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How To Train Around A Sore Back

If you lift heavy enough, long enough, there is a pretty good chance that your lower back will be telling you to back off. Many times I've had low-back issues - tight QL ligaments, misaligned sacroiliac joints, etc - that caused me to back off of heavy squats or deadlifts for a bit while I did rehabilitate work for the aching back.

This poses a challenge - how can we set up our routine so that we can allow for our back to get a break from the most low-back intensive movements, while at the same time, those are the bread and butter of our routines?

Do You Have to Squat or Deadlift?

There are many good arguments out there that some of the population might not actually be best suited to squat, based on their anatomy. Personally I think this is true. In the preceding link, Lyle McDonald argues that the only segment of the population that has to squat and deadlift are powerlifters, as they are contested on those lifts.

Plus, there is the analogy that if you take two guys, one who is stuck at squatting the same weight for the past year and another who has been consistently adding weight to his leg press, guess who will end up with bigger, stronger legs?

Having said that, there is also the argument that since our lifestyles have become much more sedentary than our ancestors, ie, sitting all day long at our jobs, we likely need the most primal lift of them all - picking a heavy object off of the ground - some sort of deadlift.

Enter Squat and Deadlift Variants

There are ways around this. As far as squats are concerned, we have two options.

One, we can do front squats, which greatly diminish shearing forces across the lumbo-sacral notch in the lower back.

Two, we can do leg presses, only if we keep in mind the fact that leg pressing to such a range of motion where we allow a loss of neutral lordosis in the lower back, can actually cause more damage to the spinal discs than squatting.

So, if you are doing leg presses, do not let your low back to round. (there are numerous examples on YouTube to illustrate what I am talking about; you even see lots of people doing this when squatting)

Another, possibly even better option, is if your gym has the Hammer Strength Iso-Lateral Leg Press. Here you are pressing with one leg at a time horizontally, parallel with the floor, while the other foot is planted flat on the floor, stabilizing your pelvis.

Then we need some sort of deadlift variant. Ordinarily, there are three options. One is a stiff-leg deadlift with a bar, which might or might not be too stressful for your back. Two, we can do a single-leg dumbbell deadlift.

Initially co-ordination may be a bit tough, but you will become more comfortable with this over time. Its well worth it as this is an excellent hamstring movement.

Then there is option three: doing a single dumbbell sumo deadlift. Here you position your feet wider apart just like when doing a regular sumo deadlift, but instead place a heavy dumbbell between your feet.

You throw your hips back and bend at the knees as you reach down with one arm and pick up the dumbbell, as you shoot your hips forward, bringing the weight up to below your waist. Then you reverse this, setting the weight back down on the floor and grab with the opposite arm and repeat.

The non-working arm can be on your hip or behind your back. (some videos below show these two excellent movements to give you a better idea)

Putting It All Together

What we are going to be doing is a basic "A/B" split. Two different workouts, where all the stuff that would otherwise stress the low back is done on one day.

So we are looking at a split which consists of: legs/back/biceps on day one, and chest/shoulders/triceps on day two (this was actually a popular split in the 1970s. The late Serge Nubret used to train with this sort of split).

The rationale: a back friendly workout, with no squats, full deadlifts, and the most rest for low back. All the back and leg related movements done on one day, and then its up to you how many days to space in between. Likely the best option for this split could be one on, one off, or three days a week.

Day One

  • Flat Dumbbell Bench Press
  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • Dips or Close-Grip Bench Press
  • Barbell Triceps Extensions
  • Core: Planks

Day Two

  • Front Squat or Leg Press
  • SDL or Single Leg DB Deadlift or Single DB Sumo Deadlift
  • Chest-Supported or One-Arm Dumbbell Rows
  • Chins or Pulldowns
  • Seated Dumbbell Curls

The parameters on all but the arm exercises are 3x5 with 80% of 1RM, followed by 2x12-15 with 55% of 1RM. For triceps/biceps, I would hit 3-4 sets of 10-15.