Do you lift weights or do other strength training? If so, congratulations. Whether you use free weights, resistance bands, or even just your own body weight, strengthening your muscles regularly yields significant mental and physical benefits, from improving your mood and energy levels to increasing balance and flexibility and reducing the risk of falls. And that’s especially important for people 50 and up.
“Weight training helps build bone, increases metabolism, and battles sarcopenia, which is the natural loss of muscle mass as we get older,” says Kathie C. Garbe, Ph.D., chief research and education officer for the International Council on Active Aging. “It’s key to maintaining your quality of life so you can stay independent and continue to do everyday things, like carry groceries without people having to help you.”
But heavy weightlifting can also set the stage for back pain or worsen a back injury if you don’t do it right. A study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport in July 2014 involving more than 4,600 adults (average age 47) found that those who used weight training machines to strengthen muscles had a higher risk of lower back pain compared with those who didn’t perform muscle strengthening activities or performed calisthenic or free weight activities.
How to strength train safely
Don’t let weight training work against you. Here are five ways to get stronger while still saving your spine from injury.
1. Get your doctor’s OK. That’s especially true if you’re in your 70s or 80s. You’ll want to make sure that you don’t have any underlying age-related health issues that may make weight training unsafe, says Garbe, who is also an associate professor of health and wellness at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. That includes severe osteoporosis or uncontrolled high blood pressure.
2. Work your core. Strong core muscles, which include your abs, hips, and back, can protect you from back attacks when you’re weight training, Garbe says. The bridge plank is one of her favorites for building core strength because it’s low risk. “Your body won’t let you do too much,” she says.
To perform a bridge plank, lie face down on the ground and push yourself up on your forearms (elbows) and toes to form a bridge with your back. Keep your back flat; don't let it sag. Hold each plank for 5 seconds or longer. If you’ve never done strength training before, Garbe suggests building your core strength first before hitting the weight room or trying weight machines or free weights.
3. Focus on form. Once you progress to weight machines or free weights, get help to make sure you’re lifting correctly. “Proper form is paramount,” says Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise science and director of the human performance laboratory at Lehman College, City University of New York. Lifting with improper form is the general reason that exercise causes back pain. “The more reps you cumulatively do with improper form, the more you’re setting yourself up for a potential back injury,” Schoenfeld says.
One of the most common mistakes: Rounding your back and not tightening your core muscles when lifting. A quick fix? Keep the lower back engaged by maintaining a more erect lifting posture. Proper form can vary slightly, depending on height and weight. To learn what proper form looks and feels like, Schoenfeld recommends lifting weights while watching high-quality strength training videos by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, taking a weight training class, or finding a qualified personal trainer.
4. Ease into it. Using weights that are too heavy can throw off your form and lead to back pain. The right entry-level weight varies per person. In general, start with a free weight amount that allows you to do 10 to 15 reps without too much of a struggle on the last few reps. As that weight starts to get easier to lift after a month or so, increase your weight.
Or start with your body weight and progress to free weights.
5. Don’t multitask. Practicing proper form along with a weight training video is one thing. It’s another to lift weights while watching TV or talking on the phone, which is a good way to get injured. “When you’re lifting weights, all of your focus should be on the movement,” Schoenfeld says. “When you have a weight in your hand, an object that’s causing a stress to your body, you don’t want to be preoccupied.”