by Joseph Maxwell
You hit the gym for a leg workout. After some squat sets you decide it’s time to move on to the deadlift. As you reach the end of your set you can feel the weight pulling you down. Suddenly in the middle of your last rep, it happens. You drop the barbell as you feel a sharp, stabbing pain in your lower back, radiating down your leg.
In our quest to become better, stronger men, this scenario is all too common. I’m Joseph Maxwell, brother of Robert and co-founder of The Man Factory. Over the course of my career as a lifter and national-champion shot putter, I’ve dealt with my share of back problems. Through years of trial and error, I’ve developed some simple protocols which have helped me stay healthy and strong. They can help you too.
1. Identify what type of back injury you have
If you pay close attention to your symptoms, you can make an educated guess as to what’s going on without an MRI or X-Ray. Your lower back pain is almost always either a disc or muscular issue. Muscular issues usually resolve themselves pretty quickly so if you’re feeling better within a few weeks that’s probably what’s going on. Heavy weight lifting can stress your lower back muscles to a point where they’ll go into a tense, spasm mode which causes a lot of pain. I see athletes and lifters experience this all the time but they’re usually feeling better the next week. When your pain lasts a month or more and the moment you feel any tingling or pain down your hamstring and into your calf, you almost certainly have a disc problem. Lower body lifts, particularly the squat and deadlift, put pressure on your discs. Sometimes this pressure is too much for your body to handle and the incasing membrane of the disc tears. When this happens, the fluid inside bulges out and pushes on a nerve which causes the radiating pain.
2. Rest Accordingly
Whether it be a muscle spasm or a disc injury, you’ll need to take a break from lifting or any other activity that causes you pain. Recovery can’t happen if you’re constantly aggravating the problem. Disc injuries have been my problem over the past 3 years and when the issue flares up, I need two to three weeks away from the gym. Back spasms will require less time. You shouldn’t be doing a lot during the rest period – the goal is to reduce inflammation in your back. I’d recommend hot and cold contrast treatment during this period. Put an ice pack or your lower back for 10-20 minutes and follow this up with a heat pad or warm shower. This drastic temperature change brings a pulsating blood blow to the area which will speed up the healing process. When the inflammation is under control and you’re no longer in severe pain, you’re be ready for the next step.
3. Implement Stretching into your Daily Routine
Over the years I’ve seen numerous doctors, chiropractors and physiotherapists about my chronic back problems. While these people have given me some useful tips in my quest to stay healthy, nothing has helped my back more than a basic, lower body stretching routine which I’ve made a part of my everyday life. Many people have chronically tight lower bodies. When those muscle groups are tight, they won’t take their fair share of the load when you’re deadlifting and squatting. This leaves the lower back as the only available area to pick up the slack and this is when injuries can happen. Spend 15-30 minutes per day stretching your hips, glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors. I’d also recommend using a roller on these areas. Not only will this stretching and foam rolling combination speed up your recovery, it’ll keep your back happy too.
4. Strengthen Your Core
While tight muscles can cause a lot of back problems, I would venture to say that a weak core is an even bigger culprit. The muscles in your mid-section should be supporting much of the weight in the squat and deadlift. When those muscles aren’t strong enough to do that, the stress and downward pressure of the heavy barbell goes straight to your spine. This is when disc injuries arise. To avoid this pitfall, become deliberate about your core training. Don’t make it something at the end of a workout that you usually skip. That’ll only lead to problems. Implement a core program of 2 sets of 3-5 exercises all for 8-12 reps. My favorite movements are lying leg raises, ab wheel, side bends and reverse hypers. I’ve found reverse hypers to be particularly useful for my back health. They strengthen the thoracolumbar fascia which is the muscle on either side of the spine. That additional strength will bring stability to your entire trunk area.
Back problems last a long time and they’ll often never disappear completely. Since I injured a lumbar disc as a 16-year-old, there hasn’t been a single day where I haven’t thought about my back health. That being said, I’ve managed the problem well enough to become a national champion shot putter and a NCAA athlete at the University of Tennessee. During the initial rest faze, patience is key. After that it’s all about fixing the root of the problem with the techniques I’ve shared. Injuries are a battle and it’s important you fight against them on a daily basis. Don’t let them stop you from becoming a stronger, better man.