T Nation

Messed up Low Back

I got some really bad news reguarding my back today. The MRI showed a small herniation in the T12-L1 disk and some small degeneration in the L4-L5 disk. Of course the initial reaction from my chiro was to stop squating, deadlifting, romanian deadlifting, and basically every other lower body exercise except for the leg curl, leg ext., ball squat. Has anyone had a similar problem?? Is it possible for the disk to go back in?? Are my leg training days over forever?? I’m only 26 and have fought long and hard for my leg development. This is so frustrating i don’t know what to do.

Boss:

I hurt myself 8 years ago doing something really stupid, and it’s plagued me ever since. I have a degenerated disk between the L4 and L5 as well. Treatment 8 years ago was sufficient to alleviate the pain and attendant lack of mobility that I suffered through, but this problem has plagued me ever since. Anytime I try to risk my back with any hardcore exercise, I re-injure it (3 more times since, same place). Upright rows…squats…good mornings (Jesus Christ, those are SO risky)…even a row with a heavy dumbbell torques the lower back in a scary way. They are extremely dangerous on your back if you do it wrong, and we’re all human. When you get tired at the end of a set, you cheat, compromise the motion…and get hurt.

For my own testimonial, I can’t offer any hope. I have stuck with exercises that don’t stress my back for a few years now, and I haven’t reinjured myself. The sad truth is, our backs are a very weak link, and once you’re hurt there, you’re never the same. My advice would be to stick with basic low-intensity exercise for your back, and work around what you used to do to safeguard your health - leg presses instead of squats, etc. It isn’t worth the risk. If you ignore this, you’ll find out for yourself on your own anyway.

Good advice. Our back’s kinda important. My lower back’s been bothering me recently. I think I’ll cut out good mornings. What about hyper extensions?

I completely ruptured my L5-S1 in Febuary of 2002 at the age of 18. I didn’t know how bad it was until I saw the MRI and it showed almost the entire nerve was blocked. The advise of one doctor was that I needed immediate surgery, the second doctor told me that I needed surgery but I could wait until I finished my semester, the third told me that if I was careful I wouldn’t need surgery. Well, I took 6 months off from lifting and did a huge amount of stretching and some light back extensions, abs and good mornings and walking and jogging. The next MRI showed that the nerve canal was still largely blocked but I showed no symptoms. The doctor (the third one in my list) told me I could lift again but not to do squats, deads, etc. I started lifting again in August and have regained about 95 percent of my strength in the squat, deadlift and bench, but only 20 of the 40 lbs that I lost. The moral of this story is to do what you feel you are comfortable with. If you think you can squat again, then do it. But take some time off and rehab your disk.

Boss, I think the key thing here is the word “small degeneration” and “small herniation”. Do yourself a favor and read “Healing Back Pain” by Dr. John Sarno. I was crippled with back pain for years, and my chiropractor said I had all this degeneration, yadda yadda. The truth of the matter is, we wouldn’t have evolved as a species if our back, the thing that allows us to walk upright and be humans, was so damn fragile. Normal wear and tear can be expected on a structure that is so integral to daily life. These “degenerations” and “hernias” are simply wear and tear. If you start ignoring your back muscles, they’ll just get weaker. Most Chiropractors are charlatans looking to put you on these lifetime “treatment programs”. Read the book, form your own conclusions. Good luck to you…

Sorry to disagree here, but you do have to be careful with your back. We have indeed evolved upright, but who says we’ve evolved perfectly? Why do 80% of people have back problems at some point in their life? I’ve read a lot of literature on it (google searching on the net), and our backs are far from the ideal.

Don’t get me wrong either, I’m not saying ‘ignore your back’. Do lighter exercises for it, but stay away from the super intensity, higher risk stuff. Bruce Lee wrecked his back (nerve damage that pained him until he died) doing good mornings - don’t you think a guy like that thought he knew what he was doing? I ‘felt comfortable’ at various points in the past, upping my weights, and then in a split second, re-injured myself.

It’s possible to work the legs (like you mentioned were your concern) without compromising your back too much, and you’d do yourself a service by researching what would help you out that way. I don’t see taking care of my back as being a pansy or anything - it hurts too much to mess up! Like it was mentioned, make your own mind up, and be safe!

Have you guys tried the belt squat yet? Much much much much safer on the low back.

as a side note… Stratocaster - Didn’t Bruce Lee break his back while he was in a fight and not while lifting weights?

According to the movie Dragon you are right, he got jump kicked from behind right in the back by some dude running at full speed.

Of course I don’t know if that’s embellishment or true story or not…

Boss, I can symphasize with you. I have disc protruding in L4-5, degeneration in L/S1 disc + herniation of disc. Frequent sciatic pains throughout my teen years - I’m now 27. Solution: deadlifts, a lot of ab exercises and general compound movements for legs/back, plus stretching! Are you having any pain? My doc said that almost anyone can have those kind of symptoms and not even know about it.

Point is that you have to very carefully follow the feelings in your back. Doing one-rep maxes might not be that good idea. Instead of yanking big weights, concentrate on doing stuff slowly and with control in your torso. I don’t know about disc going back in, but my back has improved enormously after I began stretcing my legs religiously and started doing more abs + deadlifts to strengthen the torso. Something is definitely happening down there and I guess it is the muscles taking the load from the spine. But I still know that if I quit exercising the pain will be back. My chiro okayed all gym exercises, but suggested to make sure that there is always 100% support from abs before doing anything at all. I’m staying under 200 pounds in deadlifts+squats, and happy with that because my legs are developing just fine.

Bruce Lee was into working out his entire life (obviously) and ripped through a set of good mornings that were too much for him, and he damaged the nerves in his back. This much is documented fact. It happened a few years before he died.

He did fight a guy once over whether or not he should teach martial arts to non-Asians, but I don’t know if he hurt his back doing it. Also, it took place in his school, not that fancy rocky arena (where would that be in California, anyway?).

Strat-

What syptoms were you experiencing at the time of the MRI?
Shooting pains into legs, localized only, etc…???

J:

You know, it’s funny that the Dragon movie was brought up. I hurt myself attempting to put my palms on the floor, like I saw “Bruce” do in the movie, the day after I saw it in theatre. I felt a sudden, ‘grabbing’ sensation in my back, and excrutiating pain. The entire day, it got worse and worse, it was a hot feeling like a belt that was too tight on my back, and I couldn’t bend in any direction without pain. I thought if I just let it rest, it would heal, but it did not. I didn’t have an MRI done, though, I had x-ray’s done a year later (yes, I waited this long) because my back ached all the time. At this point, I couldn’t bend over to put my hands any lower than my knees. The x-ray revealed that the joints were twisted out of alignment, and that the disc was clearly degenerated. I began a series of chiropractic treatments and exercises to put it back in place. After a few months, the pain was gone, and I could bend freely again.

In the years since, I have re-injured it doing a variety of things that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but always set me back for a few months. The pain is always the same: localized, no numbness, VERY uncomfortable to sit, and greatly reduced mobility. I have hurt myself doing upright rows, rows with dumbbells, sliding down a bannister that suddenly changed angle, and jumping into a hard seat with a ‘George Costanza’ wallet in my back pocket. I take no more chances with it.

I was also diagnosed with degeneration and have a stress fracture in my L-4. My solution has been to focus on exercises that don’t produce a huge axial load-mostly the one-legged lower body exercises that Ian King recommends (deads, squats, stiff leg deads, good mornings). Probably don’t produce the same hypertrophy gains as the standards but it’s better than nothing and it really improved my balance! The last specialist I went to told me no axial loading whatsoever-so far he was wrong. I have also really strengthened my abs have started on core stabilization exercises such as those in the John Davies articles. Good luck.