Give Me The Fish (GMTF): Lower back tweaks happen, but they are only as bad as you allow them to be. This is not the first lower back tweak article I’ve done, and it probably won’t be the last. Unfortunately, lower back tweaks are a part of life, but if you do these 4 steps you will be ready to jump on some new adventures in no time:
- Damage Control
- Find the cause
- Follow the rehab protocol
- Get back to crushing weights… slowly
The Lower Back Tweak
All of a sudden you are getting second-degree whiplash as your back curls forward in an effort to protect itself, right when you’re squatting down or pulling up on a weight.
One moment you felt awesome like you’re dominating the workout and the next you’re on one knee trying to figure out how you’re going to stand up and walk out of the gym, let alone put away the weights.
The classic lower back tweak.
Besides your first thought of “oh s***”.
You immediately start questioning everything in your existence on what you should do next.
Like, “How do I get home?”, “Crap I can’t believe I can’t finish the workout”, and the onset of depression because this is the third time this happened to you and you already know how much pain and how long it’s going to be before you are back to normal.
For those that have read my articles, you know that I’ve had a long history with lower back tweaks, starting with tearing a back muscle about a decade ago.
Having not rehabbed it correctly the first time, it has led me to have an easily aggravated back. The bright side of this is, I not only have to pay a lot of attention to my form, but I’ve also gotten very good at recovering when I do tweak it.
Since the second lower back tweak years ago, fortunately, I’ve yet to have a back injury occur from the actual movement itself. It’s always been after the fact or an extraneous circumstance, due to a dog running between my legs while squatting and having someone bump the barbell while lifting, and, of course, the classic putting the weights away when finished.
Regardless of what the cause is, following these lessons learned, I’ve managed to turn my months-long recovery times into a week or two.
In the rest of the article, we will go step by step on how to get from on the floor to crushing weight, or climbing mountains, or whatever it is you do.
I would like to call this the “Coach T protocol”, but not only is that a little to narcissistic even for me, I have also stolen everything in here from some of the best coaches and physical therapists around and pieced it together over the years. So, it’s not really mine.
1) Damage Control
Just like patching a hole in the ship, the important thing is stopping the source of the water.
Often, when you first tweak your lower back, what happens is your pelvis actually rotates and shifts out of place. Now, this isn’t necessarily the case, but it does seem typical. And, the best thing about this is (in the words of the famous Dr. Kelley Starret), “it can’t hurt anything so just do it”.
If your pelvis is out of alignment, your body is going to feel like it has to keep protecting the damaged area.
Enter muscle spasms.
So, you can’t tackle the muscle problems unless you have the correct structure alignment in place. Otherwise, your body is going to keep firing the muscles to keep stability where the bone can’t anymore.
Once the alignment is corrected, you’re going to convince that muscle to relax with a little bit of contract and relax, a little bit of rolling, and a little bit of pressure pointing.
So take your knee, go through everything about how much your life sucks as you feel that pain radiating up your back.
And then roll over and do a pelvis reset, video below:
2) Find The Cause
There is no point in trying a long-term solution if you don’t know what problem you are trying to solve in the first place.
To find the problem, you have a few options and they’re a little dependent on your pain levels, how bad you actually think it is, and if you actually need to see a doctor.
2.A) See a Medical Provider… maybe
First thing is, I personally have gone to see a doctor/physical therapist for my lower back once. It was the first time I had a lower back tweak, and I was told it was just a normal muscle spasm and it was good to go.
I was given some “assistant work”, demonstrated the motions, given some pills, and sent back out.
Lo and behold, I start doing the assistant work and went back to doing the same thing as I was before and pushing through the pain because the doctor said it was just a spasm and sure enough…
Turns out, muscle relaxants and heavy Squat Cleans don’t mix. I went from a muscle spasm to a torn and swollen back for 6 months.
It didn’t help that I didn’t have experience yet to know what the problem was in the first place, and it didn’t help that I didn’t know where to even look for help.
But, my major mistake was seeing that doctor and physical therapist that knew nothing about sports injuries.
I’m NOT telling you not to see them, but if you do, I recommend seeking one out that knows a thing or two about powerlifting.
That being said, there are benefits to seeing a doctor. There are variations of this, such as waiting for the pain to subside a little, and then going to see a doctor, going to a chiropractor, seeing a masseuse, or some other professional in this field. But, in my personal experience, none of them have helped.
2.B) Re-evaluate Your Form
Re-evaluate your form in the gym (regardless of where the injury took place). Use video recordings of yourself, look up a proven source of fitness coaching, like starting strength, or Alan Thrall, or Athlean X, and do some serious self-reflection.
Or, find a coach.
If you have any part of you that’s unsure about the movement, man up (or Woman Up) and get a coach.
Even the elite athletes of the world have coaches.
If you want a nice suit, you go to a nice tailor. If you need surgery, you find a good surgeon. If you want to get your moving patterns corrected you go find a good coach.
Often poor movement patterns in the gym put us in worse movement patterns outside of it and then put us in positions that cause serious damage. It’s best to fix it now.
3) The Protocol (1-2 weeks)
When I get a lower back tweak the world always feels like it’s ending and it always feel like I can’t move.
But, over the years I’ve learned that the quicker you get back to moving, the better it gets.
This does not mean going back to lifting heavy weights.
This is progression starting with no weight and maybe not even the bar, possibly just getting yourself in the right position and sitting down onto a chair above 90 and standing back up.
But the most important part of this is to make sure you are doing the movement patterns correctly.
The day I get injured I will rest for an hour or two and let the pain subside slightly and then do a 3 x 5 squat onto a chair with no weight.
Then either the next day or two days after. I spend an hour doing small sets of 2-5 reps with a few minutes in between. I do the reps until either the pain is too much, or I get tired. After being able to go to the chair above 90, the next day I will go to 90.
Then I might do it without a chair, and the day after I do it with the bar.
Moral of the story, every day do a little more… a little.
If you feel any of that kind of lower back tweak feel at all, even slightly, it means you’re jacking up the movement, so…
AND GO FIND A COACH.
Bill Star has a great rehab program that is around the same lines, mostly because what I do has been ripped off of him and then I have modified and evolved it over the years.
I’ve done this with both Deadlifting and Squatting. I prefer squatting, but both seem to work well.
Your movement choice is going to be a little bit up to you. I prefer the squat.
4) Start Crushing Weights… Slowly
You already found a coach, you’re following Mark Rippetoes or Bill Starr’s rehab program, and it all seems spelled out.
But, a problem that I always run into is wanting to start jumping up in weights too fast.
Not realizing, that jumping up too quickly can damage you. The squat is very complex, it’s also a great movement to do for strength and for growth. Doing it more does protect your back by making it stronger. But, because it’s complex if you try to move up in weight too quickly, form tends to break down. So unless you’re in some kind of competition and you’re under the guise of a coach that knows what he’s doing, slow down.
Take it easy, it’s not a competition, and your form determines what you’re working out and how you’re working it out.
We’ve talked about leverages before, but setting up a little bit different means you’re working out different muscles, so if you “mess up” your form, you are working out differently.
Your body doesn’t really know the difference of a messed-up form and a good form It only knows that it is having weight forced upon it. So what does messed up form mean?
It means you’re training different muscles in a different capacity. Good form really just means good leverages and consistency in accomplishing a specific goal.
And if you’re squatting the same way every time, it’s gotten very strong at operating in a specific muscle group range and in a specific capacity.
So when you mess it up, you are now taking that 400 lbs you have on your back and essentially sticking that pressure onto a group of muscles that are not trained to handle the 400 lbs.
Yes, the muscles have gotten stronger due to doing this movement, but just like in a rehearsal for a play, or if you’re in the military training for a change of command. Your body has been trained to work in a coordinated capacity, so if it’s not working in a coordinate capacity, it can’t operate at the peak efficiency as it was before.
So operating with a messed up form is a disaster, just like taking a trained production cast for a play, and then giving them a completely different script and making them perform live for the first time. They may all be experts in their field, and be great at plays, but it’s going to look like s***.
So, it’s not a race, take it easy on going up and waiting on the squat, yes you need to improve, and yes you need to get better, but this one has movements where you don’t need to be struggling to lift it up if you can’t, that’s fine drop the weight, and make up for that lack of intensity or volume somewhere else.
Can I Keep Training Other Movements?
The famous Mark Rippetoe recommends you don’t, except for the rehab that we discussed before.
I personally do.
I like to think about things for how they make sense to me. So, while yes, your body is dedicating resources to fixing the injury, I don’t believe it makes sense for your body to only be able to repair one area at once. I could see how it could slow down the repair across the board due to resource constraints. But, if I get a cut in my leg and I get a cut on my arm at the same time they tend to heal at about the same rate, not one than the other and science is in my favor, albeit recovery at a slower rate.
So, in the interest of not losing strength during the healing process, I work out the other portions of my body. I recommend you doing whatever you are comfortable with.
While I’m not a big fan of machines, this might be an ok time to give them a shot.
My real advice here is to find out what works for you and what doesn’t. The key is not causing any aggravation in your back.
I mean zero.
So, if you can do seated barbell curls without aggravating your back go for it. If you can do presses (doubt it) go for it. If you can do pull-ups or other types of exercises, go for it.
Okay, so we’ve covered what you do at the gym after you have a lower back tweak, but what do you do the rest of the time?
I personally am a big fan of using massage devices, but foam rollers and lacrosse balls work.
I use what’s called the Hitachi magic wand, a dildo looking device that can also be used like that in some capacities, but you can find a different site for that.
For this purpose, it’s dirt cheap and helps ease your muscle fibers into relaxing.
What I do is I move into body positions that I should be able to do, that shouldn’t cause back pain, and then right when the muscle starts tensing I hold the device against it and let it vibrate out the tension.
Typically it takes 30-60 seconds before the pain is gone and the tension releases. I’ll do this a few times throughout the day.
I know a lot of you have those therapeutic punching gun drill things.
I don’t recommend those only because you are trying to get the muscle to relax, you’re not trying to beat the sh** out of it.
But, you do you.
What About Static Stretching?
To understand the problem with stretching, you have to understand why you feel tight after a lower back tweak.
It feels tight, because your back is protecting itself from injury by contracting really hard, because it knows that when it’s contracted it’s hard to damage it.
One, as your muscles try to contract and you try to stretch them out, if you did damage the muscle, you’re only going to make it worse because now you’re tugging on it as it’s damaged and as it’s trying to contract. So, if you don’t want to damage it more don’t stretch the area that’s tight.
Now what I’m guilty of and a lot of people are guilty of is stretching the muscles that pull on your lower back.
Since all of your muscles are interconnected, if you stretch your hamstrings, or you stretch your hip flexors, or stretch your upper back, they don’t pull as much on the lower back area, and therefore some of that pain goes away.
But, what you’re doing is weakening the muscles around it, which makes them less likely in the future to be able to protect that area by helping support it.
We will cover this at another day, but stretching under load, and stretching not under load are very different things, you do not have the same flexibility across both capacities.
Bottom line, mobility not under the load does not transfer to mobility under load.
You stretching not under load is giving the other muscles a greater range of motion without giving them more strength. You can probably already see the problem here.
On the same thought, contract and relax stretching is different because you are working the muscle. This is ok.
Immediately take action, the faster you deal with your lower back tweak the better. Once you have done damage control, figure out the cause of the lower back tweak. Once you found the problem, follow the protocol.
This is all time tested and does work as long as you stick to the plan. So, let’s drop the whole “I can’t my back hurts” charade, and let’s fix the problem and move on.
See you in the gym or on the trails.