What do you say if someone you know sprains an ankle? Something like “yeah that sucks mate, but hey get some good rehab and you’ll be back at it before you know it.”
If someone hurts their back deadlifting how do you react? Differently? Why?
Lower back injuries tend to freak people out, but I reckon in many cases* there is absolutely no reason to view them as a death sentence to your work, sport or lifestyle. (*obviously not all)
Yes, every injury is different, but fundamentally they are all the same. As soon as the injury has happened your body has set in motion a phenomenal chain of events to control the damage and set about healing it as fast as it possibly can. From the outside, we do our rehab to minimise pain, restore range of motion and strengthen the hell out of the injured area - in order to get back to exactly the same lifestyle we had before the injury, as quickly as possible.
So why don’t we trust that process when we’re dealing with the lower back?
Is it because of a ‘slipped disc’? Here’s something you may not know about intervertebral discs: about 30% of the adult population* will have asymptomatic disc herniations. That is, if we went out and MRI scanned 100 people, thirty or so would have at least one disc bulge in their spine, but no pain. Here’s something else: a huge proportion of bulging discs are reabsorbed naturally by the body within 6-12 months of herniation, and the larger the extrusion the higher the likelihood of this spontaneous resorption.
The typical strength of the lumbar spine in pure compression is 6-10kN 2 (whereas a femur will usually only hold up to around 4kN of pressure before snapping). When you think about it, that’s pretty normal. The femur is impressive, but it’s just one bone in the leg. The lumbar spine is a set of five solid bones and thick, shock-absorbing discs, all held together by robust ligaments and surrounded by muscle. All for a reason – the spine can and should move segmentally in forward flexion, lateral flexion, extension and rotation. Getting around with a constant ramrod-straight back and only ever using it in perfect, maximally-braced ‘neutral’ actually makes about as much sense as avoiding an ACL tear by never bending your knee. And don’t get me started on strengthening the back by training the ‘core’ exclusively. What happened to strengthening the back by training the back?
Old school strongmen used to stand the bar on its end, bend their back sideways to get their shoulders to the bar and then hoist it up sideways before squatting. (yes, really.) Until one day someone got around to inventing the rack. (and pants.)
They also did something called the bent press, the world record for which is 371 pounds, or 168kg. (Still pre-pants.)
The standing press used to be part of Olympic weightlifting. It was only removed in 1972 due to difficulties in judging standards.
Modern strongwomen and strongmen still perform this kind of press, as well as many different awkward-object lifts and carries with rounded, extended, flexed and asymmetrically loaded spines.
The record for the heaviest lift in the Guinness Book was set in 1957 by Paul Anderson, who apparently lifted 2,480kg via the backlift, where the weight is loaded directly onto the surface of the back, something like this:
Many elite powerlifters choose to deadlift, and deadlift massive numbers, with a rounded upper and/or lower back technique. (Many also decide against pants.)
Of course the powerlifting community suffers from lower back pain and injury, but not at a higher rate than the rest of us4 - and we’re talking about people that lift so hard that tearing both pecs off ain’t no thing.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am NOT advocating these movements - they are probably useless at best, insane at worst for most of us. These are just some examples of what the human back can do. There are plenty of other sports that put ‘unconventional’ stress on the back – repetitively, unpredictably, under load and at speed. Consider gymnasts, fast bowlers, pole-vaulters, wrestlers, NFL footballers, kettlebell/Girevoy sport, the martial arts, the Highland Games. Do these athletes get injuries? Yes. Lower back injuries? Absolutely. But do they manage them, rehabilitate and come back to training and competing just like after any other injury? Absolutely YES.
Shoelaces claim many more discs than deadlifts – because often it isn’t the movement that puts the spine in danger, it’s undertraining, deconditioning or weakness around the spine.
So maybe your lower back isn’t a fragile, precious flower that needs to be wrapped in cotton wool. If you train it right your back is a bulldozer (with a wrecking ball attached).
Peta is the our Remedial massage therapist at Evolutio. She's been coaching CrossFit for several years and is a qualified S&C coach. Peta works Mondays and Thursday afternoons at our new clinic in Richmond. You can book in with her here
4: Injuries and Overuse Syndromes in Powerlifting
Which Strength Sport is Most Likely to Cause Injury?
5: Mickey Goldmill, Rocky III