T Nation

Building a Back With Low-Back Pain


I am 6-4 205 lbs., 31 yrs. old and suffer from frequent low-back pain when doing squats and deadlifts.

Most of my training the past 2-3 years has revolved around parameters like 10x3 and 5x5, focusing on compounds. Increased my weight from about 175 to 205 lbs. in the last 2-3 years.

I work in law enforcement and want to get to about 225 lbs. while gaining strength but with all the low-back pain I am starting to think that this is impossible, my progress is really slowing because of the breaks in training.

Is there any other way to get size without working in the high percentages (87-90%) of 1RM?

Can lifting at a lighter percentage (70-80%) of 1RM and more volume work for gaining size and strength?

I would like to still continue to use compounds but the size gain is still the main focus and if the gain can be done another way then I am all for it.

Thanks for the help and please don't mind the unfocused ramble...really getting frustrated by the lack of progress.


Perhaps you need to work on your lower back/hamstring flexibility. Do some stetches on a stability ball might be the answer. There's tons of reasons your lower back is hurting, instead of working around it, fix the problem.


Your height may be an issue, but as far as deadlifts, have you tried Romanian style deadlifts in a power rack with the pins set at knee or mid shin level? I love deadlifting, and this method has alleviated some of the lower back issues involved.

You can also do these with the bar in front of the power rack, and you'll get an added isometric type contraction that will nail your upper back at the top.


First you need to resolve your back pain issues prior to worrying about increasing weight/strength. There are numerous potential causes of low back problems and these need to be indentified.

Without knowing too much about you I can give some general suggestions that work well for many people who already have some ideas how to exercise. A comprehensive stretching program for the lower extremities and trunk can be very helpful and I mean comprehensive! That means not just hamstrings but hipflexors, quads, adductors, glutes, Lumbar extensors and for some individuals the rectus abdominus. Foam rolls can be very helpful for self myofascial release. Then begin a spinal stabilization program for abdominal strengthening. I believe there a some good ideas in the Chek article "Back Strong and Beltless"

If these simple ideas fail to generate improvement find a competent physical therapist who can give more detailed insight into the root of the problem.


Get yourself a copy of Stu McGill's "Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance".

Maybe ask some of the contribs and get yourself squared away.

Probably some glute activation and aggressive stretching of the hip flexors would be a good start. (Of course I don't mean go and demolish your hip flexors with too much too soon, I just mean lots of quality stretching a couple times a day.)


Thanks for the helpful advice. I agree that alot of stretching will probably do wonders considering that my job requires me to work inside of my police car the whole night.

I also have a slightly noticable muscle imbalance in my upper body, the left side of my body is bigger than the right. I am right handed by the way. It is easy to see the size difference in the to sides. Can this be corrected by doing more DB work or could there be a connection with the muscle imbalance and low-back pain.


If you don't want to see a physical therapist (which I can understand because I assume you don't want to get a bad physical profile in your line of work,) I'd try a program like the Neanderthal No More series. Just face it, if you are sitting in a car 10-12 hours a day, you are going to need special work to counteract the sitting, no matter what you do with your other time.


What about just running a specialization type program that just focuses on the upper back and posterior chain?

I have a really bony back, my shoulder blades look like they are ready for take off, and the valley between them make them look like the Rocky Mountains. Add this problem to the lower back pain and it really illustrates the weakness of my overall back.

I think that adding size to the back will add greatly to my size development while helping me with the low-back problems, especially if I add some strength-through-stretching to counter my idleness at work.

Do you guys think this would work?


When you say you want to build your back, are you refering to the lower/upper or both? I'm asking because you mentioned deadlifts but not rows or pullups.

I had a major injury to my lower back almost 2 yrs ago.

My goal after and during the injury rehab period was that I wanted to continue working my back and legs. I won't get into legs. For back, I couldn't do bent barbell rows and deadlifts (or any compound exercise that uses the lower back for stability). I could do pullups, which helped my upper back a lot, and can also help to eliminate upper back and shoulder weaknesses and imbalances. For rowing I could do cable rows with light to medium weight without any effect on the injury. Instead of bent rows I did one arm DB rows with the opposite leg from pulling arm on a flat bench. I started on light weight and progressed to using as heavy as possible, I had gone up to 90's. These 3 exercises I did for my upper back.

For my lower back all I did were back extensions. That was pretty much all I could be besides stretch.

This is how I worked on my back with a lower back injury and pain.

I am not saying or recommending you to follow this or jump into the weights head first. I got doctors advice and the Dr.'s advice was avoid any lifts that compress the lumbar spine.

Eventually after a year of doing this my lower back was strong enough to start with light compound movements. I did this to test the waters. Things were good and with a progression I slowly added the following movements into my workouts, in order

Front squats-start of year 1 after injury
Deadlifts-soon after front squats
Cleans-soon after deadlifts
Bent Rows-soon after cleans
Back Squats-2 later
SLDL-a few months after that
Snatches-2 months ago
Overhead squats-2 months ago
Good mornings-currently

It's been nearly 2 years from my injury, after careful assesment and rehab, I am now consistantly going over 80% of my 1rm on all of the compound exercises except the good mornings which were implemented 1 month ago.

Just a rant on my experience with building a back with lower back pain.


Any chance the back pain is caused by crappy posture in your car?

I find most car seats offer no lower back support -- instead the seat supports me approximately at shoulder height.


kirdog, I am able to do all those back exercises without any problem, but I just feel after getting REALLY into this site, that the deadlifts and squats must be performed to get any good size going.

It's kind of like in the back of my mind that if I don't perform any of these compounds then, "Why lift to get big?"

I am pretty much exclusively doing the sumo variation to the deadlifts, feels more comfortable considering my height and extremity length.

For all the talk about the deads and squats to get big, is there any real chance that I could get big by cutting them out of the training program or maybe just cut them to a low percentage parameter?

I kind of want a overall back development, upper for the size and looks. Lower for the pain and comfort.

I do believe that being in the car the whole shift doesn't help one bit, but I guess it's just one of the perks to being in the chosen field;)


Yes you can gain nice size without the squats and deads. You just won't be reaching maximal potential without them. I have some experience with this. As I had mentioned before, I went a little over a year without doing any squats and deads and just did, pullups (weighted and just bodyweight), cable rows and db rows.

I gained a great deal of upperbody size and strength to my back doing these exercises every 4 days consistantly, never going more than 4 or 5 days between a back work out. My back also gained good strength and size because my legs training was sooooo minimal that my body was able to use more energy and calories to replenish my upper back workouts.

Like I said, and I firmly believe, a good amount of size can be achieved to your back without deads and squats, but without deads and squats your legs will be dwarfed by your upperbody...not cool! Stay away from deads and squats only long enough to heal injuries.

See a Dr. if you can, maybe a chiropractic Dr. They can asses your pain and or injury as well as give you time frames to stay off the injured area/compress the lumbar and give you exercises and stretches to help you heal.


By the way, if chronic poor posture while on duty was an issue, you could "easily" take steps to correct that problem...


vroom,the pain during duty is more like a fatiguing pain. Mostly from driving around and carrying that 20 pound "fashion" belt around my waist for the whole night. By easily fixed, are you talking about some sort of Stretch Training to get everything working? I was thinking about going the chiropractor route but I am kind of weary about it being just a temporary relief instead of a long term fix.

dog, thanks for the advice. I'll be looking into getting into a program that emphasizes the "other" back exercises until the low-back starts getting better.

I workout mostly at home and was considering getting a hyperextension for the low-back, would this be a good choice for working the low-back while recooperating.


Lower back pain can also be caused by weak abdominal muscles...have you been doing situps or ab work consistently? Just a thought.


The hyperextension is a great choice for building your lower back, in cases where compounds agrivate an injury or pain. In my case the hyper was great because it kept my lower back muscles strong, and eventually getting them stronger. I was worried that after my back injury I was going to lose my progress regarding lower back strength. I am almost sure that steady use of hyper extensions on both a 45 degree machine and on a glute ham machine (you can get a greater range of motion doing hypers on a GHR) helped me recover.

As far as actually doing hypers. Have you been doing them? It is possible given your injury/pain that hypers can agrivate your muscles. That depends on your injury. In my case, I herniated a disc, but didn't tear or strain a muscle. From the herniation in the disc, the muscles would tense up and become very stiff, doing hypers at that time agrivated me. By icing (something I forgot to recomment) my lower back and going to a Chiroprator a few times a week as well as the disc actually healing I was able to reduce inflamation in my lower back, thus enabling me to do hyperextensions and benefit from them since the lower back muscles were not inflamed. With a torn or strained lower back, the muscles would be more inflamed than if they were affected by the sciatic nerve tensing the muscles up, so doing hypers in that case may be counter productive. Overall, if you can't do any compounds that use the lower back for stability, the best thing to do is hypers and I'd also reccomend GHR's. Just make sure that you aren't making things worse, a dr or chiropractic dr could deffinitly help you with that decision. Are you currently doing hypers? I know, I already asked that!

As far as buying a hyperextension machine. I think it's worth it for someone with back problems to own one in their home. Hell if you can afford a Glute Ham Raise machine, buy that instead. Not only can you do GHR's but you can do hypers on the GHR bench also. Also you mentioned that you're bummed because you can't squat and deadlift, doing GHR"s build a GREAT posterior chain. GHR's are expensive, hyperextension's are probably half the price.

Sometimes imbalances effect the lower back. By strengthening your abs some more I bet that you could help your problem some, maybe even a lot. Also flexibility in hamstrings and tight hammies may also be an imbalance that can effect the lower back. Just some food for thought.


I have a broken vertebrae at L4 and have struggled with this for 10+ years. Things I have found to help are...keeping in mind I've been squatting and DLing for only a year now, but have been down 3-4 times so far. Limit your spline loading exercises to once a week, meaning squat and DL on the same day and then stay away from loading the spine.

This may mean switching to a seated or chest supported row and doing a higher incline DB press instead of militaries but this helps me a ton. My latest experiment which got me up a cranking quickly after 3 weeks of no squats or DL is a 10x3 scheme. I started with only about 225 on the bar doing ATG for 3 reps, rest 45 secs or so and back under, I've been jumping 20lbs a workout for 3 weeks and I'll dial it back a little once I hit around 300 and take it a little easier.

My thinking behind the 10x3 is that it lets me focus on form and hitting my legs. I'm not under the bar long enough to fatigue my back to the point where I have trouble the next day. Start with your 6-7 rep max and knock em out, by the 10th set your legs will be fried and your back should be pretty fresh.

Light good mornings may help that sitting imbalance, I'm not back to doing those yet.


I've had problems with lower back pain, at 37 with 17 plus years of military service go figure!! I've use the hyperextention machine at the gym so much I had to buy one for home. I found that it strenthens the lower back glutes and hamstrings it is also great for warming up so that Im able to deadlift and squat I still have pain in the mornings but after a few sets I'm ready to go.


What is the brand of that hyper machine USMC?

I tried to google it but could not find it

What is the maximum weight?>