Weight lifting for back pain: how to safely exercise

Beyond building muscle, why not try weight lifting for back pain? We ask the experts to find out the benefits

Weight lifting for back pain: Woman lifting weights
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Weight lifting is beneficial for building strength and losing weight, but weight lifting for back pain is an often overlooked remedy as the activity can even aid recovery. Back pain is incredibly common. 

Adding weights to your workout increases the intensity and helps maintain strong muscles which can reduce the risk of injury from inactivity. Check out our guide to the best adjustable dumbbells to get your home gym set up.

Approximately 25% of Americans report experiencing back pain in the last three months according to the American Physical Therapy Association. When back pain strikes, our first instinct can be to simply curl up and go back to bed. You may be surprised to discover, however, that this can make the pain worse, and, in some cases, you may be better off exercising and even weight lifting for back pain. Resistance training is one way of reducing the risk of developing back pain in the first place. 

Here, we’ll dive into the science behind weight lifting for back pain - covering the common causes, how weight lifting can help, and asking the experts for exercises to try out.

What causes back pain?

Have you been spending more time sitting down this year? Us too. A leading cause of back pain is our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Dr. Rita Roy, MD and CEO of the National Spine Health Foundation, commented that: "during COVID-19, people worked from home in less than ideal positions and weren’t exercising as often to strengthen, mobilize, and condition muscles leading to the increase in individuals experiencing back and neck pain." 

When we are slouched at our desk, our deep core muscles switch off, our hip flexors contract and our glutes become weak, all of which puts strain on our lower back according to the American Council on Exercise. Over prolonged periods, our muscles become weak, stiff, and deconditioned, leaving us more prone to injury and pain. 

Back pain is more common in people who are not physically fit according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Catherine Quinn, President of the British Chiropractic Association comments: "Our bodies love movement. Whether it’s weightlifting, running, or something else, incorporating regular movement and exercise into your everyday routine is one of the best ways to prevent any unnecessary aches and pains."

Weight lifting for back pain: Woman lifting weights

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Sports injuries can also result in back pain and are more likely when you’re engaging in repetitive movement, twisting, or lifting beyond your range of motion. Other risk factors for back pain include smoking and obesity according to a 2018 review in The Lancet. Certain conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and fibromyalgia can also cause back pain. If you’re not sure of the reason for your pain, seeking advice from a healthcare professional can rule out underlying issues as in some cases weight lifting could exacerbate symptoms. 

Can weight lifting for back pain help?

According to a 2017 study in the journal of Scoliosis and Spinal Disorders, regular strength training can reduce the risk of developing back pain. Dr. Roy advised that strength training should be part of a whole lifestyle approach to protect your back."Regular exercise, stretching, and a proper diet all contribute to a balanced life and help maintain spine health. Exercises that develop core, abdomen, and back muscles will strengthen and support your spine. A focus on these activities can reduce the risk of injury and prevent back or neck pain in the long run."

If you’re already suffering from back pain, it’s not too late. If the underlying cause is inactivity, then there is some evidence that weight lifting could help alleviate the pain. A small 2015 study published in the British Medical Journal found that after a six-week weight lifting program, participants reported lower levels of back pain. Part of this may be due to the release of endorphins during exercise which can boost your mood and relieve pain. A 2016 study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation found that participants experienced the best results when combining low-impact aerobic activity like walking with strength training.

Weight lifting for back pain exercises

So when it comes to weight lifting for back pain, where should you start? Quinn recommended focusing "on gradual strength training over time, to build up and get used to the weights you’re lifting. If you’re weight training and your back pain is getting worse, it’s likely due to going up through the weights too quickly and lifting beyond your capacity. We would recommend graded exercise over time, slowly building up the amount and intensity."

To reap the full benefits and reduce the risk of injury, it’s crucial to hone your technique. Dr. Roy cautioned that improper form and going beyond your limits can lead to low back stress fractures. She advised that: "to avoid injury, it’s crucial to follow safe lifting guidelines. Make sure you bend your knees, use your legs and core to lift, maintain good balance, avoid twisting, and keep breathing." Some soreness is normal though sharp pain is a sign to back off. 

David Rigg, Sports Rehabilitator at NK Active, recommended the following exercises for weight lifting for back pain. 

Side plank

Bodyweight exercises like side plank can be a great way to ease yourself in. Rigg explained how to do it: "Lie on your side with your legs straight and rest on your elbow. Lift your hips and body clear of the floor keeping your body straight. Lower the hips to the floor." As you move up, remember to breathe out and activate your core and obliques to protect your spine. 

Single leg dumbbell lateral raise

Ready for more of a challenge? Adding weights can test your balance and build a strong core. Rigg explained that the starting position for this one is standing up. 

Step 1: Raise one leg, holding a dumbbell in the hand on the same side as the raised leg. 

Step 2: Lift the dumbbell to the side in a lateral raise.

Rigg explained that this "challenges your balance and control. The lack of a firm supporting base makes your back muscles work to support you." As with any weighted exercise, start small and build up.  

So, if you’ve been spending a lot of time sitting recently, regular exercise such as weight lifting can be a great way of reducing the risk of developing back pain. 

Louise Bond
Louise Bond

Louise Bond is a UK-based writer specializing in health and wellbeing. She has over eight years of experience in management within health and care and brings this passion and expertise to her writing. Louise has been published in The Guardian, Planet Mindful and Psychreg among others. She is at her happiest when she is out in nature, whether that’s on an invigorating hike or pottering in the garden.