With dry chalk covering the palms of my hands and sweat running down the side of my face, I took one last look in the mirror to check my form before bracing bending over the bar. I was about to deadlift 450 pounds — a one-rep personal record — and a goal I thought I would never hit.
I rubbed my hands together in the hopes that the warmth would somehow make for a better grip (it wouldn’t, and didn’t). I hinged over the barbell, initiated the pull, then suddenly a sharp pain ran through my body like an electrical current, and my lower back seized up. I collapsed, writhing in pain, and could feel my back spasm with every movement as I struggled to stand back up. Unable to, I begged the assistance (both physical and emotional) of a nearby gym-goer.
Because deadlifts recruit nearly every muscle in your posterior chain — from the back of your neck down to your ankles — they’re typically a person’s strongest lift. My deadlift weight far exceeds my numbers on both bench and squats (and no, I don’t skip leg day). It was the first proper lift I learned some six years ago, taught by my brother at our local YMCA. In the beginning, I told myself it was impossible. Lifting weight off the ground? How can that be good for you? Is this a scam perpetuated by moving companies? But week by week, I improved — switching from program to program. At various points, my deadlift plateaued, as did the thrill of it, and only the ability to lift 5 pounds more would satiate me.
This all came to a head in a corner of Clay Health Club & Spa six months ago, when I went for my PR. In one single lift, I managed to upend years of progress. I underwent physical therapy three times a week, and couldn’t lift as much as an empty barbell. In my mind, I had regressed to my former adolescent self, lanky and self-conscious.
Through steady progression and therapy, my back has recovered, though not without setbacks. Here are five lessons I’ve learned in the process. Take this advice, and you’ll never need to experience six months of pain and ice packs.
Stretch When You’re Not Working Out
Stretching to cooldown post-workout is obvious. But stretching in your downtime — be it during the four-minute countdown on your microwaved dinner or first thing when you get out of bed — is just as crucial. I spend a couple minutes every morning and night stretching my legs to ease pressure in my lower back. And it’s a habit that does wonders for anyone who sits in a cubicle for hours every day. The yoga cat/cow poses are my go-to: get on all-fours and round your back for a few seconds, then arch it, and repeat.
Stop Obsessing About Numbers
Lifting doesn’t injure people — people injure themselves. And hefting heavy weights with bad form is one big reason why. It’s easy to get caught up in adding plates and pushing your PR higher and higher, but hard to acknowledge when form gives and your body bares the brunt of your decisions. Focus on perfect form before moving up in weight, and don’t concern yourself with the opinions of your fellow gym-goers, who are usually neither concerned nor aware of you (Unless you accompany your lifts with Thor-like grunts. Every gym has one). Try to lift in profile to a mirror, which is particularly helpful for the deadlift — from this perspective, it’s easy to catch accidental back rounding, and to make sure your lats, core, and glutes are engaged and ready to fire.
Don’t Ignore the Core
Strengthening your core has the ability to prevent an injury and relieve pain from one, especially in the lower back. During my first few PT sessions, I expected a yoga-like approach to my recovery with lots of back stretches and extensions, only to discover that nearly half of my time was spent working on my core. It was the ab workout I never knew I needed.
Here are two moves that I still do today to keep my core solid: First, a muscle-firing move. Lie on your back with both legs in the air, knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Place your right hand on your left knee, and push; try to resist any movement — this will force you to engage your core. Repeat on the right knee using your left hand. The second exercise is Bird Dogs. Get on all-fours, and lift your right arm and left leg in the air, keeping both extended so they’re parallel to the floor, with your back straight and hips level. Hold that for 10 seconds, then repeat, lifting your left arm and right leg. That’s one rep. Do three sets for both exercises.
Do More With Less
After my injury and first month off exercise — what I deemed a “full recovery” — I went back to the gym and immediately made an attempt at my usual deadlift routine. This was the biggest mistake I could have made; I suffered an even worse muscle spasm, and it ruined any chance of a quick recovery.
To gradually build back my strength and stamina, my physical therapist suggested I focus on high reps of light weights rather than low reps of heavy weight. I soon became accustomed to lifting multiple sets at 10 or more reps at significantly lighter weights than I used before. Increasing volume and lowering the weight doesn’t necessarily compromise your potential for gains either. In fact, a 2010 study showed that high-volume resistance exercise has the potential to stimulate even more muscle growth than low-volume exercise at higher weights. Higher volume, most importantly, allowed me to recover without compromising my lower back. And anecdotally, at least, this technique allowed me to finish workouts quicker (thanks to less rest between sets) and I never left the gym without a sweat-stained shirt.
Program Off Days
Rest days, I’ve learned well, are as crucial as workouts. Incorporating more of them into your routine can have endless benefits: you allow muscles sufficient time to heal and rebuild, so you actually get stronger, faster; you prevent burnout — physical and mental — from doing the same routine over and over; and finally, you give yourself the opportunity to do feel-good recovery activities, like yoga or a massage. Finally, to help safeguard against injury, adequate sleep is crucial. A study conducted on adolescent athletes in 2014 showed that those who slept less than eight hours were 1.7 times more likely to incur an injury than those who slept more than eight. Rings true for me. When I went for that max deadlift, I was at the end of a long week with little to no sleep, hadn’t taken a true rest day in weeks, and my back paid the price. But that old saying is true, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger — or at least helps you train smarter.