You don’t realize the importance of a muscle group until it’s dysfunctional or even worse, injured.
Most people who see the light end up doing so the hard way, by suffering from an injury based on a previous issue that went unattended.
That shouldn’t mean you listen to your general practitioner who says remain sedentary for the next 12 weeks and never exercise with heavy weights again.
It’s easy for gains to stall or even nosedive in light of an injury to the low back. Having experienced a series of recurrences over the past couple of years, I figured a blast of anecdote would do you all well.
For reference, the issues I had affected my SI joint and erector spinae muscles on the left side. It initially happened from a bad back squat where my hips twisted under 405lbs while in the hole. Along with the muscle and joint injury, the facet joint was impinging muscle tissue and causing even more pain from nerve entrapment.
This issue went through a number of relapses and flare ups during squats and deadlifts if I wasn’t careful.
Here’s how I survived.
Rule 1: Split Stance Training and Hip Thrusts
Once you’re mobile enough to train, the idea here is to get your legs and posterior chain firing with as minimal a compression load as you can put yourself through.
The good part about doing hip thrusts is it can help decompress the spine since training the glutes helps posteriorly tilt the pelvis and creates some much needed space between the vertebrae. Since the thrust is a horizontally loaded movement with no downward force, the forces on the lower vertebrae are minimized.
I personally don’t believe in heavy hip thrusts and especially followed this directive when rehabbing my own back. I focused on sets of around 12 reps and kept weight very light.
Split stance training (my go-to was the rear foot elevated split squat) was helpful in putting the hip flexors through an active stretch with an appendicular load. Since the psoas muscles attach to the spine and can pull the back into an overarched (lordotic) position when tight, the RFESS served as a great way to hit the quads while staying in a safe zone.
Rule 2: Use the Medium Sumo Deadlift
Given you’re well enough to attempt the deadlift, it’s really easy to have a flare-up to the low back if proper technique isn’t used. I found that even with what appeared to be good form, I’d still have periodical “tweaks” with lower loads.
Taking a page out of other respected strength coaches’ books and realizing that everyone may not be built for conventional stance deadlifting was a big step in the right direction in ensuring health and safety.
Take advantage of the lower hip position and additional leg drive achieved from using a wider stance. Traditional Sumo deadlifts may be uncomfortable, so use a medium sumo stance, as seen in the video below.
It’s important to remember that many injuries come on the lowering phase of big lifts. Instead of fighting through the added time under tension, kill the negative rep under heavy loads (the way I do in the video). If you’re used to a touch and go method, switch to a deadstop and focus on the concentric load only.
It’ll salvage your back during time under tension, which you’ll be able to moderate and gradually build upon as you get better.
Rule 3: Avoid Directional Changes when Possible
When using movements that cause shear on the lumbar spine, it’s easy to forget that the more momentum you use, the more force you’ll ask your body to produce. Decelerating that weight and turning it around into your next rep can place a real toll on your lower back.
Many row exercises create that problem due to the huge lever arm placed on the low back by the arms. All of a sudden a movement that’s intended for the scapular region can end up wreaking more havoc on the low back as a result.
Like I mentioned in my subheading above, using a deadstop whenever possible can be an invaluable addition to your training as you work towards better health.
In the case of an otherwise valuable exercise like bentover rows, making the switch to the Pendlay row would be a smart call, especially when comparing the two, for this exact reason.
Rule 4: Stick to a 4-6 Rep Range in Most Movements
When you’re training at less than 100%, it’s a given that you won’t have what it takes to set a new personal record without getting seriously injured. But with that in mind, many people gravitate to training for higher reps to build conditioning, endurance, and to stay out of “heavy” territories. It’s very common for the average person to think that higher reps equals a safe zone.
The truth is, this can potentiate an injury just as easily as lifting too heavy can. It’s the classic CrossFit syndrome. Training for high reps induces fatigue, which will take away from the precision of your technique.
Don’t take the chance.
Instead, work with your 6-8 rep range, for just 4-6 reps. This will ensure you don’t tax your nervous system or your muscular system, while still being exposed to moderate loads.
When I was dealing with these issues, I simply did more sets if I wanted to do more work, but gave my body the rest it needed. Of course, this won’t be applicable completely across the board; despite a bad back, chances are you’ll likely still be able to bench press a fair load.
In general, however, it’s a good rule to apply while you rehab, especially when dealing with vertical pushes and pulls.
Rule 5: Ditch the Weightlifting Shoes – At least for a While
Lifting shoes have an elevated heel. The height varies depending on the model of the shoe. In each case, however, the foot stays on a slant allowing for excellent squat mechanics. The thing is, people who aren’t weightlifters wear these shoes to do their workouts for that very reason.
All of a sudden what used to be “insufficient” squat depth that merely broke the plane of parallel or got a couple of inches below, have turned into ATG squats. That’s not always good when you’re looking to have correct rhythm of the SI joint, pelvis, and lumbar spine.
Moreover, “reaching” for full ROM when you don’t have it already can create joint laxity and result in greater damage.
The easy solution would be to squat in flat shoes and respect your lifting boundaries. You already got injured once.
Rule 6: Modify your Program
The most common mistake I see being made (and one of the biggest mistakes I made myself) comes in the form of not making any changes once you feel like you’re all back to normal.
It’s nearly a training sin to rehab from an injury only to go back to doing exactly what it was that got you injured in the first place. It doesn’t mean you have to make a complete 180 degree turn compared to what you used to do.
I’m a stickler for the belief that certain movements should never exit your program. But, that doesn’t mean that assistance exercises, a few correctives, and other modalities can’t find a new home in your program.
Moreover, as I believe squats, deadlifts, overhead presses and chin ups should stay in your protocol year round, it’s worth mentioning that I never specified back squats, conventional stance deads, standing barbell presses, or supinated grip chins.
All of these lifts have a number of variations that still train the pattern, but can create an entirely different training effect depending on the style you use. Switching it up to a front, kettlebell or zercher squat, a medium sumo deadlift, a single arm Z press, and a neutral grip chin up can make a world of difference to your program, your stimulation, and your back health.
Don’t make the mistake of becoming a prisoner of a redundant program. It’ll only be a matter of time before you hurt yourself again. Incorporate multiplanar movements. Do some core training. Switch to total body instead of isolation workouts.
Make a change – the world won’t end.
Rule 7: Become Besties with a Good Practitioner
Just like trainers, there are good practitioners and bad ones in the industry. Somewhere along the line, someone decided to hold them to a higher blanket standard simply because they’re clinicians. The truth is, many practitioners of the same discipline have various styles, philosophies, and general skill levels.
It’s easy to write a sports chiropractor off as ineffective as soon as your pain or discomfort returns. People cringe at being a slave to the chiro clinic, and that’s not what I’m saying should happen.
People develop imbalances over time because such is the life of an adult, and only half the battle is won by simply lifting and using good form. I’m also a believer that you shouldn’t only wait until you’ve got a major problem to get a tune-up, especially if you’ve got an injury history.
Injuries are usually the manifestation of a previous issue or imbalance reaching its tipping point. Thinking that one or two chiro sessions will completely solve a problem that has possibly been building for years is a horrible outlook to take on and you’ll be disappointed.
Get a good referral, and stick around for a while – even when you feel better. It may be a bit of a drag, but getting general maintenance will go a long way in keeping you on your game for the long haul, and out of harm’s way when you decide to go heavy.
Furthermore, don’t make the mistake of jumping from practitioner to practitioner. Just like a trainer or MD that you trust, a physio or chiro will learn your body and have a better insight behind his diagnoses versus someone “you heard was good” and are meeting for the first time.
Find the right fit and stay with it.