I was bicycling my way home one day when I came up to an intersection with a stop sign. After the cross traffic cleared, I leaned into the pedal to get myself going when something happened. A stab of white hot pain in my lower back literally took my breath away. I coasted across the intersection, stopped and slowly dismounted, and tried to walk. I almost fell to my knees. Long before the age of cell phones, I had no way to call for help, so I gingerly got back on my bike and took one agonizing pump after another until I made it home and got myself to bed. At the ripe old age of 19, I felt like a cripple.
The next day I went to the chiropractor, barely able to drive. I walked in with the gait of a 90 year old. I walked out a 19 year old again and I became a big believer in chiropractic medicine.
And thus started a decade long struggle with lower back pain. I would get periodic episodes of lower back spasms that would cause enough pain to immobilize me. I tried many different remedies, and I visited chiropractors regularly. Some of the stuff I did worked temporarily, but eventually I would lean over, or lift something light, like a bar of soap, or just sit behind the wheel, and something in my lower back would give and I would get a sickening feeling that the pain was about to start all over again.
I tried sit ups, because I read or heard that they could help. I tried Yoga. I tried stretching, lying on the floor, bringing my knees to my chest. I even tried water – lots and lots of water. Some of it helped, but nothing was a permanent fix. The pain was so intense at times that it was painful to wiggle my fingers, literally! Then one of my chiropractors suggested weight training which I was completely unfamiliar with. Being desperate, I went to a gym and got lost in the hustle and bustle and machinery. It was embarrassing and a waste of time. Well, almost.
The trip to the gym motivated me to study up on weight training. Long before the age of the internet, my research was done at the library, in bodybuilding magazines and word of mouth (which was all over the place and which I do not recommend). And I read a truly informative book entitled “Brawn” by Stuart McRoberts. Gradually I came to understand what resistance training entailed, and what was effective at building strength and what wasn’t. Through my research I was able to develop a strategy.
Strategy Is Important
I selected four exercises that I felt would help my situation: Squats, deadlifts, pull-downs and dips. I decided I would do two of these exercises per workout session, as close to failure as possible, one set of 20 reps each. Keep in mind that I had never done weight training before – everything I came up with was “book learning” – no practical, real-world experience. And no coach. I spoke to a couple of friends about my idea, and my wife, and they unanimously agreed that the deadlifts and the squats would probably cripple me for life as my back was already injured. Discouraged, I came close to abandoning my idea. Then I came across an article, I believe it was in Muscle and Fitness, that related the story of a powerlifter (I don’t remember who) that had suffered back problems and had not only recovered but won powerlifting competitions in deadlifts and squats.
My motivation was back!
Being too embarrassed to go to a gym, my next move was to purchase a free-weight machine called the Ironman II for around $800, which, at the time, was a very significant amount for me. I figured after a couple of years it would pay for itself in saved membership fees. The Ironman machine used regular barbell plates on a bar that tracked on vertical posts. The posts had regularly spaced holes for the latches on each side that would engage if I twisted the bar with my wrists to rest the load on the columns. I felt this would allow me a degree of safety in case I had to get out from under the weight.
What Happened After My First Workout
The following morning, I started my regimen. Since I had been recovering from a back episode the previous week, I warily started with a light weight (about 50 lbs. I think) and did 20 deadlifts. I had studied meticlulously how to perform the movement and I was careful to keep strict form for all 20 reps. The exercise took me less than a minute. When I was done, I took an internal inventory of my back. This was, after all, the moment of truth. If my workout was to cripple me, now would be the time. All the muscles from my traps down to my hamstrings felt tight, and a bit weak. But I felt no pain. It also felt like I had done an abs workout. I took a few steps and felt fine, but with a moderate sensation of weakness. Unsure of myself, I decided to quit the session and skip the pulldowns.
I went to work, came home, had dinner and went to bed. The next morning I was so sore I could hardly move. Yes, that’s how out of shape I was. Rising from my bed, I took another inventory of my back and observed two things: 1. I was incredibly sore almost from head to toe. 2. I had no back pain, no electric hot, stabbing, crippling back pain.
I didn’t work out for two more days.
On day three I did a squat workout with dips. I say dips in the most liberal sense of the word as I was completely incapably of doing even one dip without having at least one foot on the ground. But I did what I could. And waited. The next day I was totally sore, again, but, miraculously, no back pain.
Since the day I started weight training I have had no lower back pain. I don’t mean fewer episodes of back pain, or that my back issues have been infrequent. I mean I have had none, zilch, nada, ZERO. For over 30 years! Having experienced what low back pain can do for you, how it can cripple your ability to do anything, how it can affect all aspects of your life, I wish everyone would do some weight training. (I still use the Ironman II equipment that I purchased way back when – it has more than paid for itself!)
If I had to pick a single exercise to do for the rest of my life I would be hard pressed to select between the squat and the deadlift. Each of these is a seriously-good-for-you exercise; one a pushing motion, the other a pulling one. Dips (the upper body squat) and pullups are the next two picks for me. If all you ever did were these 4 exercises, you could stay in very good shape for your whole life.
Since that time back in the 70’s scientific research has repeatedly confirmed the benefits of weight or resistance training. In my opinion it is the best physical activity you can do to regain, improve and maintain your health and strength. It benefits all aspects of your physical well-being. At 59 I am living testament. In a sense, my back pain pushed me to discover a lifestyle that delivers health and well being all the time.
In a future episode, I will reveal a powerful routine that can dramatically change your entire metabolism and can be done by anyone regardless of fitness level or age.
- Position the bar so that it rests on the tops of your shoulders, your “traps”. If you’re like I was and have very small traps, roll or fold a towel and drape it around your neck and rest the bar on it. You should not feel the bar pinching any of your vertebrae.
- Grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder width and position yourself squarely underneath, feet at shoulder width apart or slightly wider. Pick whatever feels most comfortable and natural to you. Your toes should be pointed slightly outward, again in a manner that feels natural to you.
- Press down into the ground with your feet and raise the bar to clear the hooks.
- Take one or two small steps forward and stabilize yourself.
- Keeping your back straight and your face forward, bend at the knees to lower your body until the tops of your thighs are roughly parallel to the ground. Doing this correctly will involve almost all the muscles in your body, including your abs, shoulders, and your entire back side (down to your feet)
- Do not stop or bounce at the bottom. Once you’re there, press down on the ground with your feet to raise your body up to standing position.
- Without pause, start your next rep. Maintain good form to the last rep. If you’re using a free bar, have a spotter. Many gyms have a Smith machine that is good for solo workouts.
Squats can also be done with dumbbells held with arms down by your sides, or with dumbbells perched on your shoulders.
There are other variations as well:
- Wall Squats (hold for 30-60 seconds)
- Single leg squats (hard!)
- Air (no weights) squats
- Jumping squats
- Static squat (Yoga chair pose)
- Sumo squat with dumbbell (extra wide, toes-out posture)
And many others I’m sure.