I remember it like it was yesterday: The day I graduated from a no-holds-barred lifter to a guy with one eye on the long game.
I was deadlifting 320 pounds, which for me was an almost immovable mountain of weight. I’d warmed up, stretched, and dialed in my form. With Herculean effort, I managed to get the weight up. I stood for a moment, made a that just happened face to me in the mirror, and waited for a round of stunned applause from everyone present. Hearing none, I lowered the bar to the floor with a satisfying clang.
What eventually did draw attention, this time from the gym’s head trainer, was the fact that, moments later, I collapsed on my back, barely able to move or breathe from the sudden and intense pain in my lower back.
Pain doesn’t quite do it justice. There’s the pain you get in your quads when you’ve split-squatted yourself silly. Then there’s a type that just feels wrong like something really, really bad just happened. It might not even hurt that much. It just feels deeply, deeply wrong. That’s what was going on in my lower back. With the trainer’s help, I eventually got up and staggered out the door. Hobbling home, I worried that I’d caused myself permanent damage.
The following day I was supposed to travel 500 miles to play the title role in a production of Macbeth (I’m an actor as well as a fitness guy). How was I supposed to play a badass Scottish warrior if I couldn’t flippin’ walk?
I imagined the forthcoming review: “Heffernan’s shambling portrayal of the title character, punctuated by little yips of pain, makes one question how he could ever lift a broadsword, much less slay entire armies.”
Luckily, the pain subsided in a few days. Within a week or so I was walking normally. And the play went off without a hitch.
Confession: I never went to see a doctor about my back. Instead, I talked to some training pros and did research on the Internet. There I learned that many, if not most, people, active and sedentary, have herniated discs. Some are symptomatic; many are not. But apparently, when you’re told you have a herniation by a well-meaning medical professional, your back pain gets worse almost every time.
The Surgery Option
And at that point, many people choose to go under the knife. And in my experience, that never ever ends well. People I know who’ve had surgery are just as bad as they were before. Sometimes they’re worse. Best case, they’re just-maybe-slightly-better-in-some-positions-they-think. No one I know who has had surgery for back pain has been cured. Admittedly it’s a small sample size. But back surgery seems like a terrible, awful idea. So, I could’ve decided to live in blissful ignorance about my spine.
Instead, I decided, I’d adopt a pro-active back care plan, cobbled together from every expert, certification, infomercial, and YouTube yahoo I could read, acquire, or sit through.
Said certifications, consultations, and lessons include a four-year course in the Feldenkrais method, a CSCS certification from the NSCA, Stuart McGill’s book, Ultimate Back Fitness, Gray Cook’s book, Movement, Mike Boyle’s numerous books and videos, years of training in theatrical movement and martial arts, many formal and informal conversations with some of the best in the business, including Angelo Poli, Dr. Eric Goodman, Craig Rasmussen, Jolie Kobrinsky, and many others. With some hiccups along the way, it’s worked for about eleven years now.
Worked, I should say, insofar as I’m still fit, active, lean, and relatively strong. I can do pretty much everything I want athletically, including maintain a healthy list of training clients and compete in obstacle course races. I’m a seriously big deal among 46-50-year-olds in Southern California Sprint-Distance Spartan races, and when I take my shirt off, my wife swoons.
Well, she doesn’t retch. At least not audibly.
I have a pet theory that backs are like brains: it’s not just the big hits that cause damage in the long run. It’s the day-after-day, week-after-week, sub-concussive traumas that add up over time and cause long-term pain and suffering.
And that’s why, as we get older, most lifters wind up having to back off, do less, train around chronic owies (I have two kids, so I’m allowed to use that term). Once you’ve lifted for many years, the traumas add up, whether you’ve ever experienced an acute owie, just a few seemingly harmless tweaks and pulls here and there, or a combination of both.
No offense to this approach: some people want and need to get back onto the field as quickly as they can, long-term effects be damned.
But I’m going to take a different and I think more realistic tack. One that acknowledges that once you’ve jacked up your back, it’s more likely than not to get jacked up again unless you take some conscious, and more or less permanent steps to un-jack it. So this is how to get the most out of training once you’ve done yourself some damage and are ready to take a slightly wiser, if no less intense and effective, approach to training.
Un-jack Your Back
- First the bad news: This is going to be more involved than you thought. Unless your injury is very recent and very minor, you can ignore all those “three moves to cure low-back pain” articles. If you’ve hurt your back more than once or twice, you’re going to need a longer-term approach.
- But don’t worry: That approach is actually just a more systematic version of that old gym chestnut, listen to your body. And at some point, all of us, injured or not, have to start taking that old axiom seriously. Big picture, it’s an approach that attempts to strengthen your core, loosen your hips, and remove any and all movements that make your symptoms worse. In other words, it’s training smart.
Remove the Insult
For many of us, stopping the activity that causes you pain will be the hardest step of all. If I had my 16-year old self in front of me, I’d say, in my best Friday Night Lights-coach voice, “Son, if you want your thumb to stop hurting, you gotta stop hitting it with a hammer.” It’s the most obvious advice of all, and yet we lifting enthusiasts figure out ways to justify ignoring it.
If you want your back to stop hurting, step one is to stop doing the stuff that hurts it. I know it’s hard as hell to do that because I refused to do it until that little run-in with the 320-pound barbell finally persuaded me to reconsider my life choices. Deadlifts and squats, two of the biggest offenders, are sold to lifters, practically from birth, as the sine qua non of the weight room. If you’re not doing them, you might as well take up needlepoint or sand art or tiddlywinks, because strength training is for real men.
You have to stop giving a crap about that. I can’t tell you the sense of freedom I’ve felt since I stopped caring how my training looked to everyone else. It’s also a relief to realize that everyone is far too wrapped up in their own narcissistic bubbles to care anyway.
The point is, there’s more to lifting, and way more to life, than squatting and deadlifting. And if you’ve got a tricky back, you darn well better start looking into those options, or before you know it, the heaviest thing you’ll be lifting is a box of Kleenex.
Now, if you’re a competitive powerlifter, or strongman, or CrossFitter, or Olympic lifter, I get it. These are your moves. This is what you do. But if you’re a workout hobbyist, like most of us… I don’t know, man. I think life is very, very short and that every day you’re in debilitating pain from a voluntary activity—which I remind you is supposed to make you healthier and stronger and fitter and better—is a big fat waste of your life.
- So remove the insult. That might include some core exercises, and some back moves, and some stretches, even (I can’t do the pigeon stretch anymore, which is a shame because I love it). Start getting wise to when you feel the slightest hint of back pain coming on. Usually, you can trace it to something you did in the gym.
- Then eliminate it.
- Then do something else.
Rethink Your Lower Body Training
So: you’re not squatting or deadlifting anymore. Well done. You’ll miss these moves, and you’ll get a little misty when you see Boris at the gym pulling four plates, but you have to remember all the pain you suffered at the hands of those fickle mistresses, and know you’re healthier for not doing those moves.
Besides, when you learn to do rear-foot-elevated split squats heavy, you’ll realize there are lower body moves that are equally capable of reducing you to a wheezing, limping, slurring heap of sinew as squats and deadlifts, while also keeping your lower back happy and safe.
At the risk of sounding like a big fat bowl of sour grapes, I sometimes think that lifters squat heavy for the express purpose of having an excuse to avoid heavy lunges.
“Do you do Bulgarians?” you ask. “Nah, I just squat heavy.”
But the truth is that heavy lunge moves kick your butt. Big time. It’s just that almost no one does them hard and heavy enough.
I do the walking kind, the static kind, the rear-foot elevated kind, the bar-overhead kind, the two-kettlebells overhead kind. I’ll do high reps, low reps, heavy, light, and everything in between. And my legs have never been stronger or felt better. At 47, I can bound upstairs, jump, hop, sprint, and run long distances up and down mountain trails—all sans pain or worry.
A couple of years ago, I saw Shannon Turley, one of the most innovative strength coaches in college sports, use the step-up-to-reverse lunge on the Stanford football team. These were some of the toughest young athletes in the NCAA. About a quarter of them went onto the NFL, and it just about flattened them. Think you’re too strong for such Jane Fonda nonsense? Grab a pair of 45s, do three sets of 15 reps on each side, and then tell me you need to squat to work your legs hard.
Inexplicably, lunge variations are among a group of exercises that have inaccurately been labeled wimpy. Probably due to good old-fashioned sexism, since such moves are often part of women’s training programs. But when you can do sets of five reps of Bulgarians holding your bodyweight in kettlebells by your sides, you’re in a pretty rarified territory. And if you can’t get that fifth rep? Drop the weights. No harm, no foul. And no spotter, or rack, necessary.
You knew this was coming. The older you get, the more important this is. And you know the formula, too: some joints (your ankles, hips, thoracic spine, shoulders, neck, wrists) are supposed to be mobile. Others are supposed to be stable (your knees, lower back, scapulae).
You should do warm-ups diligently, even on off days, should focus on mobilizing the ankles, hips, and shoulders, and stabilizing the lower back and scapulae. Get your glutes nicely fired up. Work the core (more on that in a moment). At the end of it all, you should feel stable, tall, loose, and a little sweaty. I do a 15-minute warmup that includes all my foam rolling, core work, glute activation, and joint mobility work.
I resisted long, involved warm-ups for decades. And I kept getting hurt. But now that I’ve done it religiously for a couple of years, the shock of shocks, my lower back pain crops up much less often. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
Lots of lower back issues originate in the hips: you walk, run, squat, lunge, jump, and all the while your hips aren’t moving enough, so your spine moves instead and eventually, it hurts.
The simple formula:
- Stabilize that low back (with core work).
- Mobilize those hips (with mobility work). Hip mobility moves—heel to butt, cradle walks, stiff-leg-deadlift walks, quadruped hip circles, and others—comprise almost half my warm-up.
At the end of my workouts, I’ll do a
- Down-dog and a couch-stretch for about a minute each.
A warm-up also gives you the lay of the land. Sometimes you don’t know how sore a muscle group is till you roll it, or stretch it, or mobilize it. And warm-ups expose little pains and tweaks in your joints you weren’t aware of either, so you can amend your workout plan for the day accordingly. Much better to discover that your shoulder joints are a little creaky while you’re in the middle of a set of arm circles than on rep three of a max-effort overhead press.
Work Your Core
I resisted the Stuart McGill-derived injunction against spinal flexion for a long time (I acknowledge that this is a drastic oversimplification of McGill). At one point, I was doing 200 situps and 100 leg raises, on a hard floor, almost daily as part of an old-school martial-arts practice. My abs looked amazing, but I have no doubt all that madness contributed to my back problems later in life because now, whenever I experiment with just a few situps, my lower back complains.
It’s become fashionable of late, I’ve noted, to throw caution to the wind and do these moves anyway. They do get your abs good and sore. And they’re not going to make your lower back explode today, or tomorrow, or the day after that. So what’s the big deal?
Frankly, I’m inclined to believe a guy who has spent decades in a lab determining what’s good for your spine and what’s not. And to also trust my own experience. Sooner or later, sit-ups make me hurt, so I’ve taken them off the table, and you should, too.
What’s the alternative? Serious isometric holds. RKC planks (basically a regular plank where you squeeze your abs for all you’re worth for 10 seconds at a time); side plank variations, McGill curl-ups (barely a sit-up at all, but when you add that as-hard-as-possible iso-squeeze, it gets interesting).
Hollow holds aren’t bad, though I’ve had issues there at times as well. I’ll cop to also doing a weighted leg raise (I’ll squeeze a 10 or 15-pound med-ball between my feet) but I’ll keep my lower back glued to the floor throughout the move, which minimizes flexion when my legs come up.
Core work can become an exercise in experimentation: how do you work the muscles strong while keeping the lower back safe? It’s all about staying super honest with each rep, ensuring little to no movement in the lumbar. Low back twinges or aching are a warning that your abs are gassing out and that it’s time to terminate the set.
I used to love heavy Turkish get-ups. I used to love dragon flags (or at least the almost-dragon flag version I used to do). Both these moves are out for me, and good riddance. I can play with rollout variations, but there I’m pretty careful too. The second I start to get that weird low-back twinge, it’s right back to those isometric moves.
As I mentioned, I was a martial artist for many years. When I was in that world, I remember hearing the cryptic, pseudo-Confucian saying “injuries are gifts” and just about losing my mind. Injuries weren’t gifts, for Pete’s sake. They’re setbacks, bothersome roadblocks on my path to greatness.
With the benefit of 20-odd years of experience, I finally know what that means: an injury slows you down when you need it. It tells you that you’re doing something wrong and that you need to fix it, or more pain and suffering will follow. Injuries aren’t a curse. They’re feedback.
If you’re smart, you’ll take advantage of any injury—especially those to the lower back—to reevaluate your approach to training. It’s possible that all you need is acute treatment, some ibuprofen, and a few days’ rest.
Who are we kidding? More than likely, you’ll eventually need a holistic, long-term approach to lower back health that includes stretching, rest, muscle activation, and a deep reconsideration of exercise selection.
By paying attention to the quirks in my lower back—much like watching the weather—I’ve found an approach that works for me. It’s been an education in both my body’s capacities and its limitations, and that, I have to concede, has been a gift.