What happens when the doctor releases you back into the wild and says “Go, go and resume normal activity, oh and make sure to exercise more!”. Rehab is over and your insurance doesn’t have any more allowance for weekly physio visits. Well, now you’re on your own. This can be a scary and extremely frustrating time because you are either one of two people when it comes to exercising with back pain.
- You understand that your recovery is NOT over and you continue to do the rehab exercises while progressing weeks at a time. You understand the importance of continuing to master the basics.
- You put too much weight in your doctors words and take his/her clearance to resume exercise as the gospel and jump right back in. After this, you begin the dance between exercise, recovery and managing your constant underlying pain with medication.
I don’t want you to be number 2. I don’t want you to be one of those people who continuously choose to exercise despite their terrible lower back pain.
Today, I am going to answer a common question I get a lot in my inbox regarding returning back to the world of “getting in shape”. Each case is different so understand that you will need to tailor your approach to your own situation but the mindset and practice will be the same across the board!
I wish I knew then what I know now about rehabbing a bad back. Instead, I just created more and more layers for me to have to break through and heal years down the road. Not only did my spine specialist scare the crap out of me with his life-changing diagnosis but he left me with no real options. Knowing that exercise was a big deal to me, he simply said you will never be able to workout the way you do now again… Thanks, doc!
This began a long journey of failing and making what could have been a shorter process very long. My goal for you today is to chew on some of these tips below and apply them accordingly. I am a firm believer in “chewing up the meat and spitting out the bones”. What I mean by that is rehabbing your lower back on your own comes with responsibility. You can’t just apply everything at one time, every time. You have to start with what you know is your issue.
A Sufferers Approach to Exercising With Back Pain
1 – Continue rehab even after rehab.
If you have been working with a physio odds are you have been following some kind of exercise regimen. Keep doing it. Recovery for some takes months and months and sometimes even years. That’s just how it is. There are a lot of things at play such as lifestyle habits, movement mechanics around the house, age, history and how well your specialist understands your issue.
If the doc has cut you loose, this is what I suggest. Before leaving vocalize to the physio, physical therapist etc. that your allowance of visits is up and you have to continue your rehab at home. Get the doctor to write out a suggested path to follow once you have improved past what you have been working on so far. If the specialist cares about your recovery then he/she should give you anything you ask for and only charge you for further office visits using his/her time. They should be able to map out where they would typically take someone in your case assuming you progress smoothly. I do suggest paying (maybe out of pocket) for a follow-up session with the trusted specialist once a month just to make sure your form is right and you’re progressing smoothly.
I put together some questions you can ask your doctor regarding your lower back pain. The article can be found HERE
2 – Redefine your definition of what “exercise” is.
If you have had a major back surgery or are dealing with chronic lower back pain, you have to change the way you define “exercise”. The way I define exercise now compared to the way I did in high school and college is very different. I was exercising with lower back pain in college but didn’t think that what I was doing was wrong. I just figured I needed to go a little light or just exercise more. What I really needed was to stop lifting with my ego and dump my gym partner. Not that he was the reason for my issues but he didn’t have anything going on so he could train however he wanted.
Your focus has to shift from pushing numbers to moving and loading pain-free. I personally don’t think it’s smart to start deadlifting, squatting or any kind of exercise if your back “still kinda hurts”. I believe in pushing the envelope, loading the injured area and progressing but slowly and with control over your pain. Before I take on a new client a lot of my focus is based on expectations. I have had people who only cared about when they could get back to deadlifting and squatting max weight. They were expecting a 3-week turnaround which for the majority of chronic pain people just isn’t the case. Give up YOUR expectations and just focus on fixing your movements and challenging the area safely. Your body wants to get better but if you don’t treat it right it can be extremely stubborn. Your body doesn’t understand time. If it wants to keep your disks inflamed and you popping pills all day it doesn’t mind. Listen to your body and put yourself aside. Take care of your body and it will take care of you in everything you want to accomplish.
This is the order of finding relief from lower back pain
Investigate Pain Triggers
Find out WHY.
Only do Exercises that will reduce pain.
Become Pain-Free or Under Control
Resume Activity with new and improved you.
3 – Stop now or be forced to stop later.
I remember having a conversation with someone a little over a year ago regarding his desire to do Crossfit over fully committing to the rehab process. He hated the debilitating back pain he would often be in for days after a workout. He was a type A to say the least. He was motivated by numbers, competition and hated the idea of stepping down from any of that. He had convinced himself that as long as he just “took it easy” that his injury would heal itself. He opted out of rehab in hopes that a couple weeks off would cure his pain.
The worst thing you could do is make excuses or justify your decision to continue your workout program even through lower back pain. Whether it’s chronic pain or only brought on by certain training days during the week. It doesn’t matter. I am very much an all or nothing kind of person myself which is why it was so hard for me to fully surrender myself to improving my chronic lower back pain. Instead, I would try to find loop-holes around taking time off. I would stretch and foam roll after every lift, I would cut back my weight but still do the big painful lifts, I would do the big lifts less often, I would take more time off but continue to do the lifts. I tried everything.
Believe me, when I say, It doesn’t work that way.
If being in shape, being able to spend all day in your garden, working around the house, building stuff with your kids etc. is important to you, you have to choose recovery over “being in shape”. I don’t care how fast you are, how much you can lift or how many consecutive days, months or years you have been working out. If you suffer from chronic lower back pain and are NOT addressing it, to me all that work means nothing. Anyone can be consistent in the gym, pack on muscle, run further and faster and check all the “In shape” boxes. All of that can be accomplished by anyone. To see someone care more about how they feel, perform and their quality of life is huge to me. Those are the people who see the fruit of their sacrifice and labor.
I get that this is a strong opinion but listen. You can keep working out through your pain and accomplishing whatever physical or mental goal you have but eventually this house your building is going to come falling down. You will be left with an uphill battle, fighting for a decent quality of life that doesn’t involve countless surgeries, pain-killers, and wheelchairs.
Okay, Okay I get it. So, what should my exercise program look like if I’m trying to reduce my lower back pain?
I did a small series on areas to focus on when starting your own rehab program. I will link them below!
When it comes to being in the gym there are some common mistakes a lot of people make. In fact, I highlighted 10 of them HERE
If my back isn’t ready for “exercise” what CAN I do?
Besides doing your daily rehab exercises (mobility, core training and practicing movement mechanics) walking is one of the best things you can do for low back pain. It forces fresh, oxygenated blood to the area allowing the surrounding muscles to relax. It also takes the load off of one single area or joint and disperses it throughout the body. A lot of people experience instant relief after about 5-10 minutes of moderate paced walking. When I say walking I don’t mean 2 hours on a treadmill. Start with 2-3 short fast-paced walks a day. Walking is great for lower back pain. Every individual back will respond differently to the length, pace and frequency of the walk so fine tune it to fit you. You shouldn’t feel you have to push through pain to get a walk in. Start small and work your way up as your body adapts.
If walking isn’t enough and you need more things to focus on here are 25 things that I find most common in back pain sufferers that you could start to correct.
Back pain doesn’t mean your exercise career is doomed and you’re stuck with therapy based exercises for the rest of your life. Think of it more as a detour to improve the way you move and lift so that when you come back you will be even better. Even if exercise is not your thing. All you want is to kick this pain you’re dealing with so you can get back to normal life. It’s all the same thing. Whether your goal is to get back into the gym or get back to doing the things you love. You have to trust the process and commit to getting better!
Talk to you guys soon,
If this was helpful to you in any way it would mean the world to me if you shared it with your friends and family so they too can get relief from their back pain!