Thanks to Robert a client and friend who supplied this insight into back pain.
It’s estimated that 80% of adults will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. I’d bet that the number is even higher considering very few people ever actually report their back pain to a medical professional. It’s mind-boggling when you think about it: if you had constant chest pains, or a constant migraine, then you would go to the doctor, but for some reason people just assume back pain is a fact of life which they just have to deal with forever.
Now before I go any further here, I should point out the obvious: I’m not a doctor, nor am I a medical professional of any kind. If you have back pain then for God’s sake go and get it seen to! I always deal with Dave Jenkins from Sports Therapy Scotland. He’s a good friend of mine, so I’ll admit to being a bit shameless in plugging him here, but I can vouch for the fact he is the real deal and has done more for my back pain than a decade of seeing other physios.
So yeah, while I can’t diagnose and treat back problems, I can give you recommendations on how to train with a bad back and the various strategies that have worked for me. Did I mention I’m not a doctor?
The Different Types Of Back Pain
In general terms, back pain can essentially be broken into two categories: flexion intolerant and extension intolerant. Flexion intolerant is pain when you bend over, and extension intolerant pain is when you straighten out again. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to talk mostly about flexion intolerant back pain as it is by far the most common among sedentary individuals and the recreational exercising population. I’m not saying extension based pain isn’t common, it’s just that chances are if you have the same postural deficits as most people tend to have, then you’ll have flexion based pain.
So What Causes It?
Lifestyle. More specifically: sitting on your arse all day. Kinda like you’re doing right now while you read this article. Prolonged periods of sitting has been described as our generation’s smoking in terms of how deleterious it is for your health. Sitting for long periods of time causes your hip flexors (muscles at the top of your thigh) to shorten, and your glutes (asscheeks) to deactivate. What this means is your body starts to move improperly. Your body is supposed to move from your hips, with your lower back staying stable, but deactivated glutes and shortened hip flexors means your hips stay stable, and movement comes from your lower back. This constant overuse of the lower back/under-use of the hips leads to… you guessed it: back pain! I’ve simplified it a little, but that’s the basic gist of the problem.
And the problem is compounded when you get in the gym and start doing things like deadlifts or squats. The improper firing of the muscles means your lower back is taking up way more of the slack than it’s supposed to, until all of a sudden you’re the mayor of snap city! It happened to me, and it can (and probably will) happen to you.
Having said that, it’s unlikely it’ll even happen in the gym. Lower back injuries are much more likely to come from constant, low-level trauma, as opposed to one big effort. You might hit a max effort deadlift PR one day and feel fine, then the next day you bend over to pick up a dropped five pence and you end up crippling yourself.
What To Do?
Well firstly, if you have injured your back you need to rest. Sounds obvious, but not everyone seems happy to do it. If your back goes into spasms every time you try and stand up, then just spend a few days resting. You’ll hardly be hitting any PRs anyway, so just chill out. Once you can move around without lightning bolts firing up your spine, then you can get in the gym.
I find when my back flares up some light core activation drills can make a huge difference to the pain levels and my mobility. The key word here is LIGHT, so a few gentle sets of bird dogs or planks might help you feel a little better. Don’t force it, though. If it hurts – don’t do it!
Some people get pain relief from deloading their spine, which is accomplished by hanging from a pull up bar or similar. This takes the weight off your spine and helps alleviate issues from compression forces. I, personally, never noticed much benefit, but other people do so it might be worth trying.