I've been dealing with serious lower back pain for nine long years.
While working construction in 2007, I herniated a disc and broke the transverse process (one of the bony spines) off my L4 vertebra and I've spent nearly a decade seeking solutions for the pain.
This pain usually manifests as a feeling I can only describe as being stabbed in the spine. It results first in a deep gasp and then uncontrollable cussing.
Although I often feel okay, the pain can strike again at any time – while lifting weights with perfect form, putting away groceries, or standing in line at the bank (and a few times when I made the apparently grave error of sneezing while bent forward).
I've seen three chiropractors, alternated heat and ice, tried OTC pain meds and massages, and none of it made a bit of difference.
But I've refused to simply take to my bed and wait to die.
So for the past 9 years, I've tracked my pain, tried many treatments, and have finally developed a system that eliminates my pain the majority of the time and allows me to continue lifting weights and living life.
Now, like most other things, we learn from our mistakes. So before I lay out my 5 part solution to lifting (and living) with lower back pain, I first want to share with you…
The Worst Things I've Done For My Lower Back Pain
Through trial and error, I've found many things that didn't work as well as I'd hoped.
I'm not saying that the following methods won't work for you, but I've tried them all in the past and they seemed to prolong the pain from my particular injury.
Babying my lower back prolonged my recovery
When my lower back was in so much pain that reaching for a cellphone on the kitchen counter disrupted my center of gravity and caused me to curse the world, the natural inclination was give it as much rest as possible.
But too much time off never turned out well. My back got so weak and tight that I couldn't even sit on the floor because it caused my back to round in a way that felt like my discs were tearing away from the bone.
Following a lower back injury, there will, of course, be some downtime. But as soon as I feel able (or even earlier), it's time to get moving again.
I've found that even if it's just cardio, light dumbbell work, or bodyweight exercises, moving is nearly always MUCH better than lying in bed (even though that's all I feel capable of).
Our bodies are designed to grow stronger in response to stress, so it seems that forcing your back to do some structured work is the key to recovery, however counterintuitive that may feel.
Hanging from a bar made the pain worse
If my injury were purely muscular, I think this stretching technique would work.
But since my injury is to the cartilage (discs) between my vertebrae and to the bone itself, hanging for any length of time makes my issues much worse.
X-rays taken several years apart revealed that the piece of bone that's been broken off my spine has never healed. So now that piece of bone is just floating.
The bad part is that this floating piece is the attachment point for muscles of the lower back. Thus any elongation of my spine is essentially just yanking on a broken bone, which I suspect leads to inflammation and then pressure on the nerves.
Occasionally, when my spine is feeling compressed, I hang from a pullup bar for about 5 seconds and it seems to help, but I've had really bad experiences with extended periods of time or adding weight.
Rounding my spine before warming up caused instant pain
This is the biggest No-No I've found to date for triggering pain.
One morning, before warming up my lower back, I was crouched on the floor putting my infant daughter in her carseat. When I had her about six inches above the seat, I was hit with pain that felt like someone tore out a spinal nerve with a pair of pliers.
I gasped and basically dropped her the half foot into her seat (thankfully, she was fine) as I fell forward unable to support even my own weight.
As I was lying there crumpled up, stuck on the floor, and feeling pathetic, I resolved that warming up my lower back was going to be at the top of my daily To-Do list.
Twisting my back created more problems
Twisting to “crack” my back or doing warmup and ab exercises with too much rotation have all done more harm than good.
At first, these movements can provide a little relief, but they're ultimately bad for anyone with a disc problem.
When my lower back has a dull ache, it instantly feels better when I twist in my chair to crack it. But that relief is short-lived and it leads to the need to crack it more and more.
Over a few days of this, the dull ache starts to feel more like an injury and doesn't go away until I make the commitment to not twist for a couple weeks.
The same goes for Windmills or Russian Twists. Any ab or warmup exercises involving full rotation just increase my lower back pain for as long as I continue them.
My 5 Part Solution to Lower Back Pain
Keep in mind that this is how I deal with MY back pain and I can't tell you how to specifically deal with YOUR back issues (only a professional can do that).
But I hope that you can learn from my experience and shave a few years off the trial and error process so you can return to living your life instead of dwelling on an injury.
The 5 Elements of My Pain Free Lower Back Routine
I wish I could tell you that there was one thing I did to cure my lower back pain. But just as the the body is an extremely complicated and intricate organism, so is the solution to dealing with it.
Current mainstream lower back treatment is all about reducing flexion and extension to preserve the integrity of the spine.
I tried that method but it didn't work at all for me.
So I take a different approach to eliminating my lower back pain.
#1 Lower Back Pain Solution – Mobility (THIS IS THE BIG ONE)
At one point, even though my injury was mostly healed, I lacked mobility in my spine so badly from avoiding movement that I had to use a pillow for lumbar support just to sit in the car for 5 minutes.
But the late Bill Starr, who was a legendary strength coach, opened my eyes on this subject.
I was reading an article he'd written on rehabbing lower back pain and he described a variation of the Good Morning exercise where you allow your back to round at the end.
I thought this was absolutely nuts because I couldn't even round my back while sitting on the floor without gasping in pain.
Just to prove his insanity, I tried the exercise with a broomstick as described, and on the first rep I said, “HOLY SHIT.” It hurt like hell, but in a way you know is good for you (like foam rolling).
I started with tiny movements and slowly increased the amount of back rounding as I felt comfortable with the new range of motion.
By the time I hit around 25 reps, my back was so hot and pumped that I had to stop – BUT MY BACK FELT BETTER!
This technique works because forcing your erector spinae (muscles along your spine) to contract through a range of motion, rather than just act as stabilizers, floods them with blood.
The work load and rush of blood heats up the joints and provides the bone and cartilage with much needed nutrients.
The 4 exercises I use for lower back mobility
I learned two of these exercises from Bill Starr and two I discovered on my own. But all four utilize the same flexion and extension of the spine to help me condition my lower back.
These aren't exercises that need max weight!
The idea is to go light enough so that you can perform between 25 and 100 reps with each.
Given their high rep nature, I use whatever combination feels best as part of my morning routine and also as a warmup before lifting.
Exercises (a) to (d) demonstrated, described below
A. Ass To Grass Squats
The below parallel portion of a squat causes your pelvis to tilt and your lower back to involuntarily round. While this can be dangerous with heavy weight, I've found it therapeutic with light weights.
For me, this felt safer and more comfortable than the round back Good Mornings or any of the other exercises, so I started rehabbing with these.
Squat down (with just your bodyweight, a broomstick, or empty barbell) until your knees are almost in your armpits, your back should be nicely rounded at this point.
As you come up from the bottom, focus on arching your back (chest up, butt out) to maximize the range of motion and force your lower back muscles go from the fully stretched to fully contracted position.
Simply put, you're intentionally working the “butt wink” at the end of the motion.
If you look at yourself in the mirror from the side, you should look like a bee stinging the floor with your ass. Yes, you'll look goofy. Feel free to laugh at yourself.
B. Round Back Good Mornings
To do a Bill Starr Good Morning, set up like regular Good Mornings. Stand with the bar on your back, knees slightly bent, and feet a little closer than shoulder width.
Initiate the movement by shoving your hips back and hinging at the waist until your back is parallel with the floor, but don't stop there.
What makes this movement different, and useful for back rehab, is the next part. Continue the movement by rounding your spine until your chest is on your thighs.
Reverse the motion by first arching your back and only then extending from the hips.
C. Deficit Deadlifts
This is the other exercise recommended by Bill Starr (he called them haltings) that I've found really useful. They're performed like regular deadlifts but the range of motion different.
Start with the bar (or broomstick) just above your knees, then lower the bar to the top of your feet. Your hips should tuck (butt wink) under a little as your back rounds at the bottom.
Reverse the motion by sliding the bar up your shins and arching your back, stopping just above the knees.
Make sure you keep your hips higher than your knees, just as in a regular deadlift, throughout the entire set of 25-100 reps.
D. Round Back Stiff Leg Deadlifts
My back used to be so weak in the rounded position that I had to shoot my hips back and keep my spine rigid just to wash my hands (most sinks aren't made with people greater than 6′ in mind).
Disgruntled by my weakness, I began training my back in the compromised rounded position, first with a broomstick, next with and empty bar, and finally with lighter weights added.
Standing with an empty bar or broomstick in your hands, bend your knees slightly and lower the bar to the tops of your feet.
All of the motion should be from rounding your spine and pivoting at the hips, not by bending your knees.
Reverse the motion and slide the bar up your body by extending your hips and flattening out your back.
As you work up to adding weight to the bar, you'll need to stand on some sort of riser so that the bar rests at the top of your feet.
#2 Lower Back Pain Solution – Flexibility
While similar to mobility, I consider flexibility to be the lack of excessively tight muscles.
Effective weight training is all about moving heavy weights over long distances. The inherent long range of motion can exaggerate any muscle tightnesses either at a specific joint or on one side of the body.
When muscles are tight and don't extend as they should, your joints are unequally loaded, which is a serious problem for pre-existing injuries.
I can remember having all of the muscles surrounding my hips and spine be so tight on one side that when I squatted down I could see my ass pull dramatically to the right at the bottom of a squat no matter how much I tried to keep it centered.
And this leads to a spine that's compressed on one side, extended on the other, and topped off with a heavy weight.
So after every lifting and cardio session, I spend about 10 minutes stretching my hamstrings, lower back, glutes, quads, and hip flexors.
I started with the stretches I learned in gym class and modified them from there based on how they felt.
Post workout is also a great time for…
For stubbornly tight and sore muscles, I like to spend a couple minutes foam rolling.
The only muscles I foam roll consistently are my glutes. My gluteus medius (upper glutes), can get so tight that it makes hip flexion almost impossible.
But after a couple minutes of foam rolling, and pausing at the most painful spots, I regain nearly all of my hip flexibility.
#3 Lower Back Pain Solution – Form
I spend about 50 hours in the gym with my new job as an Exercise Specialist and I cringe on a regular basis at the form people have while lifting.
But the thing is, THEY GET AWAY WITH IT! I rarely, if ever, see a weightlifting-related injury besides a little inflammation in the joints from overuse.
However, when your back is already compromised, bad form is the worst thing you can do. There's no such thing as “grip it and rip it” for someone with a herniated disc.
Deadlifts must be done with a perfectly flat spine with no jerky motion off the floor, rows require a flat back, and heavy squats shouldn't involve butt-wink.
Take the time to learn how to perform each exercise in your routine. Listen to your body and modify things to suit you.
#4 Lower Back Pain Solution – Strength
Strong and regularly trained muscles help protect your joints. Specifically for lower back injuries, it's important to have strong glutes and erector spinae.
When your hips (glutes) aren't strong, the stress of lifting and daily activity is transferred to your lower back muscles.
When your lower back muscles are weak, the stress rests on the joints and connective tissue, which worsens or leads to pain.
Of course, compound movements strengthen these muscles, but to overcome the imbalances caused by my injuries, I do a little specialty training for these muscles.
The mobility exercises outlined above will provide plenty of supplemental training for the lower back muscles, so this leaves me with the need to train my glutes directly.
My two favorite exercise for training glutes are…
Hip thrusts are a huge untapped resource. They directly train the glutes which are typically undertrained but potentially the strongest muscles in your body.
I start with my shoulder blades resting on a bench, heels planted firmly on the floor, and a barbell (using a bar pad) resting across my hips.
By shoving my hips upward as high as possible, the weight is lifted primarily with my glutes and causes no compressive force on the spine.
45 Degree Back Extensions
Since I'm training my glutes directly and not focusing on working my spinal muscles through a range of motion, all of the movement takes place around my hips.
This means that as I raise and lower my upper body, my spine stays rigid.
Major Barbell Lifts
When it comes to loading the barbell exercises, slow and steady is much better for consistent progress than trying to be a hotshot and making 20lb jumps from one workout to the next.
I've learned that those big jumps lead to more pain than gains and can hurt me bad enough to make me start all over again with just the bar.
I've had much better luck micro loading with fractional plates. If you have a lower back injury, these will be incredibly useful.
#5 Lower Back Pain Solution – Back Position Awareness
You can't possibly take care of your lower back if you don't know what it's doing.
I've found that one of the most difficult things to do with a new client is getting them to flatten their spine before lifting weights.
When teaching one arm dumbbell rows, for example, I'll instruct a new trainee to set up for the movement and they get everything perfect except the spine position.
They more often than not resemble a cat about to puke on the kitchen floor. Even with cueing, they typically make only minute corrections and look at me with a confused expression that says, “am I doing it???”
This isn't really an issue with uninjured individuals as their spines are pretty robust. But for someone with a spinal injury, it's a nightmare.
The spine is strongest when it's in a slight arch and weakest (most prone to herniation) when it's rounded and twisted.
I learned spinal position awareness a long time ago due to having debilitating pain in anything other than a perfectly straight position, but if your back isn't that bad, you'll have to practice positioning in the mirror.
Try the yoga pose called Cat-Camel (or Cat-Cow). To do this, get on your hands and knees and fully arch your back (chest up, abs stretched) and smoothly transition to the fully rounded position (sternum towards your pelvis and abs crunched).
And in the vein of self-awareness, I am also quick to recognize the feeling when I'm about to push my back too hard during a lifting session.
After many, MANY instances of aggravating my injury because I felt compelled to push through the pain, I now listen to my body and stop before inciting pain that could follow me for months.
Managing Lower Back Pain In A Nutshell
To sum everything up, here's what I do to keep my lower back pain at bay or to remedy it when it starts to act up really bad.
- Get moving again as soon as I can
- Pick one or two mobility exercises to practice daily (about 50 reps per set)
- Maintain an awareness of my spinal position
- Stretch anything that feels tight
- Focus on form when I get back to lifting
- Strengthen my lower back and glutes to protect from further injury
- Back off when it feels I'm on the verge of injury
I know this sounds really involved and time consuming but most of the things above are either worked into my routine or are simply modifications to the things I already do.
For example, I warm up my spine in the morning while my coffee is brewing. I stretch and work on mobility as part of my warm up and and cool down each workout.
Then the rest is just paying attention to how I'm moving and how my back is feeling.
Don't Let Your Back Pain Rule Your Life
Even with this seemingly debilitating lower back injury, I've been able to lift weights, help my friends move, shovel snow, and spot my gym buddies on heavy bench presses and I owe it all to the system I've developed.
I occasionally have to bow out of these activities, but my back pain “episodes” are becoming fewer and farther between as I refine my methods.
Of course, this is what works for me and my injury. But I hope that you can experiment with some of my success and apply it to your own lower back pain.
And if you have any success stories of your own you already know how valuable these tips can be, so please share with us in the comments below.
All the best,