Healing a Back Injury at the Gym

I employed the simple tests suggested at Breakingmuscle.com and determined that my back issue is one of Extension as opposed ot Flexion.

If I follow the advice I found at T-nation.com, I’d probably change my routine to map to the one they suggest for such a problem, which I also discussed yesterday.

So to repeat myself (and in the words of T-nation) here’s what I’m not supposed to do:

  • Back extensions. This should be obvious, considering the name implies the movement that’s causing the problem.
  • Deadlifts. They can take an unholy toll on the spine, and it only takes one technical mistake, especially when you already have some sort of pain, to make the problem worse. Best to leave it alone until you feel 100 percent again. You’ll manage.
  • Barbell squats. The spine has to extend, under compression and against shear forces, to squat. That’s three strikes for an extension intolerant spine. Skip it.
  • Overhead pressing. The spine needs to extend to move the arm overhead. No dice.
  • Rotation. Whether standing, sitting or lying down, it’s a no-fly zone.

Now what about what I can do? I’m taking the links for the following YouTube videos from the T-nation article just so you don’t have to toggle back and forth to read me and to see what I’m talking about. I’m quoting from the article below to describe each exercise.

One-foot squat and row

This makes you work a squat pattern and a pull pattern, while keeping your pelvis and spine in a better alignment than you could ever do by isolating the movements.

Weighted Dips

The combined effect of core activation for the pushing movement, plus the added distraction on your spine when you hang your body weight with no force pushing up will make your back thank you. Plus, the spine isn’t in extension, so happiness all around.

Spine-supported crunches

You can still get your abs on, in a safe manner. (And don’t worry, this isn’t a traditional crunch that gets everyone in a tizzy.) Place a hand under the small of your back, and bend one knee to get the best crunch possible for the least wear and tear on your back.

Low cable bent over row

This requires less extension than a true bent over row, and also reduces the shear force within the vertebrae, so it will help you protect your back while you’re gunning your lats.

Rollouts, also known as straight-arm extensions

These force you to maintain some form of flexion throughout, or else you’ll feel a small pinching sensation in your low back. Don’t let the TRX in the video below fool you, these will make your abs feel like they’re about to explode.

In addition to the above, Jerry suggested that I listen to podcast by Mark Rippetoe about back injuries. It’s almost a half-hour long and he also recommends working through back tweaks (though he didn’t mention Jerry’s suggestion of “Ice and 3200 mg of ibuprofen for 5 days may help”).

Listening to the podcast, one of the things Rip said is that as we age, the center of our spinal discs tend to dry out. An older disc is tougher to injure but it doesn’t absorb shock as well as those in a younger person. An injured disc is pretty easy to diagnose because you’ll feel pain, numbness, or tingling down one leg. In other words, a neurological injury rather than a simple tissue injury.

Fortunately, a minor back tweak is much more common. He says there are three possible causes:

  • Set joint injury
  • Muscle (Deep back muscle anatomy)
  • Ligaments

Not serious neurologically, but they can be really painful, last a long time, and keep you from training. What you really need to do though, is to train through it. It always gets better when you work it (as long as it’s a non-serious back tweak). Rest it for a couple of days and then train it. Do your regular workout but with lighter weights and more reps until it feels better.

Pain will be around 4 or 5 days, maybe 6 or 7 days, maybe 2 weeks if it’s a bad tweak, at least according to Rip.

Rip also says that back injuries are much more common outside the gym than inside. In my case, I know that it was a heavy deadlift that caused my current issue. Of course, Rip says you are unlikely to get hurt in the gym only if your technique is correct, so I suspect my form for lifting a 250-pound barbell off the floor was “off.”

On the other hand, Rip says that the gym is the place to help heal the back. He says “Barbells are cool” because they can be positioned exactly over the mid-foot establishing perfect spinal extension. While 900-pound deadlifts aren’t uncommon (well, they are for me), no one lifts a 900-pound rock off the ground because loads like that can’t be positioned over the foot.

Mark Rippetoe
Mark Rippetoe

One piece of advice in picking up a big load is, take a big breath, hold it, move the load. You won’t have a stroke. This supports spinal flexion, assuming that you can’t maintain spinal extension for some reason. He says that the way you hurt your back is adding another movement to the lift such as rotation, like picking up a lawn mower, turning, and loading it into the back of a truck. Loaded flexion and rotation is a bad combination.

To make the turn, don’t use your back, use your feet. The back must remain stable.

Boiling all that he said down to three points:

  • Extension is best
  • When extension isn’t possible, flexion is OK but protect it with a big, held breath
  • Avoid back rotation, use your feet

Getting back to the T-nation article, relative to working through a back injury, it says:

Whenever you’re doing any exercise with a bad back, you have to think about getting your core to support the work and reduce the chance of further injuring yourself. The best way to do this is through a concept Dr. Stuart McGill calls “super-stiffness.”

By contracting all the abdominal, low back, pelvic and intercostal muscles at once, you can increase the uniform stability of the spine and limit the chance of a buckling injury or any problems with your discs.

To get this idea of super-stiffness to work for you, think about flexing your abs like you’re going to show off for the ladies. Now contract the oblique muscles and low back muscles, making sure you’re not contracting so hard that you can’t breathe. Bonus points if you can clench your anus, draw your testes up, and bow your diaphragm down. That’s a stable core, baby!

back squat position
Mark Rippetoe, Credit: reddit.com

Rip didn’t mention avoiding certain lifts, just going lighter and doing more reps until the back healed. T-nation, as I’ve listed above, has some very specific suggestions about what to do and not to do.

I suppose it’s a good thing that I didn’t have any transportation to get to the gym and lift this morning. If all goes well (and there’s a possibility it won’t), I’ll get my car back tomorrow afternoon, which means the earliest I could start lifting again is this weekend, but more likely, Monday morning.

So I’ve got a few more days to review all the material I’ve just mentioned and decide how/if I want to incorporate any part of it on my next session in the weight room. I can tell you right now that some of the exercises shown in the videos above don’t seem attractive to me. I typically have a tough time balancing on one foot, and my gym doesn’t have the equipment required for me to do rollouts.

Failure is not an option. It is a privilege reserved only for those who try.



4 thoughts on “Healing a Back Injury at the Gym

  1. Ima not contrarian just for the sake of being so, but . . . If putting on socks\shoes hurts, to me, that is flexion-intolerant. Common for tall peeps, especially long legs.
    Hope that some rest gets you on the recovery path.
    Oh! Btw, didn’t you say you had been slacking on the abs? Might that have been part of the setup for back pain?


    1. Yeah, I’m 6’3″ (well, I lost a 1/4 inch due to age and gravity) and I have long legs, so that makes levering up a barbell from the floor tougher than for a shorter person. Yeah, I need to get more disciplined about all areas of my workout, including abs, and it looks like spine-supported crunches are my primary option at the moment.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s