There are some significant concerns regarding lower back discomfort — during or after a workout — permeating the fitness world. Case in point: While you’re powering through a class, you’ll probably hear your instructor give a reminder about maintaining proper form and emphasize that you’re doing something wrong if you’re experiencing it in your lower back.
To be equitable, back injuries are not enjoyable. Not only can they oblige you to dial back your fitness routine, but they may also necessitate physical therapy or even surgery. So, it makes sense that gym-goers and at-home fitness enthusiasts alike often want to coddle their backs and start to panic if they feel any discomfort or twinges. But is lower back pain after a workout something you actually need to be concerned about? Simply put, it depends on your symptoms and their severity.
When Lower Back Pain After a Workout Is Normal
It’s common to feel some tightness across your lower back after a workout, particularly after performing exercises that train that muscle group, says Leada Malek, C.S.C.S., a board-certified sports specialist and physical therapist. For example, you might feel some tension in your lower back muscles after performing barbell squats, deadlifts, or kettlebell swings — movements that load the back or require it to quickly go from bent to straight, says Malek.
Some aching and general soreness is also normal. “It’s entirely normal to feel lower back soreness after doing back or core exercises,” adds Denis Patterson, D.O., a doctor of osteopathic medicine at Nevada Advanced Pain Specialists. After all, your core doesn’t just include your abs muscles; it includes your back as well, and strengthening those muscles is a great way to prevent back pain.
Run-of-the-mill lower back soreness is equivalent to delayed-onset muscle soreness (aka DOMS) anywhere else, says Dr.
Patterson. “It happens because of your body’s innate inflammatory response to physical activity, resulting in small injuries to the muscles and adjacent connective tissue,” he clarifies. Behind DOMS generally emerges slowly following exercise. You will begin to observe it six to eight hours after your workout, reaching its highest point 24 to 48 hours later, and vanishing 72 hours after your workout, he affirms.
When Lower Back Pain After a Workout Becomes a Concern
That being said, not all lower back pain experienced after a workout should be disregarded. “It’s not normal to experience intense pain after exercising or localized discomfort that is concentrated in one specific area or covers a wide region,” says Malek. Similarly, “sudden back pain that occurs abruptly during or immediately after physical activity is not usual and typically indicates an acute injury in the lower back,” adds Dr. Patterson. “Severe back pain that persists for 72 to 96 hours after exercising could also suggest a back injury.”
Other indications that you should schedule an appointment with your doctor? Your post-workout lower back pain is impacting your mobility, awakening you during the night, or spreading to another area of your back or your legs, according to Malek. Joint or nerve symptoms like numbness, tingling, weakness, or pain radiating to the lower limbs are also signs of a potential injury, explains Dr. Patterson.
“If you suddenly experience weakness in one or both legs, or if you find it difficult to put your weight on a single leg — as those nerves stem from the back — there may be an issue affecting the nerve root. At that point, it’s definitely important to promptly seek medical attention,” clarifies Malek.
Since back pain can be influenced by your current life stressors, sleep levels, and even beliefs about your back, pinpointing the exact cause of your post-workout lower back pain can be challenging, notes Malek. However, if you feel fine and are comfortable with your back and the exercise you’re performing, debilitating lower back pain could be a result of utilizing excessively heavy weights or having a minor flaw in your technique, she explains. “It can certainly be attributed to a single movement, particularly in exercises like kettlebell swings. One intense motion that you weren’t prepared for can definitely trigger it,” states Malek.
How to Treat Lower Back Pain After a Workout
The initial step to take when dealing with lower back pain after a workout: Maintain positive thoughts, advises Malek. “Your beliefs about your back, what it is capable of, and the outcomes it can achieve directly impact the level of pain and how well it resolves. Try to maintain a positive mindset,” she explains.
In the following hours and days, have your back examined by a professional and attempt movements that feel comfortable and do not exacerbate the pain, suggests Malek.
Try not to fret about being overly rigid and safeguarding it, unless you feel like that’s the sole manner in which you can navigate your day,” she elucidates. If your physician grants you permission, contemplate engaging in certain mild isometric central exercises, like avian canines, deceased insects, and structures, as they can assist in alleviating back discomfort, asserts Malek.
How to Prevent Lower Back Pain After a Workout
Depending on the seriousness of your situation, your physician may advise physical therapy to assist you gradually return to normal activity, and they may recommend stretches or strengthening exercises that progressively increase in load, states Malek. “When you enter this defensive mode, where you simply maintain your back upright and you don’t lean over, the pain subsides. But four weeks later, [if] you have to lean over to retrieve something, that’s when you’ll sense it again,” she explains. Translation: Movement is crucial on the path towards recovery.
Before you pick up the barbell for a deadlift or back squat, ensure you have the hip hinge — when you send your hips backward and then lower your torso towards the floor — mastered. “That vital movement sequence is important for squatting and for lifting, [and] it’s usually a mechanism for a lot of people’s pain. So, make sure you’re properly hip-hinging,” says Malek.
When you’re prepared to attempt exercises that train your back or core, make sure you’re performing them with the best mechanics for your body, suggests Malek. Each person’s body is unique, so the form that feels optimal for one individual during a deadlift, for instance, may not be ideal for you, she explains. By training in ways that feel most comfortable for your body, you’ll be less likely to sustain an injury — whether it’s in your back or another muscle. And if you’ve injured your back in the past, it’s a good idea to inform your instructor beforehand so they can recommend form adjustments that can help you avoid aggravating the injury.
TL;DR: A little discomfort or tightness in your lower back after a workout usually isn’t anything to be concerned about, but if your pain isn’t subsiding or you’re experiencing severe symptoms, communicate with your doctor immediately.
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