At some time, you’ve probably had lower back, upper back, elbow, or neck soreness that lasts long beyond one or two workouts. I see this frequently in the Studio and have had clients ask me what they are doing that may be causing it.
First of all, you most likely ARE causing it. The good news is that tracking down the cause can be pretty easy. You simply need to be mindful of what your body is doing.
Very common to exercise is lifting too heavy. When you lift weight that is really too heavy for you or when you’re doing too many reps and getting fatigued, your technique will fall apart and you’ll recruit muscles that aren’t necessary for the lift. We’ve all seen — or been — that person who swings our hips to get one more arm curl or contorts our face in a locked grimace to finish that one pull up.
Do these extra muscle contractions help the movement or hinder progress? There may be something said for the emotional boost, but biomechanically, they’re waste of energy at best and dangerous at worst. In fact, I have one client who regularly gets toe cramps from doing bicep curls!
There are more subtle types of muscle recruitment that consistently cause chronic pain. The two I see most often are shoulder raises that pull in the trapezius and arm curls that pull in the forearm flexors.
Upper Back and Neck Pain
When you perform an arm lift (lateral raise, front raise, upright row), you’re primary movers are the deltoids. These are the shoulder cap muscles. When the lift becomes tough, you’re likely going to tense your whole body, especially your upper trapezius, essentially shrugging your shoulders and tightening your neck. The trapezius is a large back muscle that controls upper, mid and lower back movements, but for your lifts, you do not want to include a shrug movement.
The deltoids lift the arm (raises). The upper trapezius lifts the shoulders (shrug). If you constantly recruit the traps for arm raises, you’re essentially overtraining them, so of course you’ll be sore, tight, and knotted in your upper back and neck. Being mindful during this exercise means relaxing your upper back and neck and focusing the work on the deltoids only. Practice by standing in front of a mirror and raising your arms without moving the muscle around the neck. If you can’t lift a weight without recruiting this movement, lift lighter until you can.
When you perform an arm curl, your primary movers are the biceps. These are the “guns,” the muscle that pops out on your upper arm. When you struggle to raise a weight, you will tighten all your muscles, including your forearm by curling in your wrist, as well. During a bicep curl, your wrist doesn’t need to move. Only the elbow joint moves. If you’re always curling your wrist, too, you’re overtraining the forearm muscles and causing inflammation in the tendons that attach to the elbow joint.
Practice this by lifting a light dumbbell and keeping the wrist straight and unflexed. If you want to exercise your forearms for that popeye look, that’s an entirely different exercise. I suggest you separate it out as its own exercise, too, because then you will discover quickly how easily fatigued those small muscles get, which means you’ll stop before the inflammation sets in.
Lower Back Pain
Common problems with the lower back arise in the Studio from the opposite of what I’ve been saying above. Too often, clients don’t tense when they should or simply can’t maintain the bracing of their core.
When lifting above your head, especially, you want to have a good athletic stance. By that I mean you feel balanced and in control: if someone were to push you, you could stabilize yourself and not fall over. To have that control, you need soft knees (not locked), a hip-wide stance (one foot under each iliac crest, which is that bony protrusion on each hip). Brace your core/stomach as if someone may hit you in the gut, and tighten your butt. Always a tight butt! It protects the lower back.
When you tire or lower the weight you’re lifting, you release your tension and that’s when your lower back has to fend for itself. Most of the time, it’s not devastating (like rupturing a disc), but the tiny muscles of the lower back suddenly have a lot of pressure put on them. Help out your lower back: always make your butt and abs carry the heavy load!
Pain Beyond Exercise
Besides maintaining mindfulness during exercise, you can help your body in other ways.
Sitting is unnatural. Our bodies aren’t made for it. They’re made for walking and standing and squatting. Prolonged sitting puts tremendous pressure n your lower back (the lumbar region). Help it out by providing lumbar support in the form of a firm pad in your desk chair, in your kitchen table chairs, on your couch, and in your car.
Additionally, when sitting at your desk, notice what your trapezius is doing. In other words, are you hunching or shrugging while simply sitting? Relax your shoulders and neck.
Your jaw? Is it clenched, your teeth grinding? You’ll probably be getting a headache soon.
Be mindful of what your body is doing to avoid overuse and strain!