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Why Your Cardio May Cause Back Pain

By Alexander VanHouten, Master Trainer & Life Time Education Specialist

Does your lower back hurt?

According to a recent poll, 31% of adults experience back pain on a regular basis.[i]

To an extent, some of the pain we experience can be an unavoidable result of accidents or genetics. However, for the majority of people I work with it is the unnecessary result of lifestyle or training mishaps.

That’s right, most chronic back pain is AVOIDABLE!

Since this is a topic that affects such a significant percentage of people, there are many variables worth covering, but I’m going to focus today on the most common, unexpected offender on the gym floor.

The Treadmill.

Why Your Backside Is Important

Please indulge me as I offer a brief lesson in biomechanics.

Walking and running are important movements that propel us through 3-dimensional space. We wouldn’t get far without them!

These movements, though mostly mastered by children as young as 3-years-old, are extremely complex.

In a nutshell, both movements can be boiled down to the primary movement generated in the hip joint (glenofemoral, for those who prefer more specificity).

Hip extension is the action of your thigh (femur) bone being pulled powerfully from in front of you to directly behind you.

Try it. Stand up on your right leg. (Can you balance?) Then swing your left leg from front to back. Hold it up behind you for a couple seconds. What main muscle is working to pull your leg back and keep it there?

Your glutes! That’s right. Your booty-muscles are the “prime movers” or “hardest workers” in the hip extension that powers walking and running, among many other ultra-important movements you perform hundreds of times per day!

Because it’s so involved in controlling such a powerful system (in trainer-speak we call it the lumbo-pelvic hip complex), your gluteus maximus is by far the largest, strongest muscle in your body.[ii] It should also be the most active during repetitive full-body movements.

In many movements, however, it’s not. And when glutes do not fire appropriately, it leads to overtight hip flexors, hamstrings, and back pain. It’s important for people who have these symptoms to do everything in their power to get hip extension working like it’s supposed to.

One machine in the gym more than all the others is the unfortunate contributor to this kind of maladaptive tightness and pain.

Do you remember which one?

Why the Treadmill Shouldn’t Be Your Full Cardio Plan

Ah, the sweet, sweaty sight of the cardio floor during prime time… Rows of treadmills full of people bounce-jogging to their favorite tunes, watching T.V., or chatting with their workout buddies. It’s probably one of the most contagious forms of energy aside from the blazing glowsticks of a trance flashmob.

That is, if you don’t recognize the lumbar disc degeneration originating right before your very eyes!

What’s wrong with the treadmill?

We’ve established the importance of that main movement in walking/running hip extension through the pull of the glute muscle.

Naturally, the body does this against an unmoving surface like grass, concrete, carpet, or whatever is under your feet as you move over it.

But you aren’t moving on a treadmill. THE TREADMILL IS MOVING UNDER YOU.

While the belt races from front to back, your foot is pulled behind you. Then what do you do? Pick up your leg FROM BEHIND you and move it IN FRONT OF YOU. This is called HIP FLEXION, and it is the EXACT OPPOSITE movement of HIP EXTENSION.

Although from the outside running or walking on a treadmill looks the same as running or walking on the ground, the movement is inherently the opposite of how the body is supposed to work.

Instead of repetitive extension by dominant activation of your butt muscle, you are pounding repetitive flexion by activation of all the muscles in front of your hip. This leads to maladaptive movement during your workout. Worse, it causes your hip flexors to be overly dominant and, in effect, “shuts down” the nervous system connection to the important muscles behind you. This is called “reciprocal inhibition,”[iii] and it means that the more often you shorten, strengthen, and tighten your hip flexors, the less active your glutes will be.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the treadmill doesn’t activate your glutes AT ALL. In fact, in some research it’s touted as the most activating exercise you can do for cardio.[iv] But this study only looks at the immediate activation and not the long-term results of reciprocal inhibition on the human back, knees, hips and ankles. I’d suggest the long-term picture matters.

Throw in the fact that many of us spend our days sitting (hip flexors shortened and active, glutes lengthened and inactive) and do not stretch our hip flexors or activate our glutes regularly throughout the day. All told, you have a recipe for some serious self-inflicted, completely-avoidable pelvic shifting and hip instability that results in, you guessed it, back pain.

How Can I Keep My Cardio AND Prevent This Maladaptive Pattern?

Mix up your cardio routine.

Use the elliptical machine, row machine, StairMaster, and jump rope. Additionally, swim, or even sweat outside!

Climb a hill.

If you’re going to be on the treadmill, an incline of even 1.0% can make it more engaging for your glutes.

Foam roll and stretch your hip flexor.

They are tight and need to be loosened! Read more about this HERE.

Activate your glutes.

Start your cardio session with bridges on the floor or Swiss ball, deadlifts, donkey kicks, or even floor cobras. Anything that teaches your backside to activate will help!

Stop stretching your hamstrings.

They’re tight because they’re doing what your glutes should be doing. Strengthening glutes and loosening hip flexors will do more for your hamstrings than stretching them will.

Strengthen your core.

Your core muscles also stabilize your hips. The stronger they are, the better off your back will be! Try kettlebells or VipRs to get the job done in a new way that’s good for your brain at the same time.

Final words… As a trainer, I want you to get the full benefit of a well-designed exercise program: cardio (remember those intervals), weight-training, stretching and everything in between to maximize your gains and use your body the way it works best! I definitely don’t want you to inadvertently cause yourself future pain. While there may be many reasons behind back pain, your well-intentioned exercise routine shouldn’t be one of them!

Do you have back or hip pain? Are you interested in reviewing and maybe revising your workout routine? Talk with a fitness professional, who can offer his/her guidance on a protocol that would serve your individual needs, fitness level and personal goals.

If you want to learn more about how we design our programs to support fitness and performance using our Core 3 Training™ methodologies

Download the Core 3 Training Manual.

Thanks for reading. If you learned something new, please share the post on your favorite social media channel.

[i] Gallup 2011. http://www.gallup.com/poll/154169/Chronic-Pain-Rates-Shoot-Until-Americans-Reach-Late-50s.aspx?ref=image.

[ii] Rod Seeley, Trent Stephens, Philip Tate. Anatomy and Physiology. 2015. McGraw-Hill Global Education Holdings.

[iii] Crone C.,Dan Med Bull. Reciprocal inhibition in man. Neurophysiological Institute, University of Copenhagen. 1993 Nov;40(5):571-81.

[iv] Women’s Health. December 2007. http://www.womenshealthmag.com/fitness/butt-blasting-cardio

The posts on this blog are not intended to suggest or recommend the diagnosis, treatment, cure, or prevention of any disease, nor to substitute for medical treatment, nor to be an alternative to medical advice. The use of the suggestions and recommendations on this blog post is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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