Working around any injury is always a drag, but when you have a bad back, that can seem the most debilitating – and also the most limiting in terms of what you’re able to do without aggravating the injury in the gym. There are countless injuries that can affect the lower back, and given the fact that I’m not a sports doctor, I’m not about to go through all of them. With that said, as a professional strength coach though, we have to think about a few things when it comes to training around back pain to ameliorate the situation. Putting these six rules into action will keep you healthy and strong, and keep your back pain at bay.

Use a Trap Bar for Deadlifts

Before you ask: No, it’s not “cheating.” We can ditch any stigmas that are associated with pulling from the floor with a trap bar, compared to an Olympic bar. If you don’t compete in powerlifting or Olympic lifting, you’re basically removing an option to receive all of the benefits of deadlifting with a  much safer and user-friendly pulling position. And you’re shirking that option likely for the sake of the ego. Consider this:

  • Trap bars have a neutral grip and a slightly higher pulling handle. This means less stress forces on the back due to a taller pulling position, and no internally rotated hand position (especially if you’re used to using a mixed grip, which is even less healthy).
  • Trap bars allow the shin to migrate forward. That helps the quads contribute more to the movement, and allows a lifter to sit deeper in the bottom position.

If you’re looking for more range of motion, flip the bar over and pull low handle. This makes the pull as deep as a conventional deadlift, and you’re still free to add a deficit by placing a low platform under your feet.

Swap the One-Arm Row for the Fisherman Row

Fisherman Rows are probably a row variation you’ve never heard of, but if you’re a back pain sufferer, you should learn about them. The reason has everything to do with rotation. As far as our spine goes, the thoracic region should be responsible for the most rotation through the back, with the lumbar spine enforcing more stability. When this is dysfunctional, the lumbar spine ends up doing more rotation than it should be, and the oft-result is chronic back pain; especially if you play a sport involving rotation like hockey, baseball or golf. Setting up for a One-Arm Dumbbell row with one leg on a bench and one foot on the floor could be standard, but makes it harder to avoid more lumbar twisting if you’re already prone to this – especially when weight gets heavy. The fisherman row has a lifter set up diagonally across the bench, with both knees planted on it. This allows for a straighter pull with square, stable  hips. It provides all the benefits of a heavy one arm row, without nearly as much risk of rotation .

Choose the Right Supersets

Simply put, the way you order your exercises matters. Exercises like deadlifts, squats, and overhead presses place compressive loading on the spine, due to their vertical nature and the effects of gravity. Countering this by finding exercises that produce upward forces on the spine – hanging movements like chin ups, hanging leg raises, and dips, and traction movements like pulldowns – can be a saving grace to an unhappy back, especially when these movements are done second in a superset containing compression based lifts. Even simply dead hanging off of a pull up bar can create relief for a lifter who’s done a whole ton of squats or deadlifts in a workout.

Note Your Training Time

This sounds minor, but it’s actually important. The time of day at which you train can be a make-or-break factor for how your spine feels, especially if you’re big into compound movements and heavy strength training. The earlier in the morning you like to train (especially when it’s also very close to when you’ve woken up for the day), the more likely your intervertebral discs haven’t drained all excess fluid from laying horizontal (that’s why it’s said that we’re taller first thing in the morning). Not giving the discs a chance to fully drain and compress can make loading them less than ideal, and can cause issues for a number of people. Try to train at least four hours after you wake up if you can. If you’re stuck training before work in the morning, limit the volume on heavy squats and deadlifts, and try waking up a bit earlier before you start.

Get Lateral

Every exercise listed in this article so far has been a sagittal plane movement. As an industry, we don’t do enough to emphasize the benefits of work in the lateral plane. Stepping wide for some Cossack squats, or doing side planks and Turkish getups are great changes of pace to help stabilize the spine via key players like the medial glutes and the obliques. This can be a game changer.

Examine your Footwear

The right lifting shoes can be a difference maker as far as comfort and support go. If you’ve got fallen arches, chances are you’d perform best in a shoe that isn’t as minimalistic as many strength training pundits may recommend. The position of your feet can influence the position of your knees and hips, and when a pelvic obliquity enters the conversation, the spine will compensate by way of a localized misalignment to make sure the eyes and ears stay level. Give your feet the support they need, and you’ll likely recalibrate your entire chain of joints in the process.