Training | POSTED July 28, 2022

From Excruciating Back Pain to Deadlifting in 6 Weeks

Setbacks happen to all of us, and I’d be lying if I said I had never experienced one. To accompany our previous blog post, Setbacks Aren’t Stopping Us, I’m going to discuss when I experienced a lower back injury, and what I did to preserve and overcome it.

What was the lower back injury?

Let’s take it back to December 2015. I had been lifting for a number of years at this point, and tweaked my lower back in training. An MRI confirmed that my L4/L5 and S1 intervertebral discs were protruding (or more commonly referred to as “disc bulging”). I experienced an immediate physiological response – I felt some “pops” in my lower back and was unable to move. I was in excruciating pain, but I was about to learn the truth about pain and rehabilitation.

You might be thinking, “how on earth did you do that?!” Unfortunately, diagnosing pain is not that simple and is often multifactorial in nature. Pain is also influenced by a number of biopsychosocial factors, which is the interconnection between biology, psychology and socio-environmental factors. I could not change that I injured my lower back, but I could adapt and recover from it.

At the time, I was being coached online by Dr. Jordan Feigenbaum from Barbell Medicine. Immediately following the injury, I took a few days rest from training. With Jordan’s encouragement I was back into training the following week – with some adjustments, of course.

As this was my first serious injury, I proceeded with caution. Scrolling back to 2015 on my Instagram account gives us a recount of the events unfolding in real-time, emotions and all. Throughout this blog, I will share relevant posts from when the injury occurred, the adjustments that were made, and the outcome.

The date that Rachael injured her lower back – 19 December 2015
An MRI on Rachael's lower back

19 December 2016: this was the exact moment that I injured myself. Zoom in to check out my facial expression and me clenching onto my lower back.

24 December 2015: receiving my MRI results on Christmas Eve. Obviously it was an appropriate time to ask Santa for a new back. Merry bloody Christmas!

What did we change?

After taking a few rest days and loading up on ibuprofen, I was back in the gym the following week.

We made some modifications to my training program through exercise selection, intensity (both internal and external), and training volume. It also made sense to set some new goals.

We first looked at exercise selection. We had to find an entry point with exercises that I felt comfortable performing and that either improved or stabilised my symptoms.

To start, we made the following changes:

  1. Back squats to front squats
  2. Deadlifts to Romanian deadlifts
  3. Bench press with feet on the bench.

We made these adjustments because I found them to be less stressful on my lower back. The movements I was avoiding are not inherently bad, but we needed to dissociate the pain experience from training.

Once we had found an entry point in terms of exercise selection, we modified the internal and external intensity. These factors influence how “hard” we could train. We decreased the internal intensity (RPE or Rate of Perceived Exertion) down from a RPE 8-9 to an RPE 5-6. With reducing the RPE, the external intensity (load or weight on the barbell) naturally decreased as well.

Next, we modified the volume by increasing the number of reps per set. We started as light as an empty bar with the aim of increasing the load overtime providing that my symptoms did not worsen.

We also shifted goals. Being a powerlifter, I am always pushing to increase my powerlifting total. Rather than focusing on getting stronger in the squat, bench press and deadlift, I changed goals to improve in other areas. I chose to focus on exercises like front squats and chin-ups. These exercises not only felt comfortable, but also helped me to continue training in a way that I was accustomed to, and enjoyed.

Training adjustments

4 January 2016: making some training modifications by bench pressing with my feet up to reduce lumbar extension.

9 January 2016: putting extra effort into my cardio sessions. Here I was doing a HIIT session with the prowler.

What didn’t we change?

Whilst there were a significant number of changes that were made to my approach to training and program, much else remained the same.

I did not stop training. In fact, I still continued to train 4 days per week, along with cardio 2 days per week. I also included different types of exercise, like yoga. Modifications were required as an early intervention, however I returned to “normal” training about 2 months after the injury.

I did not catastrophise the situation. I remained optimistic and was certain that I was would return to a full recovery. Our mindset can have a significant effect on our physical well-being. It’s imperative to maintain a positive outlook to improve our rehabilitation. Importantly, my coach at the time (who’s also a medical doctor) provided positive reassurance. This reassurance has been shown to improve outcomes [1].

I did not make any changes to my diet. My goal at the time was to maintain my body weight. I did not eat less to account for the lower volume or intensity in training. Contrary to that, I also did not eat more to boost recovery. I was already consuming a sufficient amount of calories that met my energy requirements.

I chose not to visit the myriad of specialists (such as physiotherapists and chiropractors) that come to mind when you experience pain. Instead, I rehabbed my lower back through strength training. In some instances it can be necessary to consult a health professional for guidance and support. In my case, I felt confident in my body and abilities to recover with my coach’s guidance and support.

22 February 2016: back to squatting 90kg for 4 reps with a barbell on my back, pain free. This was a milestone for me.

28 February 2016: dabbling in different types of exercise (like yoga) to keep myself moving and occupied.

What was the outcome of the lower back injury?

6 weeks after injuring my L4/L5, I was back squatting with a barbell on my back and deadlifting from the floor – pain free. This entire process taught me that the human body is incredibly adaptable and resilient.

Early on, my Radiologist and GP said things like “you’ll never deadlift again” and “it’ll be years before you’ll pick up another barbell”. Whilst I respect their authority in their respective fields, they were not well-versed in the current research that supports strength training to rehabilitate pain and injury. I honestly believe that without training and a positive mindset, my recovery time would have been much longer.

In the two posts below, you’ll see me deadlifting 60kg from the floor 6 weeks after the injury. The following post is a video of me squatting 110kg for a personal best 3 months after the injury.

I hope this blog gives you some insight into pain and rehabilitation, and what we can do with our training to help facilitate recovery. If you’re currently experiencing pain and need some guidance, we’d love to help. Contact us to arrange a consultation.

18 December 2016: a throwback post of me deadlifting from the floor 6 weeks after the injury (sometime in January 2016).

28 March 2016: a video of me squatting 110kg for a personal best 3 months after the injury. I couldn’t believe it!