Q and A: My Back Hurts – Help

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Q: Hi Tony. I enjoy your blog more than any other blog. Ever. But anyway, here’s my question:

I’m a 28 yr old female, 5’0″ 135 and I enjoy powerlifting. I have been doing it for a year now. I think the squat is fabulous.

My squat day breaks down like this:

3×5 currently at 145lbs

3×5 hanging clean currently at 115lbs

Then 3×3 – 1×1 alternating with no breaks with some jump rope in between.

Since moving and leaving my coach, I have gone up 50lbs in both lifts in just under a month.

I have experienced some lower back pain. I’m thinking it’s the accelerated increase in weight on the bar but not enough time for my stabilizers to catch-up? What exercises can I do, in the midst of recovering from this tweak to get myself rolling again? I hope not. I love loading 45s onto the bar at the Army gym at 5 am. There is nothing like it.

A: First off, let me just say that if someone doesn’t take “I think the squat is fabulous,” and make that into a t-shirt, I will. Secondly, I think this is a clear cut case of analysis by paralysis. I don’t think it’s so much the accelerated increase in weight that’s causing your back pain (although, that can’t be ruled out ), as it is HOLY SHIT that’s a lot of volume for one day. And, more importantly, since when do powerlifters jump rope? Just kidding (but not really).

Here’s the deal. I can totally respect the fact that you head to the gym each and every day on a mission, and one certainly can’t downplay the fact that you’ve increased your squat by 50 lbs in a matter of a few weeks. That said, I think my main question would be whether or not you’re making a concerted effort to back-off (deload) every so often to allow your body to recover?

Lets be honest, consistently loading the body with big weights is going to take it’s toll eventually, no matter who you are. And, more to the point, it just seems to me your body is trying to tell you something.

I know, I’m stating the obvious – but sometimes it takes someone with an un-biased viewpoint to make sense of everything.

To that end, what can you do to resolve the problem? Well, for starters, I’d suggest backing off for a week (or two). At Cressey Performance we typically incorporate a “planned” deload weeks every fourth week of programming. The way I see it, you can’t expect to break PR’s every single training session, and the deload week serves it’s purpose both physiologically as well as pychologically.

Now, there are a million and one (okay, not that many) ways to approach a deload week. What works for one person, may not be ideal for another. Personally, I’m in the camp that just likes to decrease volume a bit, as I feel more people “overtrain” (and I use that term lightly, since you REALLY have to go out of your way to actually overtrain) with volume as opposed to keeping intensity (as a % of one’s 1RM) amped up. Using a simple example – squats

Week 1: 4×5 (High Volume)

Week 2: 3×5 (Medium Volume)

Week 3: 5×5 (Very High Volume)

Week 4: 2×5 (Deload)

** Of note, this doesn’t take into account all the accessory work that comes into play

Another way to approach it – and what I think would bode in your favor – would be to nix the squatting for a week. Using the same example above, it may look something like this: Box Squats

Week 1: 4×5

Week 2: 3×5

Week 3: 5×5

Week 4: Goblet Squat 2×10 (easy)

Here, you’re still “squatting,” albeit without any spinal load.

Either way, there are several options, and thankfully Eric Cressey wrote a fantastic manual on this topic called The Art of the Deload.

Wrapping up, other “exercises” I think that would be valuable in your case would be pull-throughs, hip thruster variations, TONS of single leg work (which forces you to activate those hip stabilizers, and something I feel many powerlifters disregard al together, which sucks), as well as addressing hip/ankle mobility, t-spine mobility, core stability/strength, to name a few. The Naked-Get up is a favorite that hits all the points above.

Also, and this is something that I should have mentioned earlier, spinal loading THAT early in the morning (5 AM) can be deleterious if you’re not careful. As Dr. McGill has noted almost resoundingly, the spine is “hydrated” first thing in the morning – which is why it’s harder to bend over and touch your toes in the morning as compared to the afternoon.

As such, it’s imperative that you wait 45-60 minutes upon waking before you go a head and load the spine. Chillax for a bit. Do a crossword, eat some breakfast, and make sure you take yourself through a proper dynamic warm-up.

All in all, I think that should cover your basis. By all means, it’s not an exhaustive list, but it should give you some ideas. Hope that helps!

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