We've all been there. I know I have.
Training is running smooth, you're making consistent progress, and feeling great in the gym. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, it hits. There goes your back.
The instant it hits, you go stiff in an effort to prevent increased irritation. Slowly a sharp pulling sensation pulses through your back. You wait a few minutes for it to subside but feel a sharp twinge with even the slightest bend or rotation through your back.
You hobble over to a foam roller and lay around for a few minutes as the initial shock dissipates. You start testing the waters, stretching and moving around a bit, trying to see if you can work out the kinks so you can jump back into your workout.
You have been eager to hit the gym all day and are determined not to let a little tweak ruin your training session. After all, you have put up with back pain before, you can manage. You will just put the pain to the back of your mind and keep yourself focused elsewhere.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that the strategy of ignore it and it will magically vanish is going to be successful this time around.
What to Do When You Tweak Your Back
Now what? Previously, my thinking when I was dealing with a particularly bothersome tweak was that I’ll take a little time off to recover and come back good as new in a week or two.
Unfortunately, that was the same advice I would give my clients when they were dealing with nagging aches and pains. So what was the problem? This fixed nothing.
Clients would come back to the gym after a short break feeling somewhat better and eager to get back to business. We would ease back into training only to discover nothing had changed. Their previous injuries would present themselves sooner or later and the frustration would continue to mount.
While I'm totally for time away from the gym to allow your body and mind to rest and recover, resolving your back pain isn't as simple as you stopping everything. When has doing nothing at all ever brought you anything good? Wouldn't you rather stay in the gym, restore your back to health, and get back to enjoying your training again? I thought so.
Fortunately for my current clients, I’m able to now truly help them out of these frustrating situations without the credulous advice of simply taking time off. So what would I do to help you resolve your aches and pains now? Let’s talk about it.
Let’s take a look at a recent client of mine, we will call him Tim. Tim came to me looking to get out of low back pain he had been dealing with for over a year. Frustrated after multiple cycles of physical therapy, and attempts at returning to his group classes, only to be left in the same situation of dealing with low back pain with doses of Advil and extended periods of time away from the gym. Contemplating if it's even worth it to continue trying to exercise.
So what did we do? We completely revamped his training, cut down on things that were unnecessary for his goals, and stayed within his appropriate limits in terms of movement, load, and volume. Slowly, with the help of a very specific return to exercise program, he has been able to progress back to pain free training.
I want to share 3 essential factors I used in helping Tim return to exercise that you also need to consider to get back on the road to pain free training.
1. You Lack Range of Motion
This is a biggie. If you are consistently working through a greater ROM than what your body has safe access to, you are putting yourself at risk.
If you are already dealing with issues you may be causing further damage by repeatedly training through a ROM that does not currently agree with your body.
How Do You Fix This?
You need to go through a movement assessment. You need to know where you may lack ROM so you can make the appropriate adjustments to your training to both improve the areas you are deficient in and stay out of ROM that provokes pain during the recovery process.
2. You’re Doing Too Much
Again, this can be an incredibly significant piece to the puzzle to get you out of pain. Exercise creates physical stress on your body. Which is ok, stress is needed to create change.
However, it’s not ok when your body can’t keep up with everything you are doing in the gym.
How Do You Fix This?
Take a deep dive into your training and look closely at everything you are doing. Cut your volume down and trim the fat. What are you doing that is not essential and specific to helping you achieve your goals?
Cut out the junk volume, it's eating up your time and energy and is adding to the work that your body is trying to recover from. See how you perform with these volume adjustments, you might be surprised at how you feel and what you can accomplish.
3. You Can’t Recover
Have you ever broken a pencil? Sure you have. As you bend the pencil you hear it start to crack, and at some point, you have applied enough pressure to the pencil for it to snap in half. The pencil can only tolerate so much stress.
Just like the pencil, your body tolerates the stress you apply to it through training until it reaches its breaking point. Stress from your workouts and lifestyle accumulates with time, and if your training outweighs your ability to recover you end up back on the foam roller trying to work out the aches and pains in your lower back hoping for that quick fix.
How Do You Fix This?
There are several factors to consider here, however, once the previously mentioned areas are taken care of this becomes a bit easier. Here’s a list of a few areas you need to prioritize to get this in check.
- Ditch the Netflix documentary and hit the sheets.
- Eat enough to support what you do in the gym AND your recovery.
- Stress from work, relationships, and daily life can accumulate as well. Make time to practice mindfulness and relaxation.
Adjust Your Training
- Keep movement ROM within accessible ranges, ditch the unnecessary junk from your training, and cut down the volume and intensity to give your body a chance to recover.
Is This Too Much To Ask Of You?
No. If you are tired of dealing with pain, modifying workouts, and popping ibuprofen this is not too much to ask of you. Yes it’s a lot, yes it requires more effort than rolling on a lacrosse ball, yes it will take time, and yes it will be worth it.
So, what’s it going to be? Will you continue to endure your back pain or make a few adjustments to your workouts to get back on the road back to enjoying your training without constant aches and pains?