One of the most common conversations I have with people regarding back pain is how they should train their legs. Some people are in search for ways to train AROUND the pain while others want their form fixed or core strengthened in attempt to reduce or take away the pain. No matter your goals, I am going to spend the next 2 weeks breaking down what works and what doesn’t when it comes to training the legs while you’re dealing with back pain. Today I am going to kick off this series with the exact warm up and muscle activation drills you need to do before you even lift a single weight
A little housekeeping
This is going to be a multi-part series simply because I am detail oriented and if you were in front of me, I would take the time to cover the details. This is my coaching platform and I want to give you the same attention here as I would in person. On top of that, too many sources on the web just glance over some major points that need to really be hammered if your dealing with acute or chronic back pain.
I am 110% against training through back pain. I don’t care who says differently. Most “professionals” who talk about training for back pain never actually have dealt with chronic pain themselves. Some speak from client experience but there is still a disconnect in the details that only someone who has lived with chronic pain will understand.
One thing you need to always remember, back pain is typically due to the accumulation of time in bad positions and using bad habits (unless you have had some blunt trauma). The goal for you now is to “beep beep, back the truck up” and start pulling apart what you have always done wrong and begin to fix them one by one. If you have not already start breaking your own pain cycle I would suggest you start there before anything else!
“I know why warming up is important but why is it an even bigger deal for back pain sufferers?”
The first aspect of getting into training your lower body while dealing with back pain is the set-up (as in everything you do before you actualy start “working out”). A lot of people over-look this part simply because they don’t know any better or they just want to jump right in. This is a big mistake and here’s why.
1. When you’re dealing with back pain, the key is to reduce the sensitivity in the inflamed area. It’s not just about form but priming the body to be able to handle the stress.
2. We often confuse the warm up for something that is limited to the actual muscle group we are working. This is only one layer of the warm up. I’ll go into detail later in this article.
Your warm up needs to be used to get all muscles involved firing the way they should. If you go into a workout with the same poor habits or lacking the neuromuscular connections needed, you will default to what your body is used to doing. This is where the secret sauce comes in. For example. Your pain could be stemming from slammed facet joints from too much over-extension when hip hinging under load. Your pain could be from too much rounding of the lower back in the deep squat position which is causing the discs to bulge. Your pain could be from a lack of glute activation happening during key movements which is putting to much chronic load on the erectors and other minor muscle groups. All of these pain sources can be fixed with getting the right muscles to fire and re-educating our bodies to use the correct muscles to stabilize and brace our spine.
This is where the warm up and pre-firing comes in.
Leg Training With Back Pain: The Warm Up and Pre-Firing.
6-8 Minute Fast-Paced Walk:
The first step that I take is getting the entire body working together and warmed up without load and minimal stress. My go-to is a fast-paced walk. “Fast-Paced” is key here. A slow “mall stroll” type of walk puts too much stress on the joints and can cause flair ups. The fast-paced walk is key because you’re walking fast enough to not be statically loading the individual joints for too long and the movement is gently firing and releasing the major spine stabilizers. This repeated over and over within a 6-8 minute time frame is exactly what your body needs to get the right muscles activated.
Pre-Firing Drills to get the right muscles activated.
This portion of the warm up is solely focused on getting the right muscles to fire. The majority of back pain sufferers don’t know how to actively engage the muscles needed to safely take the body out of an upright standing position and into a flexed or hinged position. We tend to forget about the process and allow our joints to take the load of the movement incorrectly. For some, experiencing dramatic pain relief is simply learning to engage the right muscles and not allowing our joints to get jammed and forced to support loads in ways that were not intended.
Below I am going to give you the exact glute activation exercises I do to this day, that have helped me tremendously retrain my neuromuscular activation. As we work through each video I will
be sure to give you the spark notes version and tie up any loose ends.
All I want you to focus on are 4 main exercises you can do to work on your glute activation by itself or to pre-fire your glutes before getting into any kind of lifting.
Keep in mind that this protocol below may be intense for some beginners and will place a lot of fatigue on the glutes before you even start your workout. You may have to adjust the reps and sets to fit you specifically! If doing all of these at once is oto much feel free to pick 1 or 2 to do before your next lower body workout.
Exercise 1: Figure Four Glute Drill
This is usually the first exercise I do to get things rolling.
1 – Relax the body and make sure you take full deep breaths. Don’t hold your breath while you work.
2 – Contract the glute your trying to work before you lift the knee
3 – Actively think about what you’re trying to do. Relax the entire body the best you can and only focus on the glute you’re trying to work.
4 – Do 1-2 sets of 8-10
Exercise 2: Donkey Kicks
Here I am getting a little more of the core activated. Make sure the trunk is braced and that you are breathing.
1 – Brace the core and continue taking deep breaths.
2 – Kick your leg out to the side and back. You should be going out at an angle.
3 – If you’re having a hard to activating your glute with the leg straight, you can keep the leg bent at 90 degrees.
4 – Do 1-2 sets of 8-10
Exercise 3: Side to Side Steps
Overall the best glute activation exercise in the world (as far as I know)!
1 – Brace the core and maintain a neutral spine.
2 – Try to maintain a tight band and contracted glutes at all time.
3 – Mix up short choppy steps and bigger steps each time.
4 – 1-2 sets of 8-10 steps each way (Stick with the lighter bands)
These are the exact bands that I use for exercises like this (affiliate link).
Exercise 5: Tie it all together
With all this attention you have been showing your butt, it should have no problem firing when trying to activate it. This is how I ensure the activation is happening.
As a bonus warm up drill I like to tie it all together with non-loaded squats emphasizing on squeezing the glutes
1 – #1 thing is what I refer to in the video as “pulling the ground apart with your feet”. This is a simple cue to fire the entire leg and not just sitting back and letting your lower back and erectors take the load.
2 – Continue to brace the core and breathe deep.
3 – Practice firing the core and glutes at the same time not one before the other. I like to pretend my body is one giant muscle that I am trying to contract together at once.
Boom, you’re ready to safely begin to move weight!
It seems like a lot but you can knock these exercises out after your fast-paced walk in a matter of minutes. Again, your goal is not to wear the glutes out so much that you can’t even use them during the actual workout but to get the brain-body connection working to activate the muscles you need to protect your lower back.
Let me know how it goes. I know for me the body weight squats with the glute emphasis was a huge wake-up call for me. Let me know which one of these hits your glutes the best in the comments below!
If this helped in any way, the biggest THANK YOU, you could give is sharing this with people you know. Hundreds of thousands of people are suffering with back pain that can be fixed with simple techniques just like this! Help them out and share!
Stay tuned for next week, we will be covering specific lower body exercises that are back pain friendly and will help prevent further damage, promote healing and lower any inflamation you may have.