Lifting with an Injured Back



Q: I want to say thanks for those Strength and Physique updates.  Those are nice little nuggets and tips in my inbox. I just got done with my last physical therapy session for my tweaked back. I fucked up my bulging discs back in March and had to go back in for therapy.

And then once my back was better, there were OTHER issues they discovered: muscle compensations and imbalances affecting my hip/pelvis alignment. 

My back is actually much better now (when I tweaked it doing, of all things, a yoga stretch I had lots of nerve irritation which was scary as it made my legs feel weak) but there are other issues with a rotated pelvis and/or hip misalignment. 

But one question I wanted to ask you was what your thoughts are on lifting for those with injured backs? Obviously, I need to always be mindful of my form and if I'm pushing the boundaries, but my physical therapist discouraged me from doing deadlifts anymore. Even my orthopedist didn't want me doing deads, or squats unless they were body weight squats. 

I don't agree with them, even though I understand they are saying that out of an abundance of caution (this was my second injury in less than a year, but this new tweak wasn't from lifting I don't think, it was from an advanced yoga stretch that irritated my bad discs). I had, though, been doing some light deads, and I mean like 40-60 lbs.  The ortho thought it was way too much because he said it still put too much stress on the spinal column.

The reason I want to try and get back to doing deads is because we've discovered my upper back muscles keep getting trigger spots, my spinal erectors get real tired since I've been desk bound. I've been trying to stand up and work at my desk more often, trying to walk/move every half hour and just get up out of the damn chair. 

But the PT said she felt that doing deads to strengthen up the back muscles would just lead to MORE muscle compensations and upper back tightness....she did give me some light exercises for the thoracic spinal area: 

Prone T exercises
Prone Y flexions
Prone extensions
Face pulls 

She also advised me NOT to do shoulder shrugs anymore as that would just tighten up my neck and shoulders too since I'm at the computer all day. 

Any thoughts or suggestions would be much appreciated if you get a chance to reply. I don't think my lifting days are done, I just think I need to be real careful about what I do and not try and go heavy. 

-Eric 


My Answer: If you want to squat and deadlift, then you should ask yourself "Why?"

Is it for leg development: for size, for looks?  Is it for maintaining strength?  Is it for athletic competition or to develop physical prowess on the job?  Is it for general fitness?

The barbell back squat and deadlift are great exercises, but they are not absolute requirements for fitness.  Barbell squats and deadlifts stress the lower back and compress the spine.  I would rather you do body weight squats, goblet squats, lunges, cable pull-throughs, one legged RDL and front squats.  These exercises work the legs without stressing the lower back.

You say that you want to get back to doing deads because your upper back has trigger points and your spinal erectors get tired.  Does your PT have you do trigger point therapy?  This is where you lie on a lacrosse ball and massage out the trigger points and release the tension in the upper back.

Prone I-Y-T-A extensions and face pulls strengthen the lower trapezius and fix your posture from desk jockeying.  However they don't increase your thoracic mobility.  If you're not doing mobility work, then I would recommend these mobility exercises.
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