Do weight machines increase the risk of low back pain?

by Dr. Phil on September 12, 2013

Free weights vs. machines: Which is better? The debate continues, this time looking at risk of developing low back pain

low-back-painResearchers followed 4610 middle-class white-collar workers (20-81 years old, average 46.6 years) for an average of nearly 5 years. At baseline, they were asked if they participated in any flexibility or strengthening exercises, as well as specific sub-types of these exercises.

At follow-up, the researchers again asked participants about exercise participation, and asked them to report their occurrence of low back pain. They then calculated the risk of developing low back pain based on the specific exercises they performed.

The article, “Are Flexibility and muscle-strengthening activities associated with a higher risk of developing low back pain?” was published ahead of print in the Journal of Science and Medicine and Sport.

The researchers found general performance of flexibility and strengthening activities did not increase the risk for developing low back pain; however, those reporting specific activities of stretching and weight machine training did report a higher incidence of low back pain compared to those not performing the exercises.

free-weight-vs.machineThe researchers speculated that machine-based weight training may increase the risk for low back pain compared to free weight exercise because of:

  • Less use of stabilizing muscles on a machine versus free weight
  • Poor technique using machines
  • Too much resistance with machines

Furthermore, they speculated that persons using weight machines “will gain strength in their major muscle groups but may not be developing the stabilizing or core muscle to support lifting more weight.” The researchers concluded, “General participation in flexibility and muscle-strengthening activities does not increase the risk of developing low back pain. However, specifically stretching or use of weight machines may put one at increased risk of developing low back pain.

More research is needed on specific causes of low back pain that occurred or the specific intensities used by those with low back pain before a definitive conclusion can be made.

It’s important to note that this study does not suggest that strength and flexibility activities cause low back pain, a conclusion some might readily make. Weight machines can provide a valuable benefit for muscular health in the general population, particularly if they are used with proper technique and intensity.  Those with poor core stabilization may also benefit early on from the stabilizing benefit of some machines.

I would recommend ‘mixing up’ workouts by using machines, free weights, body weights, and elastic resistance in your workouts to prevent staleness and promote muscular stimulation in slightly different ways. For example, use a machine bench press, push-up, and supine free weight press for your 3 chest workouts one week. The most important thing is to follow the ACSM guidelines for muscular health in all adults by participating in muscle strengthening activities at least 2 to 3 days a week, exercising 8 to 12 major muscle groups using proper form and intensity.


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