Lifting and Back Pain
As a lifter there might come times when you feel pain without actually being injured. If you’re hurting but you’re not actually hurt, it’s best to train through it. Let’s discuss how to do this, specifically how to train through back tweaks and back pain..
No matter how experienced, you can still tweak your back. I’ve been training hard for the last ten years and I’ve gotten strong. And I still tweak my back every now and then. But wait Coach. I thought you got strong? Don’t you say that getting strong helps protect you from injury? So how do you still tweak your back? Yes. I tweak my back. I don’t break it. It’s not an injury. I’ve learned that back tweaks are a part of the game. They don’t occur to everyone, and they’re not frequent, but when they do occur you have to train through them.
The First Tweak
The first time I tweaked my back was in late 2011. I had already signed up for the Marine Corps but I hadn’t found Starting Strength yet. I was in my front yard deadlifting sets of 15 for God knows why. Everything seemed to be going well, when I felt something in my back. It felt like the air was sucked out of my lumbar and I dropped to the ground.
I laid on the concrete in a puddle of sweat, staring at 225 pounds sitting there on its own. Pain shot to my lumbar when I tried standing. I left the weights in the driveway and crawled into my house.
This had never happened to me so the worst-case scenarios raced through my head: Did I just break my back? Will I end up in a wheelchair? Did I just ruin my Marine Corps career?
I called out of work and laid in bed a couple days. I figured moving as little as possible was best for recovery. It never occured to me to try and walk around in those first few days. Instead I tried other potential remedies. My dad recommended I stretch my hamstrings, but that didn’t help. Looking back, this is typical and unhelpful advice (Dad’s now a lifter, I forgive him). I tried a warm bath followed by a cold one. I tried many other of Google’s suggestions, except what would actually help: moving. A few weeks passed and the pain slowly dissipated.
Anti-Inflammatories and a Deload
Over a decade I’ve developed a protocol for when I tweak my back. Normally I’d pop 800mg of ibuprofen, take a 10 minute walk and do air deadlifts throughout the day. Then I’d rack pull from above the knee for 2-3 days straight until I felt ready to move the bar to the ground. Then I’d deload significantly, taking the deadlift down to the low 300s and build it back up with 20 pound jumps over the next few weeks.
This has been my protocol, and it works fine. But it makes me lose a few weeks of training progress and leaves me with some deadlift PTSD. I’ve recently learned a better way.
A New Environment
I flew out to Texas a while ago to teach at a Starting Strength Seminar. I had tweaked my back the day before the flight. Over morning coffee, fellow SSC and DPT Nick D’agostino saw me struggle to put my boots on and he asked what was going on. I told him I had tweaked my back and I explained my normal protocol to deal with it.
Nick introduced a new concept to me which so far has changed the way I think about back pain. He asked me when did I feel the worst and when did I feel the best after a back tweak. Mornings were the worst, getting out of bed. Or after driving. Or standing after sitting for an extended period of time. I felt best after light squatting and deadlifting.
Nick asked me to think about the environment my back is in while sleeping. You’ve had a minor muscular tweak and the body wants to protect it. When you lie in bed, your brain and back get used to that comfortable environment. When you begin to move, the brain starts signaling to remind you to protect your back. Pain arrives, it hurts and you move more carefully.
You get your shoes on and follow your protocol. The first thing you do is take a 10 minute walk. What you’re doing is you’re getting the brain and back used to a new environment. At the end of the 10 minutes you feel fine. You try to get your air squats going and feel pain hinging at the hips. But you do it anyway. By rep 5-6 you feel just fine. This doesn’t depend on the load (as long as you’re not going for PRs of course). This is about training your brain and getting your body in an environment it’s comfortable to train in.
You’re not hurt. You’re hurting
We drove to Wichita Falls and I did my normal warmups. By about the 3rd set of warmups most of the pain was gone. The rest of the workout was pain-free. I squatted 385×5, 395×5, 405×5, and then pressed 225 for triples, hip thingamajig and all. I finished my workout and the seminar began.
I sat in the back reviewing for a lecture I was going to give. After sitting for 90 minutes I got up and guess what? My back hurt. Bad. But then I stood, and reminded my brain it’s just adjusting to its new environment.
I’m not a doctor, a back surgeon, or even a DPT. I’m a barbell coach and a guy with previous back pain. I’m also a risk taker, and if I had to bet on it I’d say you’re not hurt. You’re hurting.
Now get your back to a new environment and train.