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After an extended period of time away from the gym, experts advise starting at a lower intensity to help avoid injury. Svetikd/Getty Images
  • As you head back into the gym, weightlifting might be part of your routine, but proper technique can help prevent injury to your muscles and spine.
  • Learning about the spine can help understand the importance of proper weightlifting.
  • The National Spine Health Foundation stresses the importance of spine health at all ages.

Whether you’re getting back into the gym groove or going for the first time, experts suggest keeping your spine in mind as you engage in exercise.

“When you take care of your spine, you’re taking care of your whole body. What we see as we’re coming out of the pandemic is that many Americans are going to be looking for quick fixes as they return to the gym, but we’re raising awareness that a multi-prong approach to wellness gets the best results for people,” Dr. Rita Roy, CEO of the National Spine Health Foundation (NSHF), told Healthline.

This is particularly true for those who want to weightlift and haven’t been trained on safe lifting techniques, she said, as they are more likely to sustain a back or neck injury while weightlifting.

Understanding the basics of the spine is a good first step in protecting it while working out. For starters, the spine is a long stud of 33 vertebrae that extends from the base of the skull to the top of the hip.

“A lot of times, people don’t understand that the neck and back are part of a continuous chain, and the goal of spine health is to keep that spine in alignment; there are natural curves to the spine and we want to support those natural curves,” Roy said.

Keeping the spine aligned helps you stay in balance, strong, and mobile.

“That’s why it’s important to think about strengthening your core…but there is actually more than one core in your body,” said Roy.

For example, there are core muscles that support the:

  • cervical spine, which is the neck or top part of the spine
  • thoracic spine, which is the area on the back where the ribs attach to the spine
  • lumbar spine, which is the lower back area

“These numerous cores are important to wake up and engage and incorporate into your fitness and wellness,” said Roy.

To prevent injury, she said focus on exercises that strengthen the muscles that support the spine such as stretching, yoga, and appropriate weightlifting.

While having a strong core can help prevent injuries during weightlifting, Christina Brown, MS (exercise science), certified nutrition and fitness coach, said it’s not necessary to have a strong core before jumping into weightlifting.

“Instead, they should start slow, start with lighter weights, and because they will be using their core to stabilize and keep correct form, they will build their core muscles as they build the other muscles they are working,” Brown told Healthline.

Incorporating core strengthening exercises that don’t require weights is possible, too.

“Because most core exercises are done with just your body weight, it is possible to work your core more often as it doesn’t need as long of a recovery as, say, your chest and shoulders would need after doing a bench press with a challenging weight,” Brown said.

Other tips Brown suggested include:

Get help from a personal trainer

A certified personal trainer can create a personalized program specific to you based on your experience, injuries, goals, and more. They can also teach proper and safe lifting techniques.

“[They] will make sure that you execute each exercise in a way that will prevent injuries…they will determine what a safe weight is to begin with and when you are ready to increase the amount of weight you are lifting,” said Brown.

Start slow

If you’ve never lifted weights before, don’t pick up a 50-pound dumbbell.

“Weightlifting is meant to stress your muscles so that they can repair themselves and thus grow, but starting with too heavy a weight will cause injury as opposed to just stress,” said Brown.

Add in cardio and flexibility training

Although lifting is the main form of exercise Brown recommends to her clients who want to lose weight and reduce fat, she said it’s important to add in cardiovascular training because of the benefits it brings to heart health.

She also suggests working on flexibility and mobility because they aid in the ability to perform weightlifting exercises correctly.

“For example, in order to perform a squat, you need to have good mobility in your ankles, knees, hips, and thoracic spine. Having good flexibility and mobility will also help to prevent injuries (both during exercise and during activities of daily living),” she said.

Take days off

Giving muscles time to recover is essential. In fact, Brown said when weightlifting, muscles need at least 48 hours of recovery before working them again.

“There are many ways to split up your workouts depending on your schedule and your goals, but the main thing to make sure of is to not work the same muscle two days in a row. That will overstress the muscles, not give it enough time to rest and repair, and can lead to injuries,” she said.

Stop lifting if you feel pain

Pain while lifting is a sign that you are lifting incorrectly and need to stop.

“When you have the correct form for a lifting exercise, you should only feel the muscles you are focusing on working hard; you should never feel pain in the muscles or the joints,” said Brown.

Even if you have the best technique and best workout plan, accidents happen.

“If you suffer a back injury (whether in a car accident or at the gym), the first thing that most doctors will say…alternate between applying ice or heat and to utilize over-the-counter medications to manage pain at home,” said Roy.

However, she stressed the importance of following instructions on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications like Aleve, Motrin, and ibuprofen because they are intended to be used as directed.

“You’ve got to get ahead of the pain and the swelling for these medications to work,” Roy said. “These medications are not designed to just take one; you’re supposed to take them over the course of a couple of days.”

If a few days go by and you’re still feeling pain, reach out to your primary care doctor who can direct you to a spine specialist, if needed.

Additionally, Roy pointed out that a physical therapist is another professional who could be helpful.

“In many states in America, you can see a physical therapist without a prescription from a doctor. That’s something we encourage people to find out about in [their state],” said Roy.

As you emerge from the pandemic and back into the gym, weightlifting can provide fitness benefits. However, proper technique and easing into workouts are key to preventing injury to your spine and muscles.