By Nick Petrucci
“Why Does My Back Hurt While Weight Lifting?”
“Oh man, here we go again!”, I thought to myself. I felt some type of shift in my lower back and immediate pain. I was at a track and field meet at Stanford University and thought it would be a good idea to do some heavy power cleans before the meet. I was a discus thrower and opted not to throw in the meet due to the back pain. It was not a major competition, but the following day we were going to the Modesto Relays which is traditionally a high level throwing competition. I was one of the top collegiate throwers in the nation and wanted to showcase a big throw like the year before. “That’s okay, I’ll get some treatment, keep it loose, take some anti-inflammatories and just grit through it, I’ve been here several times before,” always trying to convince myself. After a deep tissue massage, some heat, Advil, constant stretching, fake positive self talk, and a pathetic warmup, I was ready! I entered the throwing circle trying to appear like nothing was wrong, but once I started into my rotational back swing I grimaced and guarded. “This is going to suck bad!,” a voice in my head announced. The voice was right, after nearly stopping completely in the middle of the 540 degree rotation the discus flew prematurely out of my grip into the net, FOUL! I gimped out of the ring clearly not in any type of condition to execute the technical movement required. Obviously the more intelligent approach would have been to pull out of the meet and start the rehab process, after all it wasn’t a championship and Nationals was only a month away. Nope, “Just take one more and see how it goes, you got this”, I insisted trying to pump myself up. The meathead attitude I adopted and carried over from football was to keep going and push through the pain. “Forget it…just throw it as hard as you can!”, worst strategy ever for a thrower. Somewhere in the middle of my second attempt my vision went from the horizon to the sky as I landing straight on my back with my ankle folded underneath me. “Probably should not have done that…uh you think…idiot”, not sure how many voices were in my head or if it was the people in the crowd.
So What Is The Problem?
I learned a valuable lesson about listening to your body when injured, but not much changed on how I was training. Let’s rewind back to what got me there. What went wrong during the power clean? Why do so many people experience pain/discomfort commonly in the lower back from lifting weights? The stresses placed on the body during lifts like barbell squat, deadlift or the Olympic lifts can be substantial. Increasing torque loads on the spine and demand on surrounding structures and muscles excessively or too quickly is not optimal for the weightlifter. It is essential to be properly informed on technique and be progressed appropriately to prevent over stressing an area like the lower back which can lead to injury.
I personally had lower back issues while training throughout my career as a college football defensive end and track and field discus thrower and beyond as an elite USA discus thrower. I don't recall ever initially hurting my back while playing football or throwing a discus, but I do remember several times injuring my lower back during squat or power clean from the floor. Even though I had what I would consider good coaching on lifting mechanics, when you are part of a large team a coach’s eye cannot be on you all the time. It is important for the athlete, or whoever is doing the lifting, to have a sound understanding of lifting mechanics, which includes proper positioning, breathing, hip/core control/synergy, etc. Lifting is a lot of fun for most when you are challenging yourself and others and making large gains when first starting out. It’s natural to compete in many sport environments like I was in and the goal was to load, grit and lift. Increasing resistance on the lifts too quickly inevitably will go bad quickly if your technique is not solid.
There is a continuum of strength coaches, non-educated to highly-educated. Organizations like the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) NSCA.com have been on a mission to educate and provide knowledgeable certified professionals to athletes, tactical occupations and the general public. An athlete, someone training for their occupation, or anyone training to be fit should NOT be at risk for injury while training. The act of training is to prepare them for their sport, occupation or life in general. Weight training typically consists of deliberate movements versus reactive movements. Something is wrong if someone is consistently becoming injured from a deliberate controlled movement and likely will not be prepared to undertake certain reactive sometimes unpredictable movements/positions a sport or occupation require. For example, if you are a firefighter and need preparation to quickly lift or drag someone off the floor, like during a rescue, and while training you are having lower back discomfort/pain during a deadlift or squat, then you may be at risk for a back injury which is not uncommon in this occupation while lifting people off the floor. We have been weightlifting for years in many different variations that can help us become more stable and strong preparing us for a sport, occupation, or just to feel fit. Weightlifting can lead to injury if the lifter has not been properly educated by a competent instructor or educational source.
Coaches, Athletes, Everyone..…Educate Yourself
I eventually became more educated after becoming a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Doctor of Physical Therapy. I began learning about pathologies (like back pain), dysfunctional movement patterns, diagnosis, corrections, progressions, etc. It felt like the part in the movie Matrix when Neo was plugged in and being fed tons of education on techniques and training. I had a smile on my face frequently and remember muttering to myself the famous line so many say, “If only I knew then what I know now!”
I along with authorities in the strength and conditioning community like Gray Cook, Dan John, Mike Boyle, Pavel Tsatsouline, among others, encourage proficient movement first before increasing resistance. Lifting weight should not feel like a struggle, it should feel somewhat effortless and fluid. Prior to resistance training one should be able to check off the boxes approving there are no mobility (flexibility) or stability motor control (muscle coordination) deficits. The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) functionalmovement.com for those who are NOT currently experiencing pain is a reliable way to grossly expose such deficits to see if someone is ready to move on to resistive functional training. When someone is tight and uncoordinated it is not safe to progress to resistive training and they should correct the mobility and stability deficits first. When movement is competent and you are creating appropriate fundamental muscle synergy and structural alignment, then you may incrementally increase resistance so long as mechanics and perception of effort are not changing drastically. If pain is present during any of the FMS movements you should be assessed by a medical professional who understands inadequate movement patterns and can properly diagnose and correct, such as a physical therapist. Preferably someone who is certified in the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA).
Innately humans adopt certain postures for lifting as part of human development. Watch a child lift something from the ground. Resistive training with increased loads can lead to poor mechanics if fundamental movement is lost or not utilized in early years of life. An active child who moves often and frequently lifts or moves things from the floor will likely have an advantage in future resistive training over a child who becomes sedentary for whatever reason.
Introducing the T-REX Weight Harness
So where does the fitness equipment company COMMIT EQUIP CommitEquip.com come into this scenario and the creation of the T-REX Weight Harness? Yes we are selling something here, but we are also selling a new concept and paradigm shift. It is NOT meant to replace other lifts like barbell squat and deadlift, but compliment your training with a shift in mechanics and stresses. However, if you are consistently experiencing discomfort in the lower back when performing barbell squat and/or deadlift, the T-REX may offer a remedy.
Very simply the T-REX was inspired to decrease torque/stress on the lower back. The displacement of the weight/load/force is more posterior, which in comparison to a barbell squat or deadlift, shortens the spine lever arm and moment arm resulting in less stress on the axis (in this case the lower back). Also, the direction of torque (rotational force) is opposite in comparison to barbell squat and deadlift. The force in these lifts pull you forward. The torque while using the T-REX pulls you backward. This means the direction you must move your trunk (counter force) to overcome the torque is opposite. While performing the barbell squat or deadlift one must move into trunk extension to overcome the torque force which increases the demand on the back musculature. While performing the T-REX hinge squat one must pull down on the handles and lean forward to overcome the torque force which facilitates core engagement. This teaches one to perform a hip hinge movement/strategy (bending at the hip pushing out your behind) with a posterior load as deadlift does with an anterior load.
During a barbell squat it is common to bend at the knees before the hips. If you bend at the knees first while using the T-REX, balance will be compromised promoting a hip hinge movement to correct for the loss of balance. The hip hinge movement puts you in an athletic posture you see in many sports or preparing for an explosive vertical or broad jump. The T-REX accommodates the sport athlete or Crossfitter allowing one the versatility to perform a variety of functional movements (lunges, skaters, shuffling, step ups, etc.) with lighter loads and simulate important tactical/occupational tasks such as a loaded carry common for a military soldier (ruck sack) and firefighter (breathing apparatus and/or high-rise pack) over/up hills, trails, beaches, towers/stadiums. Work on the hip hinge movement with increased loads and decreased lower back stress (compared to barbell squat or deadlift).
Again, make sure you can check off the boxes for mobility (flexibility) and stability motor control (muscle coordination) before beginning or continuing with resistance/strength training as discussed above. Above all, educate yourself! Learn more about the system: T-REX Videos.
Other Strongly Recommended Resources:
Dr. Stuart McGill of Waterloo University is a renown researcher who has written on topics of back injuries and the concept of core stability (Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, Back Mechanic, as well as several journals). www.backfitpro.com
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Certified USA Weightlifting Coach, he is the creator of Squat University and author of the Squat Bible. His website www.SquatUniversity.com contains educational resources that help teach one to understand, self assess, and correct common mobility/stability deficits and improve their weightlifting mechanics. Instagram: @squat_university
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Author, Nick Petrucci, is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and former elite athlete inspired to help others optimize human performance and reduce potential of injury.