I’ve been lifting weights for over 15 years, am a competitive powerlifter, and am a doctor of physical therapy. Clean and jerks, snatches, deadlifts, and squats are all a part of my normal routine and these are all movements that I coach people on, routinely.

The only weightlifting exercises to avoid with lower back pain are those that are continually aggravating symptoms. There is no “bad” exercise and you will likely just need to decrease your weight or modify your workouts while your symptoms improve with your goal of getting back to your normal training routine.

Tolerable levels of pain when performing the snatch or clean and jerk is usually fine, as long as this does not get progressively worse with time. Ideally, you would have minimal to no pain in your lower back when weightlifting, however sometimes pain with training is just a part of it. 

If this is a routine occurrence then this is when I recommend taking a closer look at form, load progression, and overall volume of work. Through this article, we’ll go into more detail about what you can do if you’re having issues with your low back and need to make some modifications to your workouts.  

Snatch grip deadlift

Table of contents:

  • What weightlifting exercises should I avoid if i’m having lower back pain?
  • Is it okay to have some pain when i’m lifting?
  • When should I go to my doctor?

What Olympic Weightlifting Exercises Should I Avoid If I’m Having Lower Back Pain?

As a rule of thumb, if every time you snatch, clean, jerk, or push-press, and you have significant pain you will want to modify a few factors in your training. I’ll walk you through the modification process I will take my clients through. 

So, the good news, is you don’t have to avoid any of your normal weightlifting movements as long as they feel comfortable and don’t continuously flare things up.

Step 1: Look at your training volume and intensity. Did you recently increase your training volume or intensity? Did you do both at the same time? 

If this is the case, it’s a high likelihood that this is the primary factor in your symptoms. 

What’s the solution? Reduce your volume and intensity and see if this also addresses the severity of your symptoms. If it does, then you’ve found your primary treatment method. Start with 50% or less of your normal volume and intensity and build up from there. 

How much to increase these factors is always going to be variable. It depends greatly on the athlete and how symptoms are progressing. If you have a  coach, allow them to progress you. A conservative approach would be to increase 5-10% per week up to where your training volume was prior and test how you feel one hour, and 24 hours after a training session. 

Step 2: If modifying training volume and intensity doesn’t work, I’d suggest backing off further, and going through a directional preference screening. Essentially, testing bending backwards, forward bending, rotation, and side bending to see if any of those specific movements aggravate symptoms or feel good. 

Once you’ve found a movement that feels good, let’s say forward flexion, start incorporating more movements that include forward flexion and then slowly increase the volume of extension-based activity. The same applies vice-versa.

Step 3: Symptom modification. Ice, heat, NSAIDs, and finding stretching that feels good is also a viable strategy to work with reducing over symptoms in the short term.

This also helps to keep you feeling good enough to continue training. Remember though, you’ll still want to adhere to step 1 and make proper modifications so that you are not continuously flaring things up. 

Is it okay to have some pain when I’m lifting?

Yes, it is okay to have some pain with lifting, as long as it’s tolerable and is not getting significantly worse with training. 

The mistake I see a lot of athletes make is that they start experiencing pain with training and they do one of two things. 

  • Complete rest. This is the wrong approach. It’s fine to take one or two days off if it’s really aggravated, but to do complete rest for several weeks or months is not a winning approach.
  • Push through the pain. This generally just leads to pain that gets worse, or training just becomes so unenjoyable that the athlete just gives up. Or, of course, they seek out help before that point comes up.

There is another way to approach this. Green light, yellow light, red light. 

Green light. If your pain levels are 0-4 (tolerable), and are not significantly worse one hour and 24 hours after training, you have the green light to continue training. Over the course of several weeks, symptoms should start to improve. 

Yellow light. If your pain levels are five to six, 24 hours after training, this is telling you that you may want to back off the intensity a bit or change some other variable in your training. 

Red light. If your pain levels are 6+ this is when you want to make sure you significantly reduce your intensity for your next training session and consider taking a couple days to let symptoms subside. 

When should I go to the doctor if this doesn’t get better?

If you’ve made all of the above modifications and you still can’t seem to make any progress, or you feel like there is something seriously wrong, then you should of course go see your primary care physician or physical therapist.

Ideally, you go to someone who actually knows how to lift and understands your sport. A good resource for this is https://clinicalathlete.com/clinicians.

Clinical Athlete has done a great job cultivating a community of excellent providers who understand weightlifting, powerlifting, and various other strength and non-strength sports. 

Weight Training With A “Bad Back”

This is a common question that people have. I want to address the language of “bad back,” first. 

When we label ourselves with something, we start to believe it. When we start to believe it, we exhibit behavior patterns that create a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

It’s my opinion and recommendation that no one uses that language. 

Sure, it’s true that you might have had back issues on and off or consistently for many years, but, I wouldn’t consider this a “bad back.” 

Additionally, when people label themselves as having a bad back, they often give up on trying to engage in activities that they enjoy because it will flare them up. Instead, I recommend acknowledging the reality that your back hurts, and then to find a training program that works for you. Simple as that. Sometimes this can take several months to a year to find a program that works specifically for you. 

Don’t give up. 

I believe words have tremendous power and oftentimes we unknowingly are confined to a mental prison of our own making. 

For some more context and more ideas of what you potentially shouldn’t do with lower back pain, check out this article.

If you’re a golfer check out the best 11 exercises that I recommend for back pain, complete with videos!

If you have any questions or need help, I’m always here for you. Just shoot an email over to me at [email protected]