If you are a regular user of our Exercise Library then you may have noticed a training point which appears regularly in the “don’t” section. It applies to many exercises and clearly states “don’t arch your back”. Arching the lower back during exercise is one of the most common mistakes people make in the gym during their exercise session and it can have a detrimental effect on your progress.
Two different arches
There are not many exercise that manage to stay true to perfect technique and escape from the dreaded back arch. It can materialize in two ways: the first being the long hold where the back arches during the contraction in a slow, almost controlled manner and then relaxes again as the movement returns to the starting position. The second is the instigator of the exerciser’s worst enemy: the body swing. This is where the unsuspecting gym-goer arches their lower back to create momentum to aid the movement, which again is bad technique.
The Long Arch The Body Swing
Bench Press Biceps Curls
Chest Press Hammer Curls
Chest Fly C Curls
Leg Extension Machine Lat Pull down
Leg Press Machine Front Raises
Barbell Squat Lateral Raises
There are more but these are the main ones that you should be aware of.
Why is the back arch so bad?
It is very poor technique to arch your back in any way during exercises (except for exercises like the dorsal raise where it is the main movement ) and it basically signifies that you have made another common mistake.
In your quest to become body beautiful you have selected a weight that your body just cannot lift, it is too heavy for the muscle you are trying to train and so the body automatically starts to recruit any other muscle that can possibly help. More often than not it recruits the lower back and primarily the erector spinae muscles. These are a group of very small and individually weak muscles, but when they work together they can be very strong indeed. However because they are a group of small muscles it is very possible to injure just one of them by attempting to move a weight that is too much for the muscle you are training.
Once this one muscle or group of fibers is injured the rest of those little back muscles like to help again. This time they lock up and try to protect the injured team mate. Now this injury can keep you out of the gym for up to a month. Repeating this gym mistake can also put more and more pressure on the vertebrae in your spine and this can lead to over-arching of the lower back which is called lordosis and in turn this can lead to nasty complications liked a slipped or herniated disc. Depending on the efficiency of your local health department, this can keep you out of the gym for a year and will almost definitely change the way you train forever.
Injuries aside it is also bad technique because it shows that you have a weak core. Remember: it is your core strength that will ensure good posture during an exercise and keep that back from arching. This means that you need to focus on using your core during every exercise you do and if it starts to fail then you have to stop immediately before you cause yourself an injury.
How to avoid arching your back
Do not try and restrain the natural movements of your body with a weights belt. Yes the weights belt can help but by regularly using the weights belt you are ultimately making your core lazy and weak. You can learn more on our opinion of the weights belt here.
Learn Proper Technique
Generally with exercise there is one right way and many wrong ways. Just because it teaches you the technique in a magazine does not make it the true technique. You will be amazed at the number of publications that have made it onto the shelves of book shops and magazine traders that have absolutely no idea of what a safe and correct technique is. So where do you get the information? I hear you cry. Your best bet is to always get the exercise technique from a fully qualified personal trainer and get them to explain to you why you have to do it that way.
As in all professions there are some very dubious personal trainers out there who have either no knowledge or who have lost the love for the job. If you visit our Exercise Library we have hundreds of exercises showing perfect technique which will be a good start for you to learn. We have a combined experience of over 20 years of personal training and specialise in working with people with disabilities where it is paramount that they learn 100% correct technique. Therefore you can trust us that we have made absolutely sure that we teach 100% correct technique.
Learn how to use your core muscles
We have written about what your core muscles are here. Once you understand where your core muscles are and their job then you have a better chance of understanding how to activate them. The main core muscle that has to be activated is your transverse abdominals and it does a job very similar to that of the weights belt. It gives support through your body by tightening and relaxing as and when it is needed.
Unfortunately for most of us it is pretty inactive as we can survive with it being in a very relaxed state and letting the other muscles like the erector spinae do the work for it. Your transverse abdominals are activated by drawing your tummy in (like you are at the beach – .) from the sides. The result should be that your belly button moves in and up and that your tummy becomes flatter. At this point you should not be going red in the face and groaning as if you are constipated.
Like a dimmer switch
Instead it should be quite a small movement like a dimmer switch on a light, rather than turning it up full you a simply taking it to about 30%. This is how you should be all the time day in day out and when you require more core strength such as during one of the back bending exercises, you turn up the dimmer switch and draw your tummy in more, giving yourself increased core strength to maintain good technique throughout the exercise. It is very difficult to learn this technique over the internet so I advise you to find the nearest practitioner of Pilates to teach you properly how to use your core muscles to their full effect.
Pick your weight carefully
I use to be as guilty as the next guy. Pick the weight that makes you look like the toughest guy in the gym and struggle to produce even one repetition that resembles the exercise you were initially attempting. Of course when I got my qualifications that soon put a stop to my ego controlling my weight choice in the gym and instead I concentrated on technique.
And perfect your technique
When you have learnt proper technique then you will know when the body starts to cheat and you are no longer performing the exercise correctly. You must stop just before you lose perfect technique – after all it is your body’s way of telling you that you have fatigued the muscle you were working on and now it is having to get help. So when picking your weight you must choose one where you can complete all the repetitions you have set yourself with a technique that is perfect. On the last repetition it must push you but you never lose the technique and in your head you know that perhaps you could have done one more repetition with perfect technique but that would have been it. It will take some trial and error but always start with a lighter weight and build up and always stop when you stop using correct technique.
Don’t cheat your body from a proper workout and don’t set yourself up for an injury by using your lower back to help you with an exercise. Safe training may sound boring but if you stick to strict technique styles then you will get more benefits and become stronger than your gym counterpart who arches like a caterpillar on a leaf when trying to press his weights.
Visit our Exercise Library to learn proper techniques and then either use a mirror to check your technique or better still a personal trainer.
Good luck with your exercise training and please free to leave any questions on the comments below.