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Barbell Logic

Aug 23, 2022

Bekah Krieg joins CJ to discuss lifting with back pain: modifications, mindset, & approaches as coach or lifter to deal with/overcome back pain & get stronger.

She worked as a physical therapist for 20 years, is an Exclusive Coach for Barbell Logic, and is the Barbell Academy Curriculum Director.

Weightlifting with Back Pain
Back pain seems to come with being human. Virtually all of us, if not all of us, experience back pain at one time or another. Some of us struggle with more severe back pain or chronic back pain.

How do we confront back pain as lifters and coaches?
Some important concepts should be kept in mind.

There is no perfect approach. A coach or lifter can deviate by being too aggressive or too conservative.

An example of erring too conservatively is stopping all lifting and exercise and trying to do as little movement as possible.

To err too conservatively would be to ignore the pain, especially if the pain increases or does not diminish.

Strength Training with Back Pain Properly
The important question is to ask: what can I or my lifter do? Movement is typically good. It involves lots of blood flowing to the tissue. Someone will often find, the next workout after a back tweak or pain coming from elsewhere in life, that it feels better after the warm up. The lifter can perform the workout as prescribed or with a slightly reduced stress, via either intensity or volume or both.

If movement, even movement at reduced weight, causes pain, this is an important piece of information.

Now, the workout may have to be executed with SOME pain, and that is okay. As a coach, you may have a pain scale that you prescribe. For example,  Squat 4x3x225, but reduce weight to ensure no more than 3 on the 1-10 pain scale.

CJ, though, shared a story where a seemingly normal back tweak caused a 4-month issue.

CJ worked up to a single at 80%, which is not a heavy single, but this hurt. He backed the weight off to 315, no dice. 225 hurt. Even 135 hurt.

All tweaks are not created equally. A lifter may be able to reduce the weight and lift that day. It may take a days, weeks, or even months to heal.

Healthy Mindset: Don't Catastrophize
Most tweaks don't take long to deal with. You return to normal training quickly.

If you run into a more serious back issue, you and your client will have to be patient. Chances are, this doesn't mean PRs are done forever or you won't return to normal.

Don't catastrophize. This is where you build up the worst possible scenario in your head. This might go something like your back will never return to normal, you'll never hit another PR, you'll live with debilitating pain and waste away and have to be in a wheelchair before you know it.

No, no, no! First, your expectations may contribute to your outcomes. A positive, patient mindset, where you focus on what you can do and is better to move and lift how you can then do nothing.

Stronger Back through Lifting Wisely
Someone with a serious disc issue might do a trap bar deadlift with nearly vertical back. This is fine. It's certainly better than not deadlifting at all.

If someone lives with back pain, it's better than they strength train and live with back pain with a stronger, more capable lower back. A goal that might come with this is simply maintaining the level of back pain.

As a coach, you might need to tell your client to go see a doctor, especially if your normal adjustments aren't working. That is okay. Sometimes, the issue is something serious, and you're not a doctor or physical therapist.

Relatedly, you as a coach might have to fire your client if you don't feel comfortable coaching him anymore. If the client ignores your adjustments in the face of serious back pain, you might have to fire him. That's okay. That might be the kindest thing you can do, and might send a message to him.
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