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Weightlifting Over 30: How To Avoid Lower Back Injury | Personal Trainer Tokyo Titan

I first started lifting weights when I was in my mid-twenties. Now, in my mid-thirties with two kids, my training looks very different to what it used to.

My body doesn't recover as fast, and if I trained like I used to, especially now that I'm lifting heavier weights and training more frequently, I'd put myself at risk of injury due to muscle fatigue, especially in the lower back.

A lot of people tell you that as you get older you should start using light weights, but to that, I say “baloney”. I like training for both muscle and strength, and the only way to train for strength is using heavy weights.

Today, I'm going to share with you what my training looks like now that I'm in my mid-thirties so that I can continue training 5 to 6 days a week while still incorporating heavy training days.

Squat Variants

The first big change to my training was exercise choice, the most notable being the squat. Before, I used to do a mixture of high bar squats and low bar squats. These days I only perform low bar squats.

With the bar positioned higher on the back, high bar squats activate the quadriceps and the glutes evenly and have a large range of motion, making them a great exercise for building muscle. But unfortunately, the higher bar position does create more torque in the lower back.

In contrast to this, with its lower center of gravity, the low bar squat creates less torque in the lower back. But as a drawback, it also shifts the balance more towards the glutes and has a shorter range of motion.

And one more difference between these two squats that is neither good nor bad, with a lower center of gravity and shorter bar path, you can lift more weight with a low bar squat.

While this increase in weight isn't you becoming stronger, it does allow you to place more load on the muscles. But of course, heavier weights create more stress on the body.

Overall, low bar squats are much better for the lower back. But unfortunately, switching completely off of low bar squats means less engagement of the quadriceps. I used to train low bar squat on heavy days and high bar squat on light days, but now, even that's too much for my lower back. So instead, on heavy days, I train both the low bar squat and the front squat.

Of all the barbell squat variants, the front squat has the most engagement of the quadriceps while also creating the least amount of torque in the lower back, while still having a large range of motion. This makes the front squat a great exercise for offsetting the drawbacks of low bar squats.

Deadlift Variants

The next big change to my training was the deadlift variants. These days, of the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift, I only perform the sumo deadlift. Again, the sumo deadlift creates less torque in the lower back and engages the glutes more, especially in the gluteus minimus, which is on the side.

But just like the low bar squat, performing only the sumo variant of the deadlift also has its drawbacks, the first being the shorter range of motion. With your legs further apart, the bar path is shorter, which is not as good for muscle growth. The second drawback is that by shifting more of the load onto the glutes, some of it is also taken away from the hamstrings.

To offset this, on the same heavy lower body training days, I perform dumbbell Romanian deadlifts, and on light lower body training days, I perform barbell Romanian deadlifts. The Romanian deadlift is the best exercise for hamstring development, and by performing two variants of the Romanian deadlift across my training week, I can ensure that my hamstrings are still getting properly trained.

It's worth noting that for sumo deadlifts on the heavy lower body training days, I use an alternating grip. An alternating grip allows you to lift more weight than a standard overhand grip, placing more load on the muscles without having to resort to wrist wraps. If you can't grip the barbell with your own hands, you shouldn't be lifting it. The downside to using an alternating grip is that it can create a muscle imbalance, but this is easily avoided by switching which way your palms are facing between each set.

Also to further protect my back in deadlifts, I always reset my bar stance between reps. When performing deadlifts, many people will touch the barbell to the ground and go straight into the next rep to save time. This is a big mistake!

The most common cause of injury in the deadlift is lifting the bar off the ground incorrectly. Resetting the bar between each rep significantly reduces the risk of using the wrong form. Plus at max, it's only an additional 5 seconds per rep. It's not that much difference in time.

Also worth noting is that I use a belt for all my squat and deadlift variants and other exercises that require a deadlift to get the bar into the start position, such as the Hanging Grip Barbell Calf Raise, which by the way, is my favorite calf exercise. But you may be surprised to learn that wearing a belt doesn't actually decrease the risk of injury. Bracing your core against the belt allows you to lift slightly more weight and place just a little bit more load on the muscles, and has nothing to do with injury prevention. At this point, the only safety benefit that wearing a belt has for me is that because I'm so used to bracing against the belt, when not using the belt, I'm more likely to brace incorrectly.

Training to Failure

The next big change in my training was training to failure. One of the most effective things you can do for building muscle size is manipulating how many reps you are away from failure across different weeks. Unfortunately, when you train using heavy barbell exercises, that style of training is for the young.

These days I train with all my sets two reps away from failure. While it might not be as effective for building muscle size, it is more effective for building muscle strength. And as we know, more strength means you can lift more weight, which means more load on the muscles. Plus there are many other ways to increase muscle size besides just strategically fatiguing the muscles.

Deload Frequency

And speaking of fatigue, the next big change to my training now that I'm in my mid-thirties is my deload frequency.

A lot of people, when they hear the word “deload”, they think that means not training for a set period of time. That's not a deload. That's taking a break from training.

A deload is when you train using between 50 and 75% of the number of sets you normally do, 50 and 75% of the number of reps you normally do, and 50 and 75% of the weights you normally use.

For example, let's say you usually do four sets of squats for ten reps using 100 kilograms. On a deload, you would do 2 to 3 sets of 5 to 7 reps using 50 to 75 kilograms.

Now obviously for bodyweight exercises, you can't reduce the weight, but because bodyweight exercises are already low stress, just reducing the number of sets and reps is enough.

Typically a deload will last for an entire week of training. Deloads are a great way of reducing your body's fatigue, while also promoting muscle recovery and future muscle growth.

Before, I used to deload about once every 8 to 10 weeks based on how I felt at the time. Now in my mid thirties, I program deloads into my training program every five weeks. Due to a combination of age, using heavier weights and training at a higher frequency, while I hate to admit it, it's much easier for fatigue to build up in my body, especially when on a cut.

Programming deloads into my training routine and no longer relying on intuition ensures that I allow my body to recover properly between training cycles, without falling into the trap of convincing myself I can handle it, only to wind up overtraining. And when you overtrain, it sets your progress back by at least a few weeks, making it far better to deload more frequently and ensure that you're preventing any fatigue from building up.

When programing deloads into training cycles, many people actually recommend deloading once every four weeks. If you need to deload this frequently to recover properly, absolutely do this. But keep in mind that deloading once every four weeks means that only 75% of your training program is actual training. Provided you're not overtraining, increasing this percentage to 80% by deloading once every five weeks will yield better results in a shorter amount of time.

Lower Back Exercises

The last big difference to my training is how I incorporate lower back exercises. On all my lower body training days, I perform a bodyweight, lower back exercise in a superset with an abs or obliques exercise. This has several benefits, the most obvious being strengthening my lower back muscles. The next benefit this has is that it places a very low amount of stress on the lower back and promotes blood circulation and recovery.

The final benefit is that by performing a lower back exercise before an abs or obliques exercise in a superset is that fatigues the lower back first, making sure that I am not accidentally engaging my back when training my abs and obliques. This allows for far more effective training.

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