Splitting the Difference But Not My Spine

dumbbell rows
Image credit: pinterest.com

Yesterday, I was given a lot of good advice which could be summed up as, “If your back hurts, lay off the weightlifting for a while.” As you’re about to see, it’s advice I chose not to take. Well, let’s just say I split the difference between doing nothing and doing everything. The consequences are totally on me, but it’s not as bad as you might think.

I was disappointed when I woke up early this morning and discovered that my back was still a bit sore. I was even more disappointed when I realized it was just after midnight and I wasn’t sleeping.

I tossed and turned and dozed, but at about 2:30 a.m. when I realized that I was thinking, thinking, thinking, and not feeling particularly sleepy, I decided to get up. So much for “restorative sleep.”

I turned my potential workout options over in my head and decided that the single biggest offender in today’s routine, the one most likely to aggravate my back, was the barbell bent over rows. I decided I still wanted to lift and briefly considered some combination of the plan A and plan B routines that de-emphasized my lower back, but in the end, I determined to make a simple switch from barbell bent over rows to doing the same thing with dumbbells.

Doing dumbbell rows, I’m braced against a bench by one hand and also kneeling on it, taking a lot of the strain off my back. It also reduces the overall benefits of doing rows with a barbell, but you can’t have everything.

Here’s what I did today. As usual, I rested ~60-90 seconds between sets.

Barbell Bench Press

10x 115lbs/52.16kg (warm up)
5x 135lbs/61.23kg
5x 135lbs/61.23kg
5x 135lbs/61.23kg
5x 145lbs/65.77kg
5x 145lbs/65.77kg

Barbell Hack Squats

8x 135lbs/61.23kg (warm up)
5x 155lbs/70.3kg
5x 155lbs/70.3kg
5x 155lbs/70.3kg
5x 155lbs/70.3kg
5x 165lbs/74.84kg

Dumbbell Bent Over Rows

10x 55lbs/24.94kg (warm up)
5x 70lbs/31.75kg
5x 60lbs/27.21kg
5x 60lbs/27.21kg
5x 60lbs/27.21kg
5x 70lbs/31.75kg

pull ups
Photo credit: girlwithnoname.com

Pull ups (body weight)


Overhead Cable Triceps Extension w/Rope

12x 60lbs/27.21kg (warm up)
8x 75lbs/34.01kg
8x 75lbs/34.01kg
8x 75lbs/34.01kg
8x 75lbs/34.01kg
8x 75lbs/34.01kg

My bench presses were pretty much a mirror image of what I did on Monday, although I have to say bumping the weight up to 145lbs for the last two sets really made a difference. Those last two reps for those last sets were murder and I momentarily doubted my ability to complete them.

Fortunately, I was able to push through, but I’m concerned that I may not be able to increase the weight for bench presses very fast and still be able to complete all 5 reps of all 5 sets.

Normally, I’d do barbell rows next, but since I was going to do the (more or less) equivalent with dumbbells, I proceeded to barbell hack squats instead.

When I did hack squats on Wednesday, as I stood erect after each squat, my lower left back would complain. Fortunately, that didn’t happen this time. My back was still sore, but the hack squats didn’t seem to be contributing to it, at least not very much.

I only increased the weight on the last set rather than the last two, upping it to 165lbs.

One thing I did differently was to try to see my reflection from different angles. I usually just watch myself from the front view, but there’s another mirrored wall angled to one side (the room isn’t a perfect rectangle) that lets me see part of my left side and back. I think I need to throw my chest out more to avoid any sort of rounding to my back. This could be part of the problem I’ve been experiencing.

I’ll also need to try to get this view when I do deadlifts to make sure I’m performing them correctly.

barbell bent over row
Photo credit: bodybuilding.com

I can’t say doing bent over rows with dumbbells (rather than the barbell) was totally benign since I still felt a bit of a tug on my back, but it was a lot better than simply bending over, grabbing the barbell, and lifting it off the floor toward my chest.

I wasn’t able to lift quite the equivalent weight though, which surprised me a little.

Last Monday, I warmed up at 115lbs on barbell bent over rows, and today, I used a 55 pound dumbbell, which, if I multiply times 2, yields a “mere” 110lbs. Since my working weight is 135-145lbs, I chose a 70 pound barbell for my first working set, but after 5 reps on each side, I realized I wouldn’t be able to sustain that weight for all five sets.

I switched to a 60 pound weight, which multiplies out to only 120lbs…rather a disappointment. I did three sets of five reps, then for the last set, went back to the 70 pound dumbbell.

I’d forgotten that my right side was slightly weaker than my left. Pulling the dumbbell with my left arm felt fine, but it took more effort to do the same five reps on my right. That probably means when doing barbell rows, I’m using my left arm more. I’ll have to try to be more aware of this when I return to using the barbell for this exercise.

Pull ups were a disappointment today, and I wonder if switching from barbell to dumbbell rows had anything to do with it.

I finished the first set at 4 reps, which I expected, and was hoping to do another 4 on the second set. While I was resting, my son came over and spoke with me. He was working his upper body using exclusively body weight exercises and said his biceps were so pumped, they felt ready to pop.

He tried to do a set of pull ups but his arms were too tired. I stepped in but only did 3 reps and for the final set, could only manage one full rep. I was paying attention to my reflection and making sure I was employing a full range of motion, so at least my form was correct.

I’d decided to back down the weight for the triceps extensions to 75lbs for my working sets and believe me, it was challenging enough. I barely got through 8 reps for the last 2 sets.

I was not only done but well done by the time I finished the last set of extensions. I noticed all this took about 48 minutes, a little faster than Wednesday, which I think means I wasn’t nearly as inhibited by my back discomfort as I was two days ago.

hamstring stretch
Photo credit: vtpeakperformance.com

Yeah, it’s still sore, but nothing like it was after last Wednesday’s gym session. Aiming the stream of hot water at the sore spot in the shower felt good and I stretched out my hams and lower back afterward which also helped.

I was able to dry off after my shower and get dressed normally, so that’s another indication that I didn’t bang myself up too badly.

Tomorrow, I’ll do cardio on the elliptical and some light to moderate ab work. I’ll also have to do the lawn work, but that shouldn’t be nearly as strenuous as my gym workouts. Sunday should involve no significant physical effort, so I’m hoping that two days of rest makes the difference.

If not, I’ll have to find another way to adapt.

This finishes two full weeks of the 5×5 strength training workout routine. In comparing today’s plan A exercises to day one two weeks ago, I’ve only become marginally stronger or at least marginally more daring, only increasing my base weight for each exercise by 10 pounds and only for the last one or two sets.

Not exactly rocketing along at warp speed in terms of increasing my strength but I guess it’s a start.

Once you bring life into the world, you must protect it. We must protect it by changing the world.

Elie Wiesel


2 thoughts on “Splitting the Difference But Not My Spine

  1. I started doing those because I saw the Chinese Olympic weightlifting team doing them. I like them a lot compared to standing or bent over, because with the bench pull I at least know it’s strict. Whereas with bent over rows, I’ll tend to use more lower back and even legs during the last few reps or if I’m using too much weight. It’s hard to set up a bench like that, though, my gym thankfully has two small wooden boxes I can put a bench on top of and yeah.

    Also don’t be shy about machine rows at all, I feel especially the cable chest supported machines are very good.


  2. Never seen that kind of bench before but then again, I go to a suburban gym that doesn’t have all the options.

    Thanks for the suggestions. I think I’ll try and stick with my current routine for a couple of reasons. The first is that I want to see if it works as advertised. I’m just starting my third week at this and would like to give it a fair shot. Also, the difference between free weights and machine weights is that using the barbell engages more muscle groups, which is the whole idea behind strength training and using compound movements.

    I’m considering setting this “trial” at 12 weeks which seems about the right amount of time for a fair assessment, particularly of how my body adapts and changes.

    I do appreciate the suggestions and the video. I certainly don’t know everything and in fact have a lot to learn.



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