I first injured my back while playing competitive soccer at a young age. After quickly rotating to take a shot, I felt a 'twinge' in my back. Later the same day I began to experience significant pain and was unable to sit, stand, walk, or even lay down without being in discomfort. My back healed on its own within a few months, but I would experience a number of aggravations over the next ten years.
The most recent re-injury occurred a few years ago. However, this time I developed neurological symptoms (symptoms deriving from the nerve) including radiating pain and numbness in the lower legs. Worried about the deterioration of my back, I underwent an MRI of the lumbar spine as well as electromyographic (EMG) studies of my legs (this test records the electrical activity of the muscle). The results indicated that I had sustained a herniated lumbar disc and as a result, the disc was compressing part of the lumbar nerve. As scary as that may sound, mild compression of nerve roots in the spine is common and does not always correlate with symptoms. In the end, the doctor advised me that there was no significant neurological impairment and that I wasn't a candidate for surgery. I was partly glad for this news because I was aware that surgery for non-emergency related back pain was often not curative, and in fact, could make the pain worse. However, I still felt frustrated because without surgery I didn't have a solution.
I subsequently began physical therapy and was advised by the therapists, chiropractors, and physiatrists that I encountered that I would need to "strengthen my core". But what is the core? The term is vaguely understood as the center of the body or where the abs are. The core refers to the muscles that stabilize your spine, thorax and pelvis, and includes much more than just the abs. Aside from the abdominal muscles, there are three layers of the side abdominal wall, the posterior spinal muscles, the pelvic floor muscles, and the hip flexor muscles that assist to help align and support the skeleton while your spine withstands the force of gravity.
I was prescribed an array of body weight exercises including the "dead bug", the plank, and "Superman". I continued this program for months along with the doctors' prescriptions to avoid any strenuous physical activity. After several months of minimal improvement and continued aggravations of back pain I decided to change course. This is when I turned to barbell training. I spent several months reading and studying the physics and physiology of lifting techniques. I also completed a three-day seminar on how to effectively perform and teach proper lifting form by 5 lifting coaches (with over 60 years of lifting experience combined), including one who is a practicing M.D.
The beauty of barbell training is that (when performed correctly) it involves strengthening the entire body - especially the core. If a person can squat the equivalent of his or her body weight, they have developed the ability to stabilize their spine using all the muscles that are required for that task. When pulling 1.5 times your body weight off the floor in a deadlift your core is becoming stronger while the appropriate muscles contract to hold the trunk rigid under the heavy load. If your back is strong enough to perform these heavy lifting exercises, is it not strong enough to do all other day-to-day tasks like picking up your baby, unloading groceries, and pushing the lawn mower? The other advantage to barbell training is that you can increase the weight incrementally and in a controlled manner. This allows for steady and measurable progresses in strength. When taught and performed correctly, barbell training strengthens muscles over a full range of movement. This allows for not only the core or the quads to become stronger, but all the muscles required for that lifting task.
There are probably a few reasons why the body weight exercises I was prescribed did not work for me:
1) Body weight exercises are not enough - your body quickly adapts to the stress applied by body weight exercises. Strength is the production of force against an external resistance. The resistance (i.e. your body weight in this case), remains roughly the same every time you perform the exercise. So without an increase in resistance, your improvements in strength are inconsequential.
2) The body functions as a system. Do you only use your quads when you walk? No. Similarly, your core musculature is working together with the hips, spine, and pelvis to function and perform your everyday movements. Specific abdominal exercises do not effectively involve all the muscles required to strengthen your back.
At the beginning, I was admittedly anxious about doing barbell training. I thought my back was fragile as I would often experience back spasms from doing simple ever day tasks. But with the correct form and mentality that I was not fragile, I quickly realized that I had found a way to rehabilitate my back - using the squat, deadlift, bench press, and press. In a few short weeks, my back felt stronger and the frequent back spasms I experienced were no more and allowed me to eventually return to playing sports.
It is crucial to note that performing these exercises with correct form was instrumental to my improvement. Had I done these exercises without adequate training it is possible that I may have aggravated my back once more. Form is important for safety as well as maximizing the efficiency of the exercise to develop strength.
Have you had back pain in the past? Have you tried barbell training? Want to know more about back pain and barbell training? Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org