How to do Leg Training (Quads) with a Bad Back

By James Collier BSc (Hons) RNutr

If you’re on of those guys who like me, suffer with lower back pain, you’ll be wanting to crack on with your training and train around the injury. Legs can be hard to train with a bad back, but there are ways around it. Obviously it depends on where your back pain is, so let’s assume that it’s a lower back problem, as in my case.

leg training in the gym with a bad back

As much as squats are the greatest leg mass builder, they are out if your back isn’t up to it; even with perfect form, there’s no way that you can cope with the pressure of heavy weight pushing down on your back. However you still need to include a compound movement in your quad routine. If you’re careful, then leg press should be fine, as long as you have access to a good machine. I always find the bit of leg press which hurts the most is the getting in and out of the 45° machine, not the actual movement!

Any quad day should begin with a good stretch and warm up; particularly important if you have a bad back. I spend 5-10 minutes stretching all the muscles in my legs, as well as my abs, glutes, obliques and spinal erectors.

Although often it’s preferred to perform a compound movement first, if you’re training with an injury I’d recommend an isolation movement to begin with to pre-exhaust the muscle, meaning there’s more stress on the target muscle and less on the injury during the compound movement.

So, in the case of quadriceps, I would start with leg extensions. You may need two or three warm up sets with a light weight performing 15 or so reps. Then do two sets of slow, controlled extensions with a weight comfortable for 10 reps, squeezing each rep at the top. Remember to flex the quad between sets – feel the muscle and think the muscle.

The problem with leg extensions is that they can cause a strong muscle pump in the lower back – not good if your back is already sore. Therefore make sure your bum is positioned well back into the seat, your back is straight and you’re holding onto the side of the chair. Concentrate the stress on the quads only.

After extensions, move onto the 45° leg press machine. Load this up with enough weight to comfortably do 10 reps with minimal stress for the first set. This is for you to get comfortable with the positioning and be aware of any potential stress on the lower back. Then add enough weight so you can perform a strict 8-10 reps to positive failure. Do this for three sets.

Your quads will be worked after this, and, if you have performed each exercise carefully, you should have no (additional) back discomfort. Move onto hamstrings, calves or simply spend a few minutes stretching to warm down are reduce DOMS.

Stretch and warm up

Leg extensions

  • 2-3 x warm up 15 reps
  • 2 x 10 reps

Leg press

  • 1 x warm up 10 reps
  • 2 x 8-10 reps

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