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How I cured my back pain(almost)

A few disclaimers before we begin:

1. I am not a medical practitioner by any means, and this rant merely serves the purpose of sharing my observations about the back-pain specific issues I experienced during my training and how my hypothesis worked in my case.
2. The methods employed by me may or may not prove that effective for most other trainees reading this blog post, since:
 a. They may have different training age than mine.
 b. There might be very different set of conditions/pathologies revolving around their spinal health.
3. I haven't touched upon the clinical aspect of what exactly caused the pathological conditions leading to my back pain(which also lies out of my scope of practice). The post brushes upon the immediate fixes I made to my training program to counter and improve my back injury/pain condition, so that my training did not halt.
4. The back inury I experienced resulted from improper technique employed while doing deadlifts. This does not at all mean that doing deadlifts is bad for your back. Any exercise done for the right purpose and with the right technique can be one of the nicest ways to strengthen yourself. 

...and as such I would love this post to be a help and a handy reference point to research and use in your cure for training or lifestyle induced back pain.

How it started

I'm a software professional and prolonged sitting(often in a fixed position for hours on end) is an occupational hazard every IT professional has to go through almost inevitably. And not unlike other professionals in my industry, and no matter how much I'd like to avoid it, I DID develop a lot of sitting oriented deformities. Especially, the following:

1. Tight Hip Flexors
2. Thoracic spine kyphosis
3. Shoulder anteriority
4. Gluteal inactivity

...and a host of other things you may not want to happen to your body. Especially when your day involves lifting things way heavier than you, for repetitions.

The king of all mass builders, the deadlift requires you to pay proper attention to technique

Now, I also happen to be a long-time weight training enthusiast and like any other enthusiastic gym-rat, deadlifts formed a prominent part of my training program. So, like every other invigorating session, I was in the gym that morning, preparing to get my next set of deadlifts done. It was the fourth of five sets of five reps each, progressively increasing in poundage throughout. Everything seemed to be going as per the plans. And then, THIS happened:

Set 1:     298.6 Pounds  5x5
Set 2:     320.6 Pounds  5x5
Set 3:     331 Pounds     5x5
Set 4:     343 Pounds     5x5... aaaaand, ouuuuch!!!

 On my last rep for this fourth set, everything seemed fine.Except on my way down on the eccentric, as the weight approached the ground, a trigger of pain originated somewhere in my lower back and sent a shocking wave of trauma throughout my body,almost paralysing me for a fraction of a second. All hell just broke loose. It made me let go of the bar, which got dropped down and I, dumbfounded by what the hell just happened, grabbed hold of the nearest bench and slowly, deliberately tried to lie down on it without exacerbating the excruciating pain I was in. By this time, I was in such an agonizing situation that any amount of movement involving my lower back was resulting in a painful and numbing sensation radiating from my low back, towards the hip joint.

To add insult to this injury(which I was yet to figure out), I went on to finish the rest of the session which consisted of multiple big lifts, with this deadlift being only the first one of them all. I tried using the weightlifting belt as a psychological cue to take away my worries and woes during the workout(Yes exactly, a very wannabe and obsolete idea), and replaced the unsupported rowing variations with the machine based chest supported row version.

The pain by the way was centered way down(which felt like my coccyx or tail bone) and somewhat skewed towards the right. A couple of thoughts crossed my mind and the entire scene of my villainous deadlift got reenacted in front of me. The terrible nature of the pain stopped me from being able to even bend down to pick up things and tying my shoelaces or pulling up my socks became a nightmare. Everything placing my lumbar spine in a flexed position was resulting in magnification of the pain. This further led me to safely assume that the injury and the resulting pain was a combined effect of my constantly flexed posture on my office chair and the slack and lackluster technique used on my deadlift sets.

The solution thus, had to be something which reversed these actions primarily.

Looking back at the training day when I got injured, there were some caveats which I could recollect:

1. I could remember a somewhat unevenly distanced grip which kept the bar out of being fully horizontal. This may form a part of explaining why the injury seemed concentrated only on one side rather than being felt balanced. More precisely, it represented assymetrical loading.
2. I was not consciously thinking about CRUSHING the bar with the grip
3. My body wasn't really all tight and tensed while doing those deadlifts. Possibly, this was because the weight was not my maximal weight and I somehow held the notion in my head that I can really handle well any weight that is below my max(which I believed to be in the neighborhoods of early 400s)
4. The very moment when the snapping pain happened to appear in my low back, I was busy lowering the heavy bar while not at all focusing on controlling the eccentric. The entire manoeuvre of lowering the barbell looked more like dropping it; only with the bar still being in my hands and not going out of the palms. And here lies a crucial difference which could have made or broken my back's sanity.

For a visual distinction, here is a controlled eccentric Deadlift (The one I was supposed to do)

And then we have a version where the ecentric lacks all that necessary tension. Unfortunately, this is what I ended up doing:(I have picked up this video from tonygentilcore.com . Head over to the awesome blog and you will thank me for it)

Anyway, the day went in complete agony and all my time in office, on the road and at home went in utter self-cursing and angst at what happened. I had a few physiotherapy sessions involving TENS activation sessions  which did provide some superficial relief for a few days. However, the imminent rising of the pain several hours later did tell me that the injury is still rooted deeper and until I somehow realign the mobile mechanism of the involved joints, I may not be able to get a substantial pain relief.

This led to several nights of soul searching until I pounced upon the previously read articles of Bret Contreras, the guy who knows more about Glute training than anyone I know in the world. Having read most of his works, one idea that kept being retouched upon there was how strengthening the glutes using a specific loading vector can result in a reduction in the flexion based back pain which is quite common among the training populations these days.

How can training the glutes in this manner help with reduction in back pain? The glutes are one of the biggest muscles of our body in terms of the topographical surface area. They act as the primary stabilizing mechanism when the spine is placed in a compromising position(such as the bottom position of a squat or a deadlift). If the glutes are strong, we will be able to generate more force using our glutes. Generating more forces is like gripping something with a tighter grip. The result is a tighter foundation and more supportive apparatus to keep spine in place and preventing it from getting broken. This activation and stabilization phenomenon explains why investing a part of our training time to strengthening the glutes to their maximal potential is a superb pre-hab for injury proofing ourselves.

In particular, the barbell hip bridge was what evolved as the starting step for my correctional/strengthening exercise. The following is what the exercise looks like:

Essentially, the hip bridge is one of those rare exercises where you can load the gluteral muscles in an anterio-posterior loading vector with a really big avenue for increasing the poundage, through a very less range of motion, and with very little or negligible stresses on your spine. As such, it is a very obvious choice for hip strengthening for anyone who is suffering from chronic back pain issues and are generally advised to stay away from other forms of hinging patterned exercises such as deadlifts or swings.

In other words, the barbell hip bridge was a big savior here.

Now, I also strongly felt the need for an ancillary move for strengthening the posterior chain(Glutes, hamstrings and the entire hip hinge movement pattern and the muscles that orchestrate it) and my quest brought me upon a second strengthener of choice: The Low Cable Pull Through.This video has been taken from Eric Cressey's blog.

Again, the exercise becomes a perfect glute and hamstring strengthener because of the little to no amount of stresses places on the low back. Although the total amount of weight which can be lifted in this movement may be limited by the size of the weight stack in the cable station used, it is since viable since you may not want to load up a ginormous amount of poundage while you are injured.

And then I pulled out my workout journal and replaced the Deadlifts and Romanian Deadlifts with these two moves for a period of up to six weeks in order to reverse the effects of my back injury and expecting the pain to subside substantially. Along with this change, I replaced the bent over rows with supported and machine based rowing options during this pain-sprinkled period. 

The application and observations:

And then began my ghetto changes applied to the classic training template I was following. the very first day of its application was a pleasant relief indeed.

Not only was I able to Hip Bridge Pain free, I almost felt an innate sense of reduction(though really minute) in the amount of pain I was having in my lumbar region. Although I attempted the hip bridge with very conservative numbers, the exercise overall turned out to be a very positive addition to my program, making it a right choice.

Moving ahead, the cable pull throughs were stable and pain free as well. I stayed low on my poundage and high on tension, which resulted in a very safe and activating strong mix.

Furthermore, adding the supported back rowing resulted in a very stabilized set up for the rowing variations too, mostly enabling some decent weight being used for those exercises. This ultimately did help me with some hypertrophy gains.

All in all, I ended up getting rid of my back pain in a gradual manner, strengthen my glutes in a more efficient way, learning a new exercise technique and experiencing newer hypertrophy gains. A total win-win, if you ask me.

Key Take Home Lessons:

So, from this not so fun filled, yet highly enlightening intrigue in the regions of injury and back pain, I did get along with some crucial lessons and take home notes. Here's how I may put them in a cliff notes version:

1. Generate more tension throughout the body while you lift. This means right from the point when the bar leaves the ground, to the point when it touches it back and gets parked. As I realized, I lost tension substantially on my last rep where I got injured. Generating more tension in a lift can be as simple as tightening and tensing each and very muscle of your body, whether you feel it is involved in the movement or not. In other words, do not let any of the muscles get relaxed or slacked.
2. Crush The Bar. Grip it with the maximum amount of force you could generate, with an intent to literally crush it. This seemingly simple change tenses the entire muscle groups through irradiation and makes the lift stable, and as a result, safer.
3. Strengthen the glutes using Hip Bridges etc. That is downright one of the best insurance policies you can invest in against injuring your back.
4. Pull the bar up AND BACK. Pulling back and up in comparison to merely pulling in one direction results in a larger combination of muscle groups involved in the lift. We may always want more muscle groups to get involved in the deadlift in particular for that additional safety due to the stability it provides.
5. Be more mobile in general during work and other parts of life and never let your back get affected by lifestyle based postural disorders.

Well, fast forward to about three months from then, I have embarked back upon my journey of deadlifting again and have made a decent beginning with significant amount of poundages and have been able to stay predominantly pain free durig this time. If there is something I can attribute all this progress and recovery to, it is the above tactics I experimented with successfully. Feel free in trying them out of you are stuck in a back pain rut. I would be really happy if they helped you.

How did you like the ideas presented here? Let me know of your thoughts on this small rant in the comments section below. Also, let your friends get to access this piece by sharing it across your social networking profiles.

Would love everyone's thoughts about making this place even more helpful and useful, and totally more entertaining in the future. Thanks for the reading!


She: Oh come on, we re on a honeymoon to France. Not on one of your fitness boot camps. For the love of god, stop doing those burpees in a hotel room now.

Me: Just 5 more babe, and I'll be done with my holiday Met-Con.

She: Ahh.... so much for the romances we had planned from years... *Bangs the door while leaving*

Sounds like a familiar conversation? How often have you felt as if you are an alien among the rest of the gang because of your seeminglly eccentric fitness or bodybuilding lifestyle?

There seems to be a clear difference between the way we start looking at the world around us when we enroll ourselves on a journey towards a very stronger, fitter and healthier self. Late night TV no longer remains the holy ritual before going to bed, hamburgers at the local deli is now something you can consider not pouncing upon and a lot of luxuries which seemed compulsorily required earlier, now start looking like redundant fantasies.

All in all, the life of a journeyman on his road towards getting in shape is always interlaced with vivid distinctions of thought, perspective and choices, compared to his or her previous self. Quite unfortunately though, most of our friends, family members, ,colleagues, bosses, spouses, neighbors, acquaintances and critics may not realize the fine print consisting of the subtleties that need to be taken care of in a life long journey of improvement. Oh, and often the changes might not even be so subtle at all as well. In fact, most alterations that are needed to be made to a sedentary, lethargic or unfit lifestyle are in such contrast to the average life that they start appearing a nerdy set of obsessed whims and fancies more than any healthy lifestyle changes. However, as the following scenarios might posit, the price of making such novel changes to the way we live, spend, think and love may be well recovered by the seemingly priceless benefits they lend us. Here are some interesting scenarios that get pronounced by the odd nature of differences between life before you took up to change your body and the life after it.

Too, it becomes necessary to highlight how the other end of the spectrum is equally important and how we should watch out for not getting too lost in the process and stop enjoying life at all. Both parts of these arguments represent a very useful aspect of our lives and an intelligent balance needs to be drawn between them to keep the mechanism if our social, love and personal life moving intact.

Sooooo.... here we go...

Gym strength carryover vs specific strength required in daily life:

You are with your girlfriend at the local ice hockey ground with a pair of skates you have never seen in your life. Suddenly honey tells you to go show her if you can skate the entire field because "...you know, you go to the gym, right? So you can do literally anything physically possible, my invincible sugar". 

Trying to perform what we haven't trained for may result in certain funny things, not limited to falling on your face
Sounds like a legit requirement, isn't it?

We should really understand the idea of specificity of the carryovers from the activities we perform. A lumberjack may be great at cutting trees and only related activities,

than he might be at playing cricket. A truck driver may be good at driving vehicles, but this does nothing to his ability to play snooker. So is the case with a chef being judged on his ability to do bar-tending.
It may be a radically helpful idea to recognize that the strength gained from lifting heavy weights in the gym results in a strength that can help you move heavy objects in real life. But if the challenge posed at you in reality involves a skill or sport which has got the minimum overlap with the act of lifting heavy weights, that's nothing to be disappointed about. Since you did not train for that challenge, you may not really be a champ at that.

In other words, always keep the end goal/challenge pursued in mind while you are designing your exercise program. If you want to be a marathon runner, an exercise program without timed long distance running would be a dumb idea. If competing and winning in Boxing is your goal, following a program without sparring, and focusing only on lifting may take you nowhere.

So, while the people around us should understand that our pursuit with lifting heavy in the gym is to gain strength to perform work where maximal force production by our muscles to move a load from point A to B is required, we should as well never lose sight of the goal and keep reminding ourselves to design our training programs according to our goals

Eating junk(occasionally) to refuel for training demands vs eating junk to satisfy cravings:

When we are training to push our personal records in the different lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, military presses, rows, cleans, snatches etc, every other week, we are placing our bodies in a highly caloric deficit zone, if we are eating enough to restore our energy balances. As such it is not a bad idea to consume some calorically dense foods such as haburgers, pastries, pizzas or similar category of foods we better know as junk. That can especially work during the post workout window where we do need some good insulin spike to provide our damaged muscle cells with some high quality nutrients present in our shake.

This really does not mean that we convert ourselves into that guy who has become a douche living a slave to his taste buds and starts his day consuming 5 Mc Burgers and gulps it down using a sugary delight strawberry shooter. Any guy who spends his or her life majorly having replaced food with something that is that damage inducing(not only because of a huge caloric presence but also due to the habit forming formulations present in them which may later lead to eating disorders) definitely deserves all the criticism to be called a bad eater. 

No, there's absolutely nothing out there that can give you an unlimited license to keep eating all of this
In other words, Lift heavy, eat to support it, but never fall prey to a certain form of high-delight food category like junk foods. And while you are lifting heavy and training good enough, you may as well earn your share of binging here and there. I do myself enjoy occasional breaks from a clean eating lifestyle spree. Lifting gives you a lot of provisions like this you see. The distinction between the minimum effective dose required to keep your caloric furnace alive and getting addicted to junk altogether is what we may need to broadly recognize here

Getting big(with some fat gains) while getting strong vs getting fat due to an inactive and poor food choice based lifestyle :

Once you start doing big multi joint weight training movements such as squats, deadlifts, glute bridges, hip thrusters etc, and devote a sufficient amount of volume to them, those skinny pair of jeans which you used to wear are no longer going to fit again that well. But old clothes getting somewhat tighter as you keep getting stronger in training may not always mean  that you are turning into a fat monster.

Carrying forward from the previous point, hard strength training always increases the caloric demands you face both in and out of the gym on a consistent basis and often the type of eating that follows such a demand curve results in a good amount of caloric rise in consumption which can sometimes get accompanied by some gains in the form of fat along with developing muscles. I do agree that it is perfectly possible to get leaner along with adding muscle, but those of us in the quest for significant slabs of muscles along with improving their lifting performance can almost always bet upon a higher caloric diet with reasonable binging and should not worry about those minor fat gains which are helping them being a machine in the gym and out of it; provided of course that they are keeping the fat accumulation really reasonable.

Bigger lower bodies are not always fat lower bodies, as wonderfully shown here by Ashley Kaltwasser

On a much related note, well developed and hypertrophied lower bodies are so rare these days due to the immense amount of effort and discipline required for them that most of us around these days have started believing that big thighs are always a sign of being fat. Having gained a significant amount of visual mass compared to my previous self, following a solid progressive approach in training, a lot of friends happen to meet me after this long time and have only this to say: "Man, you have got so fat!". If only the distinction between a body strong pair of legs that can squat a car and a wholesomely fat body could be understood. It's a very sorry realization that many of us may not have an idea about the amount of personal investment and effort that can go into building a really strong physique, which may not be immediately evident.

Managing time for training/sleep by reducing social activity vs being a societal misfit:

 There is a sensitive balance between our devotion to the family, friends and important people in our lives and the devotion we need to dedicate towards developing our health and strength. Often the latter might demand way more than we expect. For someone engaged in a lifestyle of clean health and physical improvement,

athletic endeavor of any manner or any other pursuit of this form, the number of people he can regularly interact with on a regular basis gets a little reduced as they spend time taking afternoon naps, traveling to and from the gym, preparing meals, sleeping on time and getting a full night's sleep, reading to stay on the cutting edge of knowledge or recovering from an intense leg training session. This often ends up the people in this individual's life getting an impression of loner-ism, ignoring, detaching from old friends, being too self-centered, introvert, asocial, insensitive, narcissistic and different similar adjectives. 

People perusing such vices for their fitness targeted friends should understand the other side of the coin by starting to read basics and fundamental information about improving one's health and strength for a lifetime, and they may get a lucid idea about what their fitness targeted friend is talking about when he is experiencing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness from yesterday night's gym trainings, and can't go to the Dance Party with you.

Pushing through training stresses at work vs being an incompetent office performer:

While we train and catabolize muscle in the gym in order to grow it, a host of systems are into play to keep the growth mechanisms running. Systems comprising of the musculoskeletal system, the nervous system, the endocrine system et al. Of all these, the Central Nervous system is one which is said to take the longest amount of time to recover from a severe bout of physical exercise involving resistance training. Often exceeding even 24 hours after a training session. As such, a day later after an intense workout in the gym, while you are sitting concentrating hard at work at your office desk, you may feel that you are way past all the damage done during training and are all set to take up other challenges in life, but your CNS may have other ideas. As a result, you experience a somewhat loss of focus while you are doing a task which requires tremendous attention. Now, this may not be a very regular phenomenon and with time, long time trainees might  even be able to devise ways to deal with it while working on full time jobs. 

But what this does highlight is the added degree of challenge which every guy with a full time job who is into strength training faces. As with most scenarios indicated here, the peers and seniors at our workplace might fail to realize this basic biological demand which is additionally active on strength athletes and trainees and may label certain performance glitches by such employees in office as a lackluster and mediocre performance, resulting in poor feedback and devalued appraisals. 

Budgeting finances to support personal development expenses vs being a miser:

Let's admit it, staying healthy, lean, strong, fit or whatever can be a pretty expensive affair both in terms of the money we may need to put in as well as the time. For some, it may even start appearing like a full time job altogether. Which might as well be why we do not see as many really in shape or strong as an ox individuals around today. in fact, if we do move out to search for them, we may as well find the situation to be the very opposite, since most people have chosen 'other' avenues to invest their wealth on. Other avenues including, familial obligations, education of kids, purchasing a new house, a new car, staying up to the mark with the latest trends in technology and fashion etc. Now, I am not at all lamenting against the merit of all these things; they are all having their own importance in our lives today and a strong case can be raised in the favor of them adding to our happiness. However, the point that developing a seriously awesome body does require a good quantum of your time and money still remains. Under such circumstances, you may be required to reduce a certin amount of your resources spent on those other material demands of life and utilize it for your fit lifestyle's requirements. As with the other cases above, this may start looking like you have put up a miser cap and have become a savings geek. People may not longer see you strutting the aisles of the latest designer showrooms to purchase 40 grand worth of apparel or lining up the Apple stores by midnight to get the first few I-Phone releases. You may cut down on the lifestyle purchases which may have been an inseparable part of your lives earlier.

But let's look at this this way: in a seemingly inflated economy such as today's, would it not be a blessing in disguise if you somehow learned to partition and prioritize your expenses as a result of your fit body asking you to do so? And what's more, you may even get one step closer to the body you have always dreamed of in the process. That's a win-win for me. That's financial planning delivered to your doorstep one fine morning. Along with an improved sense of eating and living. A lifestyle makeover for the better.

I am sure by now, you must have got across your own set of cases where we should learn to draw lines of distinction between what the rest of the world sees, and what people under an iron bar weighing twice their body weight see. I hope this post served as a useful insight and perspective builder, without boring most of you off to sleep. If you did enjoy this piece, do not hesitate to share it across to your friends and family. Do share your ideas in the comments section below.

Thanks for the read!