“As a doctor, I’m regularly faced with exercise and sports related injuries, and a lot of the times it’s the smallest range of movement – often after squats or dead lifts – that can result in injury to the back and spine,” says Sydney-based sports injury neurosurgeon Dr Richard Parkinson. He’s performed complex surgery on some of Australia’s elite sportspeople, and he’s also involved in the rehabilitation of NRL and ARU players who’ve suffered brain and spinal injuries.

The most common injuries that happen to exercisers, according to Dr Parkinson, are acute disc injuries (an injury to one of the discs between the individual bones – vertebrae – that make up your spine; back ligament injuries (when ligaments are stretched too far or torn); and strain injuries (tears to muscle fibres due to over-use). So, he’s here to tell you how to avoid all three…

“The majority of acute disc injuries occur from lifting heavy weights, even within a very small range of movement. I often see injuries after squats and dead lifts. It’s due to an ‘axial compression’ on the disc – in other words, compression from top to bottom.”

Here are his top tips for lifting weights correctly:

• Don’t be macho about lifting weights. Get as much help as you can, particularly if you’re lifting more than 10-15kg.
• Lift correctly. Try to keep the weight as close to your centre of gravity as you can, rather than reaching out.
• Don’t twist. Don’t twist your body at the waist while lifting. Avoid forcible bending, twisting or pulling as much as you can while lifting heavy weights.
• Use aids. Make use of any lifting aids available to you. They’re there for a reason!
• Don’t fast-track the lifting. The typical recipe for disaster is the person who’s suddenly decided they’re on a health kick and starts lifting heavy weights that they’re not appropriately trained for. Lifting big weights straight off the bat is asking for trouble
• Use a buddy system. Lifting heavy weights requires careful supervision, the building of core muscles and appropriate, graduated training to ensure safe technique.

Don’t break your back!

Research supports the fact that having strong back muscles is a way to improve its resilience, says Dr Parkinson. “If you take a human spine, and you strip it of all muscles, it will fail at a weight of about five kilos. If you place the muscles that splint the back – the back muscles, the front muscles, and the abdominal muscles – the ability of the spine to bear weight is multiplied significantly.”

To strengthen your mid- and upper-back and avoid common gym injuries, try reverse shrugs, which are done by pulling your shoulder blades a few inches forward while doing straight-arm pull-downs.

In addition, to strengthen your upper back, sit against a wall and tilt your pelvis under, so there are no gaps between your back and the wall. Then, straighten your arms in front of you and attempt to raise them to your ears, all the while keeping your lower back flat onto the wall.

The best sports for your back:

• Swimming. “This is by far the best form of exercise if you want to protect your back and your spine – the buoyancy of the water takes out all the stress and impact on your joints, while also strengthening your back and core muscles.”
• Cycling. “A good aerobic option, as there’s minimal twisting involved and jarring to your back and spine.”
• Low-intensity running.

And the worst for your back and spine? “Any high-impact sports, such as tennis, squash, golf (because of the twisting), as well as full-contact sports such as rugby and wrestling/fighting are among the most problematic for the back and spine.” Sorry.