Article written by Josh Mac.
I grew up in a household of bad backs. My mother’s was from a car accident years before I was born. She used to always tell me “take care of your back, you only get one.” My father’s was from the manual labor of loading and driving big rigs. His rudimentary scars from the early 1970’s surgery were a constant reminder of his condition. They spanned the entire length of the L-spine and out like a crosshairs. Despite it all, he worked his ass off for us. I was young, so I didn’t understand his constant and crushing pain. At least, not until I felt a fraction of it decades later.
Fast forward to November 2013, I was 10 days out from a charity push/pull and feeling bulletproof. Sure I had minor back aches in the past, usually in the morning just after rolling out of bed. In the past few months I was feeling a lot of low back strains from pulling heavy. Nothing had really held me back though, and my recovery was always pretty fast.
Despite the nagging pain, I ripped the bar off of the ground for reps anyway. This was my top set for the day, one amrap set with 585. It started off good, but on the third rep I heard a rapid POP-POP-POP-POP! Instantly I felt the dreaded lightning bolt travel down my left leg, around my calf and to my toes. I dropped the bar immediately. Half in shock and confused by what had just happened, I asked my training partners if they had heard the awful popping noise. But they didn’t. The noise that sounded like firecrackers so loud in my head was actually 4 discs blowing one after another.
It didn’t hurt at first, probably from the adrenaline. Rather than leave the gym, I stayed and did hanging leg raises (dumb). I thought maybe something was out of whack and the decompression would help.
I was wrong.
During the 15 minute drive home, the adrenaline wearing off and the onset of swelling began the ordeal of unrelenting pain that would last for months. When my wife saw the shape I was in when I slowly and painfully walked in the front door, she drove me straight to the ER.
After determining that I wasn’t a candidate for emergency surgery, the ER sent me home with a prescription for essentially Advil and some Justin Bieber stickers. I always ask for Bieber stickers when I’m at any Dr’s office because I like to put them on people’s cars.
I began seeing an orthopedic doctor soon after and started 4 weeks of PT. An MRI showed the extent of the damage, L2/L3 all the way down to L5/S1 was blown. But there was more. Apparently a vein had hemorrhaged near L5/S1 and bled into the spinal column. Awesome!
Suffice to say that between the added pressure of the coagulating blood and the ejected disc material, I was in a great deal of pain. Still, surgery was not recommended at that time, to my relief.
PT consisted of glute bridges, stretches, planks, and an assortment of things that made me break a sweat in a cold room. The Physical Therapist seemed like a nice enough guy, but my struggle to stretch my hamstrings and do bird dogs seemed to amuse him a little too much. He liked to tell me that I needed to strengthen my core. My pride was hard to swallow, but I had to do it to get better.
After 4 weeks of PT, the doctor begrudgingly gave me the green light to train upper body with light weight. I took that as “go crazy on bench.”
Although I was excited to get back to lifting, I had to be careful. I still had constant sciatic pain in my left leg, running down my hamstring and around my calf, my right quad was numb and my toes would tingle as if falling asleep on one or both feet at times. My left hamstring pulled heavily on the injured area, so limping was inevitable. The pain was intense and searing, like an inferno at times. It’d flare up terribly just upon standing. For a second, the pain was dull and faint but then full force, enough to just about take me off of my feet.
I knew I had a long road of rehab ahead of me outside of PT. I could sit and moan about the pain or I could find a way out of this mess.
*Asking questions. Seeking out advice and information from health care professionals was important, but so was the advice of other lifters. Doctors were great at giving information about my injury but out of caution, recommended that I stay away from lifting. That wasn’t helpful.
But speaking to powerlifters who’ve experienced similar injuries not only gave me hope, but a legitimate plan for recovery. EFS lifter Adam Driggers was gracious enough to offer advice and let me vent. Our injuries were almost identical, and reading his recovery that was documented in his training log was both motivating and inspiring. Another such lifter was Raleigh Barbell owner Jackson Williams. He had fought his way back from herniations and a vertebrae fracture. His input on recovery and rehabilitation was worth more to me than the script that my physical therapist read from.
*Decompression. Seeking out a chiropractor, it was paramount that I found one who was just as passionate about my return to the platform as I was. It was important that they understood the stresses of powerlifting on the body and exactly what I was returning to. Back during PT, the well meaning therapist would talk about deadlifts while demonstrating a power clean with his hands. I needed someone a little more attentive than that.
The first visit consisted of an adjustment, aqua bed, tens unit, alternating hot/cold therapy and finally decompression.
The decompression treatment was a table, a hip harness, and what looked like a small winch. A computer controlled the force with which the apparatus would pull on the hip harness. The treatment lasted about 15 minutes, alternating between intervals of 60 pounds of pulling force up to 190 pounds.
Given the injury, my first time on the table was nerve racking (no pun intended.) With the extent and scope of the damage, pulling my body apart sounded good until they strapped me down to the table. I imagined I’d need a strip of leather to bite down on like I was getting a wound cauterized, but as the machine began, I relaxed and let it do the work.
The treatment wasn’t a “flip of a light switch” cure, but over the course of weeks and months my pain and limp slowly minimized.
*Returning to the gym. My slow, labored steps through the gym’s door (to the positive sentiments of my Raleigh Barbell teammates) were my first on the road to recovery. Getting my mind right and ready was the first move toward reclaiming my health and eventually, strength.
The best medicine for my injury was movement. Some of the worst flare ups occurred after sitting on my ass on the couch feeling sorry for myself. But if I stayed active and on my feet, back pain was minimized. I found this out fairly quickly.
Unfortunately that meant rough mornings. Sleeping was difficult for months. The first few steps in the morning when getting out of bed were bad enough to stop me in my tracks, holding onto the wall to keep from collapsing. I’m not a dramatic guy or anything, but the pain almost left me involuntarily bent to its will. It’s a profoundly scary and powerless feeling when your mind loses control of your body, if even for only a few seconds.
*Sleeping with a pillow between my legs: This helped immensely. Not only did it help keep my hips level and sacrum immobilized when sleeping on my side, but it limited the frequency with which I tossed and turned during the night. Although this must have been horrifying for the pillow, it’s in a much better place now (a landfill somewhere.)
*Strengthening the most vulnerable area. I can’t begin to tell you the amount of times I had heard someone say that they couldn’t do an activity, go somewhere or lift something because they have a bad back. The worst thing you can do for your back is NOT use it for anything, whether it has been previously injured or not. Of course I’m not advocating lifting heavy during an unresolved injury, but strengthening that area is the best chance you have at prevention of a repeat problem.
Have you ever seen those late night commercials for the back brace that inflates with air? That’s for people who:
- have a bad back and
- have absolutely zero back and trunk strength
I started strengthening my lower back and trunk slowly. Starting with ab crunches and glute bridges at first then eventually weightless reverse hyperextensions. Using only the weight of my own legs, I worked up to sets of five or ten, stopping to pause at full extension. Week to week I would increase volume on these, eventually adding 5 or 10#’s. The reverse hyper was said to flex the vertebrae enough to help the disc “suck” its material back inside its rubbery exterior (giggity.) Whether it did or just strengthening the area around the injury the result remained the same, less pain.
*Walking. There were days that I hurt so bad in the morning that I just wanted to lay on the living room floor all day. Willing myself to get up and go for walks not only helped the pain immensely but it kept me active while I wasn’t in the gym doing a lot of weight for my lower body. This probably kept me from being even fatter than I am now.
*Staying hydrated. As simple as that is, I still suck at it even today. I love coffee in the morning. Normally after my first cup, I have a second and occasionally a third. Remembering to drink water upon waking was something that took a little effort. Usually the night before I would leave a glass or bottle of water on my nightstand and drink it first thing upon waking before anything else. This made having to pee in the morning even more urgent and… uh… exciting.
*Paying closer attention to form. I was a grip and rip guy before the injury. My best conventional pull was 650 beltless on an axle during strongman training. I never used a belt, barely took the slack out of the bar and it didn’t matter if the bar drifted out in front of me, I was still going to reel it in without a hitch. This type of pulling is sloppy and dangerous.
After three months of lower body rehab, I began squatting and sumo deadlifting. My hamstrings had tightened up over the course of the injury, causing tail tucking on my back squat. To remedy this, I did 3 things:
- Stretched the hamstrings religiously
- Squatted to a box at parallel
- Front squatted
The combination of those three things helped avoid further injury and rounding of the L-spine. Front squatting solved the tail tuck almost immediately by keeping my torso in a more upright position. Squatting to a box engaged the hamstrings much more while sitting back rather than down.
It’s been 11 months since that day and on Saturday, 10/11/14 I competed in my first powerlifting meet since the injury. The passage of time and the protocol that I followed above have not only allowed me to return to lifting, but to dominate it.
Since this injury, strengthening my trunk and back to protect my discs has led to squatting a 60# all time PR, benching a 20# all time PR and achieving a 70# all time meet total PR. My deadlift is slowly catching up too. Although I haven’t surpassed my old pre injury conventional deadlift numbers, my sumo deadlift is much stronger now than ever before and getting better every month.
The pain is very manageable and virtually non-existent these days. Staying on top of prehab has been vital to my back health and instrumental to my new squat, bench, and deadlift successes. I wouldn’t wish back problems on my worst enemy, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence for the lifter in us either.