Saving your back, A GAA perspective

With the sad news Dermot Earley has had to retire due to a back injury it reminded me of an all too common injury in the GAA, lower back pain. We see it all the time at FTI and usually it is avoidable.

Below I will outline how the back can be saved for a long career, this is not meant to replace good chartered physiotherapy, merely stop you as the athlete giving yourself a bad back or making your current situation worse.


  • Don’t do heavy Back or Front squats or traditional deadlifts;


Before you kill me, I am not in any way against the exercises, as an Olympic lifter I do them all the time. It’s just the average GAA player will never have enough time to work on the skill and mobility required to derive the benefits from the lift. If you have a coach maybe at a one to one ratio I might change my mind but many of you reading this should not do heavy double leg squats.

Another factor should be considered is the chasing of large numbers or trying to lift heavier, technique in the traditional lifts is paramount. Ask yourself honestly does your back ever ache after a heavy session? If the answer is yes then do something else. There is only so much flexion your lower back can take.

My advice is to switch to single leg training.


  • Don’t do sit ups or crunches;


Again we can argue the toss here, when we abandoned crunches sit ups or whatever from our programs back pain levels went way down. Think of the core as an area that wants to stabilise things, not flex things. We also find that people that come into us having done loads of crunches tend to have higher likelihoods of groin or neck pain. There are tonnes of better option for your stomach muscles so I would ditch the sit ups from your program.


  • Don’t do heavy bench pressing or beach weights;


Now again you may think I’m mad, barbell bench pressing is just a bad exercise for the GAA player. Apart from the fact it makes you “top heavy” it tightens your pecs which in turns damages posture, which in turn can wreck your back. Add to that the fact that to facilitate heavy benching you arch your back into the lift and the problems mount. If you need to bench, bench with dumbbells.

Also what do I mean by beach weights? There’s always one mini Arnie in every club that looks in fantastic shape but basically can’t move because they’ve ruined their mobility with body building modalities. Doing beach weights is fine for the non-field athlete but if you’re doing chest days and then arm days your back wont thank you in the long run due to poor mobility.


  • You don’t do any soft tissue static stretching or mobility work;


With the sheer volume of matches, injuries and poor mechanics GAA players build up, not doing some restorative work on posture or recovery will only spell trouble for your back. At FTI the first thing any of our athletes do is work with the foam roller or sliotar to get rid of knots in the muscles, a crucial step as if you stretch a knot it just gets tighter.

The paltry “looking like you stretch” before a training session isn’t stretching; it’s making yourself look like you are stretching. At FTI we have a saying, “if you are not grimacing, you’re not stretching”. Chief culprits are quad, hip flexor, piriformis, t-spine and hip rotators which are nearly always dysfunctional.

Poor mobility in the upper back means your lower back does a double shift, poor mobility in the hips also means your lower back does a double shift; you have to do some work on those areas to prevent back problems.


  • You have no glutes/core;


Inadequate glute strength is probably what keeps most physiotherapists in business. Think about doing sprints in training, if you don’t have enough glute strength where will the body look for it? The hamstrings or lower back muscles, a job they were never designed to do. Doing simple exercises like the Glute Bridge, one leg dead lift, band mini walks and reverse lunges can actually help your back by restoring strength in the weak muscles.


When it comes to core training I’m always amazed at how most people I see are doing the simplest of core exercises incorrectly, really try to find someone who is a master of these exercises if you have a bad back.

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