevention.
Lastly is ROM (Range Of Motion). For the most part you always want a full range of motion. However, if this isn’t possible (usually due to lack of mobility), I recommend modifying the exercise and making the best of it. For example I cant do full squats (But I think they are a fantastic exercise if you can do them). But I can do squats to a bench without much pain. So why not use them. It is better to do something than nothing.
Step 5 : The Exercises
First thing I recommend is to ditch most exercises that involve using 2 legs at once. Single leg training is the way to go! You wont see much of this type training in bodybuilding magazines, but if you want legs like Ronnie Coleman this isn’t the article for you. However if you want muscular, strong, functional legs, uni-lateral leg training is an excellent choice.
Some Benefits Of Uni-Lateral Leg Training Are :
– The loads on the spine will be dramatically reduced
– The leg(s) are isolated causing a much higher recruitment of muscle fiber activation
- Improvement of sports as most sports do not have 2 legs in a set position exerting effort (IE. Squat or Deadlift)
- Improved Co-ordination with single leg training.
Due to my own injury I have fallen in love with the following exercises.
- Single Leg Box Squats – Start using your own body weight then progress to using a weighted vest & or dumbells
- Lunges – Reduced load on spine when using dumbells. You can adjust stride length and depth to hit different areas of legs & hips.
- Single Leg Stiff Leg Deadlifts. Done with a dumbell or kettlebell. Great for hamstrings, lower back & improving balance.
- Ski Squats – Vary heights every 30 seconds.
- Step Ups – Varying heights using dumbells.
- Leg Extensions – (For bodybuilding, not for sports improvement)
- Sissy Squats -(Old School exercise that has great benefits for leg growth)
- Single Leg Squats against a wall with a ball. Same as ski squat but using a ball
- Swiss Ball bridge to knee ups. Hamstring & Glute focus
6. Post Workout Recovery
I am not going to go into the details of post workout nutrition here. I will just cover what I think is important from a training point of view.
The only time to do static stretching (where you place the muscle in a stretched ranged and hold), is post workout. After doing leg training I recommend a good 10-15 minutes of cool down stretching. I always find it best to start with the hips and work your way down.
IE. Stretching in order, Glutes, Hips, Quads, Hamstrings, Calves.
I also highly recommend ice post workout. Not the ice cold type skin creams, I mean a bag of cold ice or a ice pad. Applied to any area that hurts after you train. This is key in reducing inflammation (which contributes largely to pain). Reduce inflammation, improve recovery.
Another great post workout way to recover is alternating hot and cold shower. To do this you run 30 seconds hot, then 30 seconds cold. It really sucks but it really works wonders for muscle recovery.
Training with any injury is never fun. A back injury gets in the way of everything you do, but instead of looking at it negatively look at it as a challenge and make the best of your situation.
Look for another article down the road implementing these exercises into a kick ass lower body routine that will get your legs firing while minimizing back pain and improving mobility!