4 Things to Avoid in the Gym If You Have Back Pain

Most of the clients who come to work with me at the studio did so originally because they wanted to get in shape. But two things usually stopped them from going it alone; 1) they needed motivation and/or 2) they suffered with pain – usually back pain.

Several have had surgery. Others tried working with a physio (but struggled to do the homework exercises in between) and others have just been putting up with niggling aches and pains for years. So going for a run or doing normal gym workouts weren’t going to cut it.

As a result I’ve had to get pretty good at helping clients be able to exercise without provoking their symptoms and – god forbid – even help them get better.

NOTE: Now I’m not talking about the kind of short term back pain that stops you from moving without wincing in pain. That means your body’s stuck in a phase of acute inflammation (and pain) and it’s probably not the time to try and exercise your way out of it. There are better people/modalities that can be used here (physio, chiro, osteopath).

If however you’ve been putting up with niggling back pain for any length of time then hopefully these guidelines should help you avoid doing more damage in the gym:

Avoid exercises that hurt

This sounds like a no brainer. But many try to work through the pain barrier. While it might go away in the short term as the working tissues begin to warm up, the pain usually comes back with a vengeance later in the day.

Trying to exercise through pain is setting the body up to develop compensation in your movement patterns (like limping on one leg when you’ve got an ankle injury). Fine for the short term. Not cool as a long term strategy for movement. So this one’s simple; if it hurts, then I recommend you don’t do it.

Avoid strengthening your back

I know, crazy idea right? Assuming that your back hurts because it’s weak is a reasonable assumption. But it’s rarely the case. In fact, the spinal erectors (the thick muscles either side of your spine)  are often already over worked in compensation for weak deep abdominals, weak glutes and worsened by hollow back posture.

Trying to strengthen an already overworked muscle is a recipe for ongoing back ache. Combined with the fact that most ‘back exercises’ force the spine into extension – further compressing the already compressed facet joints of the spine – which only causes more pain and discomfort

this isn't for you if you have... or don't want to have back pain

Instead I’d suggest working on strengthening the supporting musculature that sits above, below and in front of where your back aches (the glutes, upper back, deep neck flexors and inner core). Strengthening this supporting musculature will reduce the strain on the already overworked lower back muscles (find out more about exercises that do this here).

Avoid exercises that bend, twist or extend your lower back

That means sit ups, twisting and turning exercises are all out. Our lower back isn’t designed to repeatedly bend or twist under load. Sure, it’s a movement we need to be able to do, but that doesn’t mean we want to go about doing it 100’s of times in the gym.

Like a rugby player needs to be able to take a head on collision – we’d probably want to save that kind of event for game day instead using up his capacity for head on collisions in training.

If this is bad for your back when you’re sat at a desk… Why would it be any better when we’re lying on your back in the gym?



Instead we want to focus on exercises that limit/eliminate movement of your spine (see the plank  and side plank as alternatives to try instead of crunches/sits ups)

Avoid seated/lying variations

You’d think a dumbbell bench press, which works your chest, shoulders and arms would be fine for someone with back pain right?


Well, the exercise itself IS fine. But getting in and out of position – with weights – not so much. Probably has something to do with the flexing of the spine required to get into and out of the lying position that makes it  problematic for those with back pain – kind of like doing a weighted sit up. Not ideal.

Regarding seated variations I don’t know too many people who need more sitting in their life. So skipping seated variations is no bad thing. Combined with the fact that sitting down increases the compressive forces on the spine we’ll do just fine sticking with kneeling or standing variations.

In the next post I’ll share 6 things that you probably CAN do safely in the gym to help you move closer to your fitness goals, without worsening your back pain.