Lower back pain from weight lifting is quite common. It's typical to have tiring muscles after starting a new fitness regimen or when pushing yourself more than usual. However, if the soreness persists or becomes worse than usual after lifting weights, there is a chance you may have injured your back.
As you age, it is not unusual to experience back pain. According to NINDS, most individuals aged 30 years and above¹ are more likely to experience lower back pain. Most of the time, chronic and acute cases of back pain are linked to mild strains and sprains. Although age is a major reason for increased back pain, several other factors² can contribute, such as heavy lifting.
While lifting weights has various benefits, such as strengthening your bones, increasing your metabolism, and improving cardiovascular fitness - it can have downsides. With poor programming or improper technique, weightlifting can place stress on parts of your body, like your spine or back. This can lead to injuries, which often present as lower back pain or stiffness. The intensity of the pain can vary person-to-person, ranging from a dull ache to a stabbing discomfort.
Back pain from lifting weights may start as a sudden sharp pain during your routine. Alternatively, the pain may manifest gradually and become severe as days pass. You should stop lifting immediately if you feel pain in your back. You should seek medical advice from your healthcare provider if recovery takes longer than two weeks.
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Straining your back muscles can be quite painful and the symptoms may vary depending on where your injury is located. If caused by lifting weights, here are some symptoms to look out for that may indicate you have pulled a back muscle:
Muscle spasms or cramps in your back
Back pain that worsens during movement but stops as you rest
Pain shooting down your hips and legs
Stiffness and aching in your lower back muscles
Overstretching a tendon or muscle can cause back strain. Working excessively hard or using improper lifting techniques can also lead to a back strain, while a long-term back strain can occur from activities that involve repetitive and excessive muscle movement.
Poor lifting technique or posture must be addressed, as this is the most important way to prevent back pain when lifting. For example, too much rounding of the back can overstress the spine and hips, making a strain much more likely.
Common causes of back pain include:
Repetitive movements that overstress your back muscles
Twisting while lifting
Lifting weights that are too heavy
Poor lifting posture
Multiple factors can put you at risk of a back strain. Here are a few other risk factors:
Having tight hamstrings
Weak abdominal or back muscles
Excessively curving your lower back
Sports that involve constant pulling or pushing
Repetitive and/or heavy lifting can strain your back muscles and overstretching or even tearing these muscles can be very painful. Muscle tears or spasms after a strain can also cause scarring on the muscles, which can cause further back stiffness and tightness.
Disc injuries can occur from lifting heavy weights, such as deadlifts and squats. The discs serve as a cushion between the bones of your spine, and a ruptured disc occurs when the inside of the disc begins to leak outwards from between the bones. However, it is worth noting that a ruptured disk does not always cause back pain.
If you have been experiencing severe back pain after lifting weights, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional, such as a physical therapist or doctor. However, if your pain is mild, there are at-home treatments that you can try to ease your pain. Most of the time, your back will recover with time and pain gradually begin to ease.
Getting some rest can help reduce your pain. However, you should avoid bed rest for extended periods. Being inactive for long durations can lead to muscle weakness and stiffness, making pain and mobility worse.
Instead, consider lying on your back for short periods and try placing pillows underneath your knees. As your pain eases, start with gentle exercises, such as walking or swimming, to help with recovery. While resting helps in the short term, ensure you continue to stay active to avoid losing your fitness and to maintain mobility.
A back massage can help relax tense muscles and reduce your pain. What’s more, a gentle back massage³ can encourage the release of endorphins, which help fight pain. Consider purchasing over-the-counter pain-relieving creams for your back massage, if you decide to do this at home.
Taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)⁴ can reduce inflammation, pain, and swelling. However, if you are on other medication, ensure you consult your physician or family doctor to make sure these are safe to take.
It is worth noting that while these drugs will help reduce pain and discomfort, they may have several side effects⁴. So, it may be appropriate to take them for short periods. Otherwise, other medications can be prescribed by your doctor, such as muscle relaxants and painkillers.
Apply heat or ice to your back
When you experience lower back pain from lifting, consider applying ice to your back, and be sure to wrap the ice pack in a towel before placing it on your skin. Using ice on your back injury reduces the swelling, inflammation, and pain immediately after the injury occurs. You can use it as needed or routinely for 10-20 minute applications, every 3-4 hours, for the first 2-3 days.
After your pain subsides, you can apply heat to the sore area. Heat can help improve blood flow to your injured back to quicken the healing process. Typically, you should apply heat after 2-3 days of applying ice, as inflammation begins to settle. Try using an electric heating pad or a hot water bottle, but avoid using heat for more than 20 minutes, to prevent burns.
Compression and support
Consider finding wearable back support but first, consult your physical therapist or doctor and find out whether a girdle or belt is appropriate for your situation. Ideally, it should be used during repetitive or heavy movements for short periods, as back braces protect the lower back by reducing stress and strain when moving.
There is no standard recovery time for lower back pain. It can vary from person to person and depends on the severity of the injury. While mild strains and sprains may take a couple of weeks, more severe conditions can take several weeks or months.
After you recover from your back pain, your healthcare provider may ask you to start exercising again, using a rehabilitation routine. Strengthening your back muscles will help with recovery and lessens the chance of future injuries.
Try not to rush your recovery process. It will also be best to avoid heavy or repetitive lifting until your pain eases and you can jump, run, walk, twist or bend. Rushing your recovery journey and resuming lifting too early can prolong your back pain so if necessary, consult a professional for expert advice.
Generally, a complete lifting routine can work all your body muscles, including the ones in your lower back. While this is beneficial, there is always a risk of experiencing back pain after lifting weights. However, you can minimize these risks by preparing the body before lifting or exercising, which can significantly reduce the risk of developing back pain during or after your routine.
Below are a few tips that can help to prevent lower back pain:
Before you start lifting weights, stretch and utilize warm-up exercises
If necessary, wear a belt to help support your spine, brace your core and develop proper lifting techniques.
Do more repetitions with lighter weights
Switch up the areas you work on every day to avoid overstressing the same muscles
Maintain a healthy weight and sleep routine
Eat a well-balanced diet
Using your legs to pick up heavy objects, not your back
Take your lifting or exercising routine down a notch if you experience low back pain after progressing too fast.
Your doctor or healthcare professional will likely use a combination of physical examination and analysis of your medical history to diagnose your back pain. For instance, if you’ve had a back injury in the past, this new bout of back pain may well be related to that. What’s more, the physical examination might involve stretches to test flexibility, as well as feeling the area for inflammation.
If required, your doctor or physical therapist can request a CT scan, MRI, or X-Ray to get a better idea of the extent of your back injury. From there, your healthcare professional will be able to devise a treatment plan.
Lower back pain may subside on its own. However, if your pain is severe and you experience any of the following listed symptoms, it is best to see a doctor as soon as possible:
Pain radiating through your legs
Chills and fever
Vomiting or nausea
Difficulty with bowel and bladder movements
Persistent severe pain
Difficulty walking or maintaining balance
When it comes to lifting weights, ensure you take preventative measures to limit the risk of hurting your back. If you strain or hurt your back when lifting weights, consider some home treatments, including taking medications, applying heat and/or ice, and regular exercises. While rest is necessary, aim to continue moving to prevent stiffness.
Typically, back strains are often mild and should heal within days or a couple of weeks. If your back pain persists or worsens, visit your healthcare provider for professional help. It will also be best to avoid lifting weights until your healthcare provider gives you the go-ahead.