Workouts that spare the spine.
November 2, 2011 7:49 PM   Subscribe

Seeking alternatives to weightlifting to stay fit and nurture a newly temperamental back...

I've been a mad fan of weightlifting (free weights, squats, deadlifts, etc.) for about five years now. But my back and one of my rotator cuffs have recently begun to issue complaints. I can't figure out why -- I have worked with two trainers on my form, especially in regard to squatting with weight, and I've received thumbs-up from both. (Is this simply a factor of moving into my thirties?)

The back pain in particular has gotten me thinking about possible alternative fitness regimes to give my spine a chance to recover from whatever went awry. Another complicating factor is an upcoming surgery that involves a somewhat considerable recovery time.

With all these considerations in play, I wonder if this might not be a good opportunity to explore other ways to stay fit that might be gentler in terms of impact (though I feel bad saying that, because...well, again, weightlifting has always been awesome and gentle in terms of impact, until now. I'm not sure what's going wrong).

Someone suggested yoga to me today; I'm game to try it even though I've taken classes in Iyengar and found them tedious. It doesn't seem sufficient to keeping up my current level of fitness, though. Am I mistaken in this belief? Any other suggestions?
posted by artemisia to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Shoot, before I saw your last paragraph I was going to shout YOGA! There have been a few research articles that have come out recently about just how good it is for you. In fact, I have found in particularly helpful for back pain. Here's an NY Times piece about recent research on yoga and stretching for back pain.

Is it going to help you maintain your current fitness level? I can't speak to that--my guess is not. But, it might help you maintain some of that strength as well as build up some other muscles that will strengthen your core. And some yoga practitioners are really incredibly strong. It can be rigorous.

You may have to find a few different classes and teachers to find a good fit. Maybe call around and ask if they offer "Yoga for Weightlifters."

Other low impact stuff includes swimming and bicycling. And you know the best part? Bicycling is really fun! (For me at least.)

Good luck with your recovery.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:07 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pilates may also be helpful, as it incorporates a lot of core strengthening with the stretching moves found in yoga.
posted by blurker at 8:10 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I just found this other article about jocks and tough guys who take yoga and this one about exercises for people who overdo it.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:10 PM on November 2, 2011

It's not going to give you the same muscle mass that weightlifting does but erging! It's low-impact, nearly full-body, miserable, and incredibly effective. There's also a community (of crazies) who compete in indoor rowing events, log their distance milestones, or compete for time in specific distance events. I can't stress enough how awful it is but if some of what you liked in weightlifting is making yourself hurt for future gain then you'd love erging. And with thirty minutes a day you can stay very, very fit.

Oh, and rowing is extremely good for your back. It may look like your back is doing most of the work but with proper technique (which if you take up erging you should make sure you have) your legs do most of the work but your back is involved enough that it's given the opportunity to gradually strengthen or heal.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 8:33 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you ever had a postural assessment/movement screen done? A worthwhile trainer (or physio, or osteopath) should provide this as par for their employment, and it will allow them to offer ongoing feedback as to the dysfunctions in your movement patterns that have resulted in your back and shoulder injuries.

Keep in mind that changing up your fitness routine to neglect proper strength training is no guarantee of fixing any postural issues. Performing heavy compound lifting highlights existing dysfunctions, and since unaddressed dysfunctions inevitably result in injury, you ought to have a trained eye scrutinise your lifting to diagnose your specific weaknesses and help you address them through training.

Increasing flexibility is of course a major part of postural correction, but so is increasing strength (and both qualities need to be applied in the required places). Opting for one without the other is really a zero sum game, and you'll likely be swapping one set of mysteriously chronic injuries for another.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 8:40 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

You actually don't want to stretch your lower back. Those are stabilizing muscles--by stretching them, you make them weaker. You DO want to stretch your hamstrings, hip flexors, quads, piriformis, etc though. Yoga will help with those things (despite teachers who will try to get you to stretch your lumbar).

Dr. Stuart McGill is one of the leading experts on back injuries, especially with regards to athletics and weight training. There is an interview with him here and his exercises are great. Look up stir-the-pots (or stirring-the-pots). Planks and Paloff Presses are other great stabilizing exercises.
posted by schroedinger at 8:56 PM on November 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

i would bet that you've got some muscle imbalances going. if i were you i would maybe check out a good physical therapist and get some professional feedback. a trainer's going to know what looks right formwise but they may not have the credentials to advise you on rehab & preventive exercises. personally, i'm not a fan of yoga & found it very tough on my shoulders and knees. maybe that's just me. but one thing i can guarantee you is that you will find an extreme variability in the quality and experience of yoga teachers, and some of them may urge you to do things that are not the best for you.
posted by facetious at 9:04 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the replies so far! I'll definitely look into seeing an osteopath or physical therapist for a consultation, though it probably won't happen until after the surgery.

Erging looks *awesome* in terms of fitness, though I'm afraid that it will trigger my "My God I hate running and all cardio-intensive exercise" button. Pilates and yoga are definitely on my list of things to try now. There are classes offered in both, about a block away away from me!

Regarding the answers that address flexibility - I'm not entirely certain where this is coming from though I absolutely appreciate the comments. Gaining flexibility is not a goal; I am actually pretty flexible already (can't do full splits, but pretty much by every other measure, I am bend-able).

I do suspect that those who mention imbalances are onto something. I can do planks till kingdom come, but crunches? Not so much. Further, I noticed my left hip flexor twinging right before the start of the back pain (not lower back pain, in fact -- upper leftish back pain). Maybe focusing on core strength is the way to go. I'm also a writer, and spend my days hunched over various keyboards, so that would contribute, no doubt...

Again, thanks to all who have commented so far. I felt really frustrated as I composed this question, as I spent all of my teens and half of my twenties thinking I loathed exercise, and finding out that I loved weights was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It has been surprisingly upsetting, these last couple of days, to feel like my body no longer is adequate to lifting...
posted by artemisia at 9:54 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Crunches are pretty awful for your back and should be avoided at all costs. Do standing or kneeling crunches if you must, but honestly unless you're involved in martial arts or a grappling sport even those aren't necessary for a strong core. It's great you do planks.

Flexibility can be a major contributor to causing mobility issues and thus injuries and pain, which is why people were suggesting that.

You say it's upper back pain--is it on the same side as your rotator cuff injuries?
posted by schroedinger at 10:04 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also is the surgery related to the pain?
posted by schroedinger at 10:05 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, the upper back pain is on the same side as the rotator cuff and the hip flexor pain! I'd never made that connection before... do you think it's meaningful?

(And no, the surgery isn't related to any of this, thank goodness.)
posted by artemisia at 10:29 PM on November 2, 2011

Sorry, one more thought: all the pain is on my left side. I'm left-handed, stronger on the left in general as a result. (Now I'll make my graceful departure to resist thread-sitting. :)
posted by artemisia at 10:29 PM on November 2, 2011

Almost certainly. You likely have some kind of postural issue going on that's messing up your entire chain. At the very least you may have some shoulder immobilities or weaknesses in the stabilizing muscles of the capsule that are causing issues and are connected to the upper back problems.
posted by schroedinger at 11:12 PM on November 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not to double-dip, but I had extremely bad pain in my upper left back quadrant & down the back of my left arm for months. I mean, can't sleep, can't work pain. My doctor gave me pain pills that did nothing, and the specialist she sent me to was useless. The PT I was sent too, though, took one look at me and said "you're sticking your chin out and you're hunched over". A couple of weeks later I was fine as a result of doing upper back (rhomboid/lats etc.), rotator cuff, and neck exercises, and radically changing my posture (which I had been entirely oblivious to). Sounds like an exaggeration but that's exactly how it went down. No pain for two years.
posted by facetious at 7:20 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Possibly dumb question - are you using a belt when you lift? It might help with the pain. I've always lifted through every injury by using lighter weights and making sure I have someone watching my form at all times. Good luck!
posted by nerdfish at 7:24 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm just a schmuck on the internet, so no claims of expertise here, but if you're interested in developing your core, there are some great gymnastics exercises. Here's a description of the progressions to a front planche and front lever from a guy who's pretty popular among the amateur gymnasts at the moment.

You mentioned worrying about maintaining your current level of strength. This coach has stories of a 16y/o student deadlifting 400lbs at 135 lb body weight the first time he tried a deadlift. (Granted, this particular student is also a national medalist, so YMMV.) Also, most people I see doing these gymnastic exercises are not gymnasts and combine it with a more conventional weightlifting routine. Who knows? Maybe if muscle imbalances are your problem, adding these to even out your body will get you back into the squat rack.

Incidentally, Sommer's program is hard for me to follow directly because, like you, I have weak abs. I wasn't strong enough to do the easiest of his front lever progressions. So instead of starting with tuck front lever, I started with this "warm-up" which for me was a pretty exhausting workout all by itself.

Good luck!
posted by d. z. wang at 8:00 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Instead of weights, have you tried working with resistance cables and/or body weight exercises? Keywords: functional fitness. Obviously, you'll want to avoid anything that involves motions that strain your back or other injured areas. However, resistance cables also involve a smoother motion than the jerkiness imposed by actual weights. I think this should be specifically good for shoulder and rotator cuff rehab, since it's similar to the motions used with those colored latex sheets you get from the PT folks. (Get approval from your doctor, not me.)

Bonus 1: very portable and affordable. Bonus 2: if you have to drop it, you can do so without worrying about making a giant clank or killing your toe :) Lifeline is only one of the companies that make such a thing, but the gym they run produces some world-class athletes.

Erging is indeed a great exercise. However, you need to be ABSOLUTELY on with your form. That's what makes it work and that's what makes you not injure yourself. You need to uncurl slowly, first straightening your legs, then uncurling the rest of your body step by step. Make sure you get a pro to show you and observe your form.
posted by Madamina at 8:15 AM on November 3, 2011

I think people are going after inflexibility because it's a common cause of back pain. Strength imbalances and poor ergonomics are other very common causes.

As an ex-rower who still ergs some times, I'll put in another plug for it. The form is extremely important for avoiding further back strain, but the motion is basically a repeated squat + cable row, done at aerobic load levels. It's the most weight-lifty aerobic exercise I've ever found. This video is a good introduction to getting the form right. Oh, and pay attention to the damper settings - you don't want to learn on a machine set to max resistance.

Erging will work your abs a little, but it sounds like you might want research whether they need additional attention to correct an imbalance that could be related to your back pain.
posted by richyoung at 2:26 PM on November 3, 2011

Apologies if this has been mentioned already; I didn't see it when I skimmed through the replies: Your form when lifting may be excellent, but how about your form when doing everything else for the rest of the day? Sitting at the computer, holding grocery bags as you unload the car, getting stuff down from upper shelves, etc. Check your form when doing that sort of thing while thinking about proper weightlifting form.

I thought of this because someone on a forum I read recently realized that she was holding her grocery bags as she brought them home in what would be improper form for holding weights, and once she corrected that, they felt lighter and she felt much better.
posted by telophase at 8:17 AM on November 4, 2011

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