Yesterday was a lower body in my training split. If your interested in the details you can check out my training log here. But my 80% lift for the day was my favorite old pal the conventional deadlift. My plan involved five sets of doubles at approximately 85% of my one rep max or 410 pounds. Everything was great and as normal in the warm-up. The training session progressed as normal until the second rep of my third set of deadlifts. During this rep I felt something pull in my lower back causing me to drop the weight.
It was a bit painful so I reduced the weight to 315 pounds and finished my next two sets without any further incident. I also finished the rest of the training session as planned with a bit of aching in my back and tingling in my left glute, but these two sensations faded as time went on. After finishing my workout I swept up at the gym, ate my post workout meal, and then went to the coffee shop a block over to work on my take home physics test.
I had been sitting at the coffee shop for about an hour when I stood up to get a refill on my cup of coffee when I noticed that my lower back was bothering me and I had tingling again in my left glute. This kind of freaked me out a bit because it felt consistent to what I have heard others suffering from disc herniations complain about.
I quickly rushed over to the gym and performed a basic straight leg raise test to see if I would have any pain.
Low and behold I did have a positive straight leg raise on the left side (cue scary haunting music).
I also noted that the pain lessened when I allowed my left knee to flex while still keeping my left leg flexed at the hip, but upon extending at the knee the pain became more prominent again. This led and still does lead me to believe that I have a disc bulge at L4-L5 because the nerve located here is one responsible for innervating the muscles fibers of the quadriceps. Meaning that the bulge I have was putting pressure on the nerve root causing the referred pain in my left glute likely.
But I am not a doctor so I can't say my physical examination findings are all that valid, but hey I do the best with what I got.
Anyhow I continued to have this dull ache and radiating left glute pain on into the evening throughout training clients and while at home last night. I did not take any ibuprofen or use any ice when I got home because recent reading has informed me that icing an injury along with consuming NSAID's may have an inhibitory effect on the soft tissue's ability to heal. I did however preform a circuit of three exercises that included side planks, supine bridges, and bird dogs. All of which have been shown to have some benefit in dealing with lower back pain. I figured if I was going to be rehabbing an injury I'd better go ahead and start as soon as possible.
Needless to say I went to bed feeling rather low about the situation and kind of angry at myself for allowing an injury to occur (more like I wanted to slam my face into a brick wall until the pain of that injury distracted me from my back).
My only hope was that miraculously I would awaken this morning and again be asymptomatic.
I guess I was due a miracle or something because upon awaking this morning I found myself rather pain free. I was a bit skeptical at first and thought it was just because I hadn't been moving around for several hours, but after washing the dishes, picking up the living room, and performing a couple bodyweight squats and hinges I still did not notice any pain in the same locations I felt last night.
Now I know I haven't yet been back into the gym to try performing any movements under load to see how my back reacts, but at this point I didn't and still don't care.
I about punched a hole in the wall I was so excited.
But then I had a really humbling thought.
Last night could happen again if I don't learn my lesson.
See the way I look at it is that I obviously do have a disc bulge in some part of my lumbar spine. I believe it is chronic in nature and probably something I developed from playing a position that required a large amount of physicality in a collision sport for many years. I could be wrong, but that is my working hypothesis. I also believe that up until last night it had been asymptomatic, but during my third set of deadlifts yesterday I aggravated the bulge causing swelling and inflammation that led to the nerve pain I experienced in my left glute and the dull ache in my lower back.
All this means that I need to be cautious about the way I load my spine and the position of my spine under load. I could do possible further damage and create a recurring pattern of frequent back injuries and pain if I don't address this silent injury and give it it's proper respect in regards to my programming.
After looking back over my programming for the past six months I did however notice three large flaws in my training that definitely could contribute to the pain I experienced last night and the inflammation I caused to an otherwise asymptomatic bulging disc. All three of these problems are things that I should have been aware of, I speak with my clients about regularly, and hound friends about constantly. So in the interest of helping others avoid a possible injury I want to share with you these flaws in my own programming.
1. I was deadlifting to heavy too frequently.
As I looked back on my training log I saw a recurring pattern of allow myself to deadlift at least two to three times a week which if I had been varying the intensity of the pulls and perhaps altering the variations I may have got away with, but I consistently tried to test myself each time I pulled. I was pushing the upper limits of the weight I could handle for every rep range on top of always using the same conventional variation of the deadlift.
With this kind of frequent heavy pulling it was only a matter of time before I experienced some kind of injury, especially when you consider the law of repetitive motion and how it relates to injury.
2. I did very little single leg or unilateral leg work.
With my own clients I am a huge stickler for making everyone perform all seven of the basic movement patterns including single leg exercises and lunge patterns. No one gets out of them because I see them as an important part of the balance in the program between all the heavy bilateral lifting I try to coax them in to doing.
Well no one gets of them unless your me! I hadn't realized I was doing it when I was writing my programs each month, but I have been excluding a lot of single leg and lunge pattern work. Most of my lower body training was based around bilateral squats and deadlifts using only one or two variations of each.
I think this was a contributing factor toward the possible pain I felt last night because it has been well established that single leg work for the lower body is much easier on the spine and often can be a great way to load the lower body adequately despite a poor back.
I am not saying that bilateral lifts are bad for you I am merely saying that it is important to keep symmetry in the program just as we do for pulling and pushing exercises.
3. I was deadlifting regularly on little sleep and little food meaning not fully recovered.
I noticed that in the last several months most of my days spent deadlifting heavy fell on either a Wednesday or a Saturday. There isn't anything inherently bad about deadlifting heavy on these days of the week, but with my work schedule at the hospital these where often the days I worked late into the previous evening and did not often have the chance the next day to fit more than one meal in prior to lifting. I can't be for certain that this contributed, but in my opinion I think it did.
I am sure there are a lot of other things that I could improve in my programming and I plan to keep learning and adapting as I go, but moving forward with my weekly training I plan to correct these three mistakes right away.
I want to make sure that I do everything in my power to try and keep my disc bulge asymptomatic. I want to be able to train regularly, move freely, and enjoy my fitness all things I cannot do if I am constantly nursing back pain due to my overzealous ego wanting to lift a bunch of weight off the ground.
I am not saying that I am going to stop bilateral deadlifting or squatting, but I do plan on approaching it in a much smarter and cautious way due to my experience from last night.
The things I plan to do right way is to start performing rehab exercise for my back twice a day, make sure I get plenty of rest and eating in prior to a tough training session, avoid excessive periods of prolonged sitting, and restructure my programming to keep my deadlifting frequency and intensity in proper proportion, incorporate more single leg exercises, and make sure I have adequate stability and mobility where I should.
Also as a safety precautions to make sure that this episode of back pain remains an isolated incidence I am going to be restricting all lower body work to single leg exercises, except for barbell hip thrust, for the next four weeks along with intensive work to re-pattern and re-groove my deadlifting mechanics. This four weeks will give my back a break from heavy shear loading and allow the bulge to hopefully modulate itself.
I know some may look at this as a road block getting in the way of me preforming one of my favorite lifts and placing my chase for 500 on hold for a while, but I am choosing to look at it as an opportunity to focus on other lifts, learn new skills, and perhaps come back with a better and more complete deadlift.
I am a trainer and I am susceptible to injuries.
We all are.
This is important to remember when training because no matter how much we love straining and training in the gym we have to remember that injuries affect us outside of the gym. They take away our quality of life and that is not something worth losing for a few extra pounds on the deadlift or bench press.
If you feel pain, listen to it, learn form it, address it, and come back better for it.
Happy moving and heavy lifting!
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training