Why does it seem like every single person you know (including you!) has back problems?
I mean, has that ever occurred a little odd that the entirety of the human population, sans children not yet old enough to experience the despair of adulthood, all suffer from the same thing?
Back issues come in all shapes and sizes:
Big ones and small ones. Annoying and debilitating. Cervical, thoracic and lumbar. Pain when bending over and when standing up. Pinching, aching, stabbing, and shocking.
I even bet you're currently on some end of that spectrum right now.
As we age, it's natural for our bodies to begin succumbing to the woes of mortality. We're frail creatures. We definitely didn't get to the top of the food chain through our physicality. Our bodies aren't especially large, strong, durable, or shielded. And we're evolving to move further away from those qualities as our lives are continuously being improved by technologies that render resiliency somewhat obsolete.
It's for these reasons that our weak links are becoming weaker, and it certainly seems like our Achilles heel is, in fact, more like an Achilles low back.
Most have just accepted this fate. Some have resolved to strengthen their bodies through intentional training. But a small percentage of people have begun to think beyond the simplicity of just lifting heavy and moved towards taking direct measures to protect our known weak link.
While training undoubtedly has a positive effect on strengthening the low back, it also has the unintentional down side of repeatedly putting the body in precarious positions. When you think about it, lifting weights is almost exclusively about forcing our muscles and skeleton to work through vulnerabilities to overcome resisting forces thus inducing adaptations.
This works amazingly until it doesn't...And I'm sure everyone has the strain, pulls and tears to attest.
For preventative work, we have to evolve our thinking further:
How do we train hard while keeping our fragile bodies out of harm's way?
Can we implement strategies to hybridize strength/hypertrophy training with prehab?
Is it possible to live without back pain?
The answer is YES.
When evaluating what causes low back issues, there is never a single culprit. Even in acute events like a disc herniation during a set of heavy deadlifts, the outcome is the result of a systemic failure that, in most cases, has been collecting momentum behind-the-scenes for a while.
Dysfunction typically travels from the outside in. Very rarely does a resultant low back injury originate locally. Our bodies are such finicky vessels; feet or knees or scapulae that don't integrate properly trigger cascading effects that trickle down to our center of mass (what some people refer to as the "core"). And this puts much greater stress on the muscles that support our core like the glutes, abs and, you guessed it, the erectors.
While we will never be able to front-run every negative externality and dysfunction, we can safeguard ourselves against catastrophe by actively strengthening these crucial muscle groups and ensuring their synergy.
The abdominal and glute complexes are a whole separate can o' worms, but the erectors typically present some low hanging fruit that almost anyone can begin to address instantly.
It's been hammered into our brains since day one in the gym how dangerous it is to round our backs when lifting. The visual is always the same; some skinny kid attempting to deadlift 150% of his 1RM while his back slowly begins to resemble a question mark.
"That will NEVER be me!" we tell ourselves...And from that day on, we adopted an anterior pelvic tilt that would make the Kardashians jealous. Those lumbar flexion demons better know to keep on moving when they come our way!
The problem here is that lordosis (excessive extension of the spine) can be just as problematic. It weakens the glutes and abs, locks the erectors in a state of extreme tonality, and ends up just shifting the stress on the spine rather than eliminating it. Even perfectly neutral spines (which nobody can actually claim) can be vulnerable if it's not able to move freely and independently.
So where does that leave us?
We need to be able to train our erectors while taking into account years of poor movement patterns, weakness and, generally, pre-existing low back pain.
Step one is to focus on getting back that lost mobility. We can do this unloaded like with a CatCow. Most people who have been locked in extension for years will notice that it is extremely challenging for their bodies to "let go" and allow flexion to happen. This is a normal part of the process and why it is important to start slow and simple. Over time and with more repetitions, this movement will begin to return.
Step two is the hard part. This involves strengthening the erectors in these newly resurrected positions. And the best way to ease into this, in my opinion, is through something like Swiss Ball Hyperextensions. The exercise itself is perfect for enabling the flexion that we're after and we can control for variables like load, intensity, and fulcrum position (i.e. where the ball is centered). My recommendation here is to start with just bodyweight until you're able to easily achieve 20+ reps with a 3101 tempo and NO PAIN! That last point is obviously the most important so don't be stubborn. Once you can easily handle this volume and intensity, try increasing the load on your erectors by holding a weight against your chest or (my personal favorite) extending your arms above your head.
Step three isn't mandatory but is worth mentioning. There are exercises out there that are meant to train the erectors through flexion and extension with the intent of overloading this pattern. Examples include SSB Goodmornings, Jefferson Curls, and Machine Reverse Hyperextensions. This is the extreme end of the spectrum and has a laundry list of prerequisites before being ready for this stage. But for the trainees that can safely master this step, a pain-free low back is within arms' reach.
There are every few universal truths within the fitness space, but the importance of strong erectors and a functional spine are clearly within this category. The work is boring and uneventful. There isn't much immediate pay-off. We aren't able to relish those skin-splitting pumps like we can with our biceps or collect Instagram admiration like with videos of our heavy bench pressing. It's easy to skip and overlook until it's too late.
Be preemptive and take the monotonous stuff seriously. Your future self will thank you.