These 6 Workout Mistakes Might Be Giving You Back Pain: An Exercise Physiologist Explains

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I went over four years without setting foot into a gym (or lifting a single weight) due to a severe case of chronic fatigue and Lyme disease. As an exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning specialist, this was super frustrating! I just returned to the gym in April of this year. Despite being sick, my posture never faltered because I did specific exercises and stretches at home. I was able to design a program that wasn't weight bearing and is a great way for people at all fitness levels—whether you work out several days a week or are just beginning—to improve their posture. If I hadn't done these movements, there's a good chance I'd be experiencing pain, including shoulder and back pain. Here are six things that might be causing your back pain because they're exacerbating bad posture, and exactly how to fix it:

1. You don't do reverse flies.

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The reverse fly helps strengthen the muscles that pull your shoulders back, which is essential for those with rounded shoulders. However, people rarely do them! Your rows and lat pulldowns are not enough. Yep, you read that right.

While I was sick, I did reverse flies several times a week. What did I use? Nothing, just my body. Stand in an athletic position, knees over your ankles in a slight squat. Cross your arms in front of your body. Then pull your arms back as far as possible. Hold this for 5 to 10 seconds. You should feel the muscles between your shoulder blades contract. Repeat as often as you like (several times a day if your posture is truly bad). Since returning to the gym, I do the exact same exercise but using weight, my favorite being a cable system.

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2. You do exercises that encourage more hunching and rounding.

None of us needs to be doing exercises that require hunching and rounding the torso, which exacerbates postural problems. Naturally, the gym is chock-full of abdominal machines (which require torso rounding) that draw people like magnets. The gym I just returned to has more abdominal machines than any single piece of equipment. It’s very upsetting and frustrating for me, as I see people hurting themselves. Avoid these machines and resort to balancing core strength instead.

3. You don't stretch your hamstrings.

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Tight hamstrings pull your pelvis back, which strains your low back, which then affects the alignment of your entire spine. If you aren’t stretching your hamstrings, it’s time to start. Please don’t try to touch your toes on the first go! My guess is your back will just round, which isn't productive. Instead, place your hands on the kitchen counter (or bench or bar if at the gym), and lean forward. No hunching allowed! Hinge from your hips and keep a flat back. The higher the surface, the easier the move. While I was sick, I did this several times a week using my bathroom sink, kitchen counter, etc. Since returning to the gym, I do this in between exercises using a bench or exercise ball.

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4. You don't stretch your hip flexors.

Tight hip flexors pull your pelvis forward, which strains your low back, which then, you guessed it, affects your whole spine. My personal favorite method for stretching the hip flexors is lunges. While being sick, I did these in my hallway (holding on to the wall), because my strength and balance weren't great. Or I would kneel on a soft surface and lean my torso back, lifting out of the waist and hinging from the hip. Since returning to the gym, I do lunges using weights, so I get strengthening and stretching in one efficient move.

5. You don't do exercises that extend your spine.

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Most people do plenty of activities that flex their spine (such as slouching when sitting). To counteract this, you need to do exercises that extend your spine (or pull it back in the opposite direction). While sick, I would simply prop myself up in bed (from a facedown position) on my forearms. Since returning to the gym, I do push-ups, which are basically the same thing but instead place my hands palm down and involve repetitions of lowering my torso to the floor (and then raising it back up).

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6. You don't stretch or strengthen your chest.

If your chest is tight, it causes further rounding at the shoulders. While being sick, I simply used reverse flies to stretch my chest—as your arms are pulled back, you should feel the stretch in your chest. Since returning to the gym, I also incorporate chest flies. If the angle is right (and if done properly), chest flies are an excellent way to stretch and strengthen the chest. A foam roller can also be used to stretch the chest, which can feel very therapeutic if you tend to be tight there.

A few minutes and movements per day is all it takes to start feeling better, and it's just as important for people who work out as it is for people who are bed-bound like I was. Let it feel good. Happy moving!

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