Keep lifting heavy without back pain

Lower back pain from deadlifting

Back pain from heavy deadlifting After four weeks of extreme pain and no improvement I was told by my sports doctor that I might have an annular disc tear.  Here’s how I stayed big.

The “Back”-story

I’ll keep this short and sweet.  I was deadlifting…heavy.  I had loaded up five plates on each side after doing a set at 465lbs when one of my gym buddies and I got to chatting.  We flapped our gums for about 10 minutes before I snapped out of it and went back to finish my set.  I knew my body had cooled down way too much and that I shouldn’t do the set but I let my ego get the best of me.  One rep is all it took.  I felt the pain about midway through the lift.  It was a pull, then fire through the right side of my lower back.  Stupid.

In my years of pro-wrestling I had encountered a similar pain but was told it was inflammation from my SI Joint (Sacroiliac Joint) being displaced from hitting the mat on my butt so many times.  So as always I assumed ice, heat, and a steady dose of anti inflammatory medication would do the trick.  Four weeks after the incident the pain had gotten so bad that I couldn’t sit at my desk for more than 20 minutes without being in excruciating pain.  I couldn’t sleep, and the only time I felt the pain subside was when I was standing and mobile and the blood was flowing through my back muscles.

So I went to my trusted sports doctor, Ty Affleck, at Santa Rosa Sports Medicine.  After a few mechanical tests he wan 90% certain that it was an annular disc tear in between on of my L-vertebrae.

Me: Can I do barbell shrugs?

Doc: Nope

Me: What about bent over barbell rows?

Doc: Nope

Me: What about deadlifts, squats, power cleans?

Doc: Nope, nope, and not a good idea. Oh and seated exercises with weights wreak havoc on the discs so stay away from seated shoulder presses.

He gave me a chart that was derived from a study where the scientists actually inserted a true pressure meter into a subject’s back and had him perform various exercises.  Turns out the main offender was the position for bent over barbell rows.  Apparently, that specific position places an exponentially larger amount of strain on the discs in the lower back than the benchmark which was standing straight and holding weights.   Moreover, the seated exercises such as shoulder presses and seated dumbbell curls were next in line.  Come to find out, when we are sitting, the facets in the vertebrae disengage and all of the pressure (weight) is transferred and absorbed by the discs.

Instead of thinking my career as a professional athlete was over, I instead began asking questions about what exercises I could do.  Here’s what I did and how I kept every bit of my size, still weighing in at a solid 260lbs and under 8% body fat.

Lower back pain from deadliftingSpine-saver workout

Barbell Rows substituted with T-Bar Rows

The first thing I needed to do was find a substitute for bent over barbell rows.  The solution was simply the T-Bar Row.  The T-Bar allows you to place your chest on an incline bench and remove all of the pressure from your spine.  I was still able to load the bar on my first try with six plates.  I found that it became a little hard to breathe due to all of the weight being exerted on my chest.  My solution was to place one of my feet on the ground, rather than on the foot rest, and slightly push my chest up off of the pad.  You have to be careful here, as that position will allow you to cheat your movement by bouncing slightly.

Seated shoulder press substituted with standing barbell press

Knowing that the seated should press is where most of my shoulder mass came from, I wasn’t going to give up that movement.  The free weight shoulder press is unparalleled when it comes to building massive delts.  Arnold Schwarzenegger even confirms this in a recent article he wrote for Muscle and Fitness.  My solution was to do standing overhead barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses.   Not only did I gain a little size from switching my routine up but I also was forced to use different stabilizer muscles that had long been forgotten in my workouts in order to keep proper form while standing.

Squats substituted with decline leg press

Although there is technically no substitute for squats, this is the next best thing.  The important thing to remember is that many of us have been taught to “stop at the 90 degree” mark with respect to the bend in our legs.  While its been proven that this reduces the strain on the knees compared to the full range of motion (in this case, bringing your knees to your chest), it comes with two issues that I feel need to be mentioned.

  1. 90 degrees in not 45 degrees.  Seriously, on a daily basis I see guys and girls both loading up the sled with more weight than their legs can actually handle.  In their heads they think they are reaching the 90 degree mark but in reality, they are lucky if they are at 60 degrees.  If you are going to stop at the perpendicular range of motion then please make sure you get there.  Otherwise, you will continue to wonder why you never achieve the leg size and shape you’ve been chasing.
  2. The full range of motion provides more strength and better overall muscular shape.  Again, while placing more stress on the knees, the full range of motion will allow you to build more strength and engage the hamstrings and glutes more than you would otherwise.  I typically place my feet at a wide stance so that when I’m lowering the weight my knees won’t hit my chest and allow me to cheat the positive motion.

Keep in mind that your low back needs to stay pressed against the pad. The second it comes up off of the pad you are transferring stress to your lower back.

Barbell shrugs substituted with high rep dumbbell shrugs

Although I was told “no shrugs” by the doctor, I knew the reason I was further injuring my back was in my form.  I was loading the barbell with 405 lbs to 465 lbs and leaning ever so slightly forward to allow my traps to really take on the weight.  What I realized was that was very similar to the bent over row position that induced the most strain on the lower back discs.

I opted to eliminate barbell shrugs and aim for higher reps with dumbbell shrugs, still keeping the weight heavy.  My focus was on staying completely upright and not leaning forward at all.  Using 120 lbs in each hand I was able to do sets of 12-15 reps.  To further the intensity, I used advice from Rycklon (Zeke) Stephens and made sure I held the contraction at the top for one to two seconds prior to lowering the weights.

I also incorporated a super set into the dumbbell shrugs.  On my last set I would do as many reps as I could at 120 lbs, then without taking any rest, drop the weight to 70lbs and do as many as I could (10-12 reps), then dropping to 45 lbs.  I would then run and grab 20 lb dumbbells and do modified lateral shoulder raises.  I would raise the weight far above my shoulders to about the top of my head and move my arm forward slightly, holding at the top for two seconds, then lowering slowly. I found this increased the intensity on the traps significantly, leaving me with a major pump in that muscle group.

4 sets of 12-15 reps with 60-90 seconds rest.  No rest between the exercises in the super set.

60 seconds rest after the super set, before the next exercise.

From there, I grab a 100 lb EZ Curl bar for standing upright rows and put my grip right on the first bend.  With a similar modification, I move my arms out from my body a few inches to increase the strain on the traps.  I also get a one second pause at the top.

4 sets of 12 reps with 60 seconds rest.

By making these small tweaks, within a week I was on the road to recovery.  Within two weeks, most of my pain was gone.  Unfortunately, there is simply no substitute for deadlifts and power cleans and I’ve had to retire those for the time being.  If I find a solution, you’ll be the first to know.

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