Advice For Preventing My Back Injury

“I decry the injustice of my wounds, only to look down and see that I am holding a smoking gun in one hand and a fistful of ammunition in the other.”– Craig D. Lounsbrough


The Injury

I was at the gym doing deadlifts as an accessory lift for legs. I lift conventional deadlift but sometimes I like to try sumo deadlifts to engage my legs and build accessory muscles that could benefit me in the squat or conventional deadlift.

On this particular day, I was not lifting particularly heavy weights. I also tried to incorporate a modification to the movement to work more accessory muscles. I added a pause after each rep. This prevents you from gaining any momentum from the the barbell bouncing off the floor. This also made the movement a lot harder and more strain on my body. Especially my back.

Lifting the weight off the ground from a complete stop is the part of the movement that is the hardest. This is the part of the movement which puts the most strain on your back (especially if your form is not perfect).

As I did my reps and sets I could feel my form breakdown. With each progressing rep and set my back start to arch and I was lifting with my lower back more than I was lifting with my legs. The last set my body was fatigued and as I tried to power through the last reps I was using less form and more brute strength just to get the weight moving.

On my second to last rep, 1/4 the way up I felt a small pop in my lower back. Instantly my strength was zapped and I had to set the weight down. As I rested the weight I felt a sharp pain and suddenly got light headed. I could not bend more than 20 degrees and had to stop my workout. I immediately thought that I had twisted a vertebrae in my lower back an adjustment would set it right.

I did some back adjustments myself through some yoga poses, went to the sauna to loosen up the tense muscles, did some back stretches and felt much better. For the rest of the day I felt much better and thought that I was cured.

The following day I felt a little tight getting out of bed and had limited mobility but overall still good. I assumed that this was post-workout soreness and I had tight lower backs from deadlift sessions in the past. However, the next day, getting out of bed was painful. I had pain for the rest of the day. My mobility was severely limited and my lower back was extremely tight.

I searched the web for similar symptoms and causes “pop while deadlifting” and most of what I saw led me to believe that I had a herniated or bulged disc. Reading up on herniated and bulged discs I become almost certain that I had one and the symptoms scared the crap out of me. I thought that I would never lift again and I might need surgery to solve the problem.

I finally made an appointment to see a chiropractor. He did a few adjustments, stretches and most importantly, confirmed that I did not have a herniated or bulged disc. He was able to recommend some stretches and almost instantly I felt much better. The pain was less severe and I felt much better. I felt confident in recovery and a belief that returning to my old self (prior to the injury) was possible.

Over the next days I came to realize a few lessons that are important to share. These lessons learnt might also help others in a similar position or possibly prevent being such as position.

Lessons Learned

  1. Stretching is not just important. It is necessary.
  2. Take adequate breaks in between sets.
  3. Your core is the most important muscle group.
  4. Stay the course. Progress is built on consistency, not variety.
  5. Diet is even more important during recovery.

1: Stretching is not just important. It is necessary.

Prior to my injury, I did not really believe in stretching. If I ever did any, I would focus on my legs or the primary muscle group that I was going to use for the workout that day.

On leg day I would only stretch my legs. I would not stretch my accessory muscles or any other supplementary muscles.

By not doing this you are leaving those muscles tense and cold. This makes them more prone to injury and doing more work since they are not properly prepared for the load at hand.

I also did not do any post-workout stretches. I would usually head to the sauna post-workout and let my body cool down naturally. Stretching after a workout is crucial for muscle recovery and preventing injury. Stretching can help blood flow, reduce inflammation, reduce muscle tension and improve flexibility.

In summary, pre-workout stretching will help get muscles lose, active and blood-rich. Stretching out primary and secondary muscles will allow you to recruit more muscles to your lift (making you stronger). It will also prevent cold muscles from taking more stress and getting injured. Post-workout stretching will ensure that your muscles cool down properly, stretch them out and set them up for a good recovery. Doing this may actually help you realize more muscle growth, flexibility, and power.

2: Take adequate breaks in between sets.

I used to subscribe to the school of thought that limiting the breaks between sets would help me get stronger in the long run.

Limiting the breaks between sets reduces the time for recovery and puts more tension on the muscle for longer. More tension leads to muscle tearing and as a result growth. This methodology comes from bodybuilding and I applied it to powerlifting. However, this is not prudent.

As a powerlifter, your goal is not to build muscle size through fatigue. Your goal is to build strength through muscle endurance. This means that each rep should be explosive, forceful and form-perfect. To achieve this you have to allow your muscles enough time to recover their phosphagen.

By not allowing my muscles adequate time to recover in between sets and applying a bodybuilding mentality, I set myself for injury because I was causing my muscles to work overtime. As muscles start to get weak, more muscles are used for recruitment and those muscles that are weak, fragile or cold start to get injured because they are pushed beyond their limit. In my case, this was my lower back. By giving yourself enough rest, you allow each rep to be explosive, forceful and form-perfect allowing you to build strength rather than breakdown muscle.

3: Your core is the most important muscle group.

Think of your body as a kinetic chain. Power and force channels through each link in the chain. At the center of the chain is your core and lower back.

Any exercise using muscles on the back side of your body (hamstrings, glutes, back, calves) utilizes your lower back to transfer energy. Any exercise using muscles on the front side of your body (quads, shoulders, chest) utilizes your core to transfer energy.

Most people already have a strong lower back, but very few people have a strong core. Having a strong core and learning how to properly brace can help channel the energy through the rest of your body. Having a weak core can cause energy to dissipate and leak. A weak core can also put extra strain on your lower back to overcompensate.

At the time of my injury, my core was not strong. I seldom worked on this muscle group and focused more on primary muscle groups directly related to the main lifts. Neglecting my core meant that as my core started to fatigue quickly and contributed to the lift less and less as my workout continued. With limited contribution from my core, my lower back had to take over. This put much more stress on my lower back and opened it to injury.

Strengthening your core does not mean building a six pack. The core muscles are not just the front abdominals. It includes the obliques and serratus muscles. Strengthening your core includes exercises that use these muscles to actively stabilize your body and get stronger at supporting the load. As these muscles get stronger they will allow your body to stabilize and stand firm. You will notice less shaking when picking up or pulling a weight. Energy and strength will flow much more efficiently through your body and you will find an extra reserve of strength.

4: Stay the course. Progress is built on consistency, not variety.

When I started powerlifting I had switched over from bodybuilding. My mentality was to always attack a muscle group from multiple different angles. I adopted this principle into powerlifting and I would incorporate different variations, modifications, and forms into the three main lifts to try and get stronger. For deadlifts, I would pull conventional and sumo. For squats, I would do paused squats and close-stance squats. For bench, regular and close grip or paused presses.

I realized that it is not necessary to keep introducing variation if you are seeing strength increases. Variations and different forms are beneficial if you have hit a plateau for weeks where you see no increase in strength. If you are seeing a linear progression in strength in a lift keep at one form and variation of the movement. The only two factors you can modify are volume and frequency. These will be sufficient to keep increasing strength.

Avoiding to add multiple variations and forms to a lift in order to “confuse the muscle” or “attack the muscle from multiple angles” is not necessary when you are seeing progress. The variations you add need will cause you to do a movement that you are unfamiliar with and hurt yourself because of bad form or inexperience executing them. This happened in my case. My form was excellent on conventional deadlifts because I practiced and used it for months. Sumo deadlift was still relatively new to me as I would do it occasionally. This newness leads to poor form without my realizing and eventually put my back in a compromising position for injury.

5: Diet is even more important during recovery.

When recovering from an injury your body is not receiving the same level of activity or burning the same amount of calories as when you at the gym. The demand on the body is substantially less and as a result, the calorie strain on the body has been lifted. If you keep the same diet, all of those calories that were inputting into your body for the workout are now going to fat because there is no need for them.

Your diet needs to be modified and you need to only ingest the calories your body needs to function. However, you also need to ensure that you are providing your body with enough protein to retain your muscle.

You want to keep your muscles fed and avoid the body from breaking them down for caloric need. You also want to ensure that you are limiting the number of carbohydrates you eat because they will go straight to fat as your body is not using them for any physical activity Calculating your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) and keeping your macronutrient ratios as 60% Protein 25% Fat 15% Carbs is a good mix.

What Lessons Have You Learned From Injury?

What I’ve shared above are lessons and self-reflections that I have learned from my injury. However, I am still constantly trying to learn from my mistakes and avoid repeating another injury. I would love to hear what lessons you have learned from your injuries. Feel free to comment below with an example or identify an area I might have missed. Please share so we all can learn and possibly incorporate ourselves.

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