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5/3/1 & Back Injuries

First time poster, long time reader. Does anyone have any suggestions to altering 5/3/1 while my back heals? Or at least some sort of template/routine I can do to build back up while my lower back heals and help drop the 40 pounds I have put on since my previous hiatus from a back injury.

Explanation/details to why below:

For the past six years on and off I have been committed to 5/3/1. Bench, Trap Deadlift, Squat, Push Press are the four main lifts I do and switch up assistance every 8 weeks. I mostly use his recommended templates (recently been on bodybuilding) aside with the occiasional substitution (insert weighted step ups for leg press for example). My cardio mostly has been pickup basketball 2 times a week and then rowing or cycling one other day.

Why the off?

Back injuries. It seems like everytime I work my way up to my true 1RM I tweak my back in some way and am out for a month or so. I took 9 months off up until this past March and this morning after doing push press I was putting a 45 lb dumbell down and lower back popped. I can barely walk right now (been to the chiropractor today going the next few days).

Most likely heavy lifting is out for a while. Today was a push press day and the DB was for my warm up set for DB overhead press and thats when it happened. This is the first day in forever that I didn’t start with the Agile 8 (shot the ball around in the gym and did some shoulder circles/push ups as a warm up instead).

I have a buddy who is in very good shape who just does body weight/cardio. Right when I told him he gave me the proverbial “told you there is no point to lifting heavy weights”.

I really just want help to being active again as soon as possible and eventually being able to lift heavy and stay healthy. I was in the best shape of my life 2 years ago from lifting 5/3/1 playing some pickup basketball/football and eating whatever I wanted. I have been committed to cleaning up my diet but I would like to have a solid routine to make the occasional bowl of ice cream or whataburger run not matter.

Thanks in advance

See a doctor and get whatever the problem is fixed, it would be irresponsible and dangerous for anyone to give you training advice on the Internet without knowing the full picture.


Thanks for the response- I am seeing a chiropractor every morning and saw my normal doctor just for pain (I build houses for a living so being able to walk around as quickly as possible is important.

I am not starting anything until I am cleared by them. The plan is now to see if it still is in this amount of pain by middle of next week and if so getting an MRI to see if it’s a slipped disc.

The fortunate thing is as far as healing up I’m pretty discipline on the proper stretching, getting adjustments, and easing back into easy walking/swimming.

What I am asking for help for here is when I do get to the point to lifting again does anyone have any suggestions on anything that can allow me to continue 5/3/1 without hurting my back every time a month in or so. Perhaps much lighter training maxes and assistance work focused on glutes/hams/lower back??

Thanks in advance

I’ve been dealing with similar back issues for years. I’ve found some things that have helped me stay consistent with lifting while limiting the (re) injuries to my back. Remember, I’m not you and you are not me. So these things may work and they may not.
Of course, this is NOT professional medical advice and the very first thing to do is to get the back healthy before starting to lift again. I understand that most people are going to avoid the topic, but as somebody that has to deal with these issues, I’d at least want a few ideas.
Start back lifting a lot lighter than you think you need to. Work back up slowly. I used to think the Trap Bar was the answer, but it was worse for me. Now I pull with a regular bar off 3" blocks. It might not be “optimal” but it keeps me in the game. I ALWAYS use a box when I squat. The box keeps me from going too far in the hole and ensures I sit back and stay arched. I stay tight, don’t rock, and use a slight pause on the box. Again, not “optimal” but…I do a crap load of back raises and that has helped more than anything I think. If my back is feeling “wrong” I’ll replace the barbell lifts with heavy Prowler work until it feels good again. Lastly, I use 5s Pro and 5x5 FSL almost exclusively. I run into a lot more problems when going for rep maxes. I do use rep maxes with the presses. These are just some things that have helped me, of course everybody is different and your mileage may vary.

Here is my current program.

Totals Reflect week of 5/30 3x5 mains
Day 1: Legs and Abs

  • Squat – 5/3/1 - 235, 270, 305
  • Step Ups – 5 x 8 45lbs,
  • Leg Curls – 5 x 15 90x5
  • Leg Extensions – 4 x12 105, 125, 145
  • Ab Wheel – 4 x12
    Day 2: Shoulders and Biceps
  • Push Press – 5/3/1 - 105, 120, 135
  • DB Military Press – 4 x12 45
  • Side Laterals/Rear Laterals – 4 x12
  • Barbell Curls – 4 x12 75, 95, 95, 65
  • Preacher Curls – 4 x10
    Day 3: Back
  • Deadlift – 5/3/1- 245, 280, 315
  • Kroc Rows – 4 x12 80
  • Lat Pulldowns – 4 x10 42.5,60
  • Good Mornings – 4 x10 95
  • Hanging Leg Raises – 4 x12
    Day 4: Chest and Triceps
  • Bench Press – 5/3/1 140, 160, 180
  • Week 2 of 4HB Bench
  • Weighted Dips – 4 x10 25lbs
  • DB Flyes – 4 x12 100, 115x3
  • Triceps Pushdowns – 5 x 20
  • Push ups – 4 sets to failure

This seems like an obvious thing to avoid. Why are performing true 1RM’s on DL anyway? In the 531 programs, 5’s PRO has you doing 5 strong reps on all your big lifts. You would also not be working with more than ~85% of your true 1RM, because percentages are based on 90% of that number to set your 531 TM (and, for many programs, less than that).

Kroc rows are one all out set of 20-50. They’re not Kroc Rows if you can do more than one set of equal reps.

I meant training maxes. Whenever coming back I set my training maxes lower to kind of ease back into it

I have been battling this for 30 years. I am 49 so what I am about to say comes from a combination of stupidity and experience. Wendler’s new book has some good stuff in it - but 1 thing has changed Everything for me. This idea of looking at the big picture. Lifting has moved down the list from the 1st thing I do to around the 4th.
At first I thought the jumps/throws would be a problem. But I have fallen for them like a 5$ hooker on checkday. The main thing I noticed was the similarity between the way they make me feel and the way sprints make me feel.
Then, mainly due to time and boredom- I started splitting up my prowler work. This might sound unconventional but follow me for a minute- I started doing my first 3 trips before lifting as a warmup before lifting. So it looks like this:

  1. Walk on the mill for 10.
  2. 3 trips on the prowler: 90, 140, 180 (nothing serious here Yet - just to get the blood flowing)
  3. Jumps and throws.
  4. 5-3-1
  5. Pervertor template work
  6. Assistance
  7. Final 5 trips on the prowler, (usually to 4-450)

The main thing- the lifting is in perspective now - a smaller piece of a larger pie.

All the work BEFORE the heavy lifting warms me up, lubricates the joints - and presto - my back feels great. AND NO - I have lost nothing on my list and gotten stronger.
My advice - make lifting a smaller part of a bigger puzzle - and look at what’s important here.

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I saw nothing in your plan that addressed jumps, throws, warming up, conditioning, etc - unless I missed it.

What exercises have you hurt your back on in the past?

It was after push press I was picking up 45 pound dumbbells and putting them on the ground next to the seat when something popped.

The last lengthy back injury was DB bench press using my knees to push back the dumb bell. I haven’t done db bench since.

Are you speaking of a literal popping sound, or are you using the word pop to express that your back gives out, so to speak?

I suffered from two herniated discs which I’ve discussed at length in my personal thread in the bodybuilding section. This, after 25 years of being physically active with no injuries. I am not a surgical candidate but have suffered from a lot of nerve pain radiating through my leg and into my left foot. I went through five months of physical therapy and use neurontin as prescribed by my physiatrist.

My word of advice: go to an orthopedist or physiatrist NOW! You might have herniated discs. Many people have herniated discs but they’re not clinically significant because they are not touching nerves and causing dysfunction or pain. Actually, many people are walking around with bodily abnormalities that cause no pain or dysfunction and because of that, they don’t know it. But you are experiencing pain.

My herniated discs did not come on as a result of one action, if I recall correctly. It was a pain here, a pain there, and then one day I had sciatica and knew something was wrong. That radiculopathy has not fully gone away for over seven months! So I’ve been walking around with daily pain for nine months or so. The pain has resolved quite a bit, but it’s not fully gone. Herniated discs requiring no surgery and minor nerve damage can take up to two years to resolve. When I started PT, we did no exercises providing rotation or compression of the spine. We started off with foam rolling, stretching, cable and band exercises, and some weighted hip thrusts. We slowly progressed to more compressive exercises like RDL’s, trap bar deadlifts, and bar step ups.

I am now on my own but still consult my PT once per month and I in no way am doing highly compressive exercises until my radiculopathy resolves. And my advice to you is to do the same after checking what’s wrong. People get too hell bent on sticking to what they’re doing, a program or exercise, when that shouldn’t even be the current concern. Some guy like myself had no and still doesn’t have any business in excelling at highly compressive exercises like overhead standing presses, standard deadlifts, and back squats, three of the 5/3/1 staples, although 5/3/1 can be modified for variations of those lifts that are less compressive. But again, excelling in strength shouldn’t be a concern for a guy who has long term pain on and off. The concern should be to get healthier and pain free. If one keeps pushing despite showed a warning sign something is wrong, then he might find himself one day going far backwards, when he could’ve just maintain some muscle mass and strength while recuperating.

Here’s an example of one of my two leg workouts per week or once every four to five days. It involves a lot of pre-exhaust to keep the load light on "bigger exercises"
Warmup: Five minutes of jump rope or the elliptical, foam rolling, stretching.

  1. GHR or Swiss Bar leg curls 3 x AMRAP
  2. Single leg RDL’s
  3. Split squat with dumbbells 3 x 8-15
  4. Goblet squats 2-3 x 20
  5. Pull-throughs 2-3 x 20
  6. Calf raises x 3 x 15-20
  7. Ab wheel 3 x AMRAP

Nope, certainly not a 5/3/1 leg workout but it allows me to train my legs with my injuries til they get better and maintain strength and muscle mass.

Please check the article by John Rusin on training with back pain.

You really should stay away from heavy overhead lifting, bent over rows, standard deadlifts, leg press, and situps while your back gets better. And as I said, get it checked out! Sometimes major back problems remain “silent” while they’re brewing, and then you’re left with some serious symptoms or dysfunction.

With that said, and this might come across as rude, I think my advice will fall on deaf ears generally (not just by you) So you can take what you want from someone who suffered with a real problem or continue to go on as you are.


I should say felt the pop not heard the sound. I’m meeting with a PT soon and going to start with that.

From reading your post and just my overall past experience I think I’ve decided to retire from traditional overhead presses, back loaded squats, and heavy deadlifts.

Thanks for the template of what you use for legs without the heavy back loading. Once I am able to return to lifting I’ll be certainly giving it a shot.

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Okay that might be something different that needs to be looked at. In the past I’ve had issues with heavy Squat/DL but getting injured with 45lb dumbbells is a different issue.

Did an orthopedist or physiatrist give the prescription for PT. Without a diagnosis or specific symptoms you won’t know what’s causing your pain.

@BrickHead your post definitely makes a guy think about what he’s doing. I’ve had a nagging hip pain that is possibly related to problems with a muscle in my back but I keep powering through it or working around it. Sometimes it’s really tough to set aside strength pursuits and settle for overall health and longevity. I like to be athletic and I can do that without heavy squats and deadlifts. But focusing on staying healthy and being athletic don’t really help me with my strength goals… I keep telling myself that once I hit my goals then I will switch to a maintenance approach for those lifts and back off a bit.

I wouldn’t really say that I’m injured or that lifting has even caused my problem, but I’m definitely letting a small thing hang around longer than it should.

From a performance standpoint, I have absolutely no reason to do heavy squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, or bench. I guess I don’t have a reason to follow 5/3/1. But I do. The only reason I do those lifts is to get better at those lifts. I can build my physique and strength in other ways but that won’t help me bench 3, squat 4, and deadlift 5 plates. So until I hit those goals I will continue to do those exercises.

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My general doctor told me that if I was still experiencing heavy pain next week he’d recommend to see a orthopedist and getting an MRI. I have gotten an X-ray already and seen a chiropractor 3 days in a row

Ok great!