Q. Big Bell, how can I train max effort squats with an injured back?
First thing's f#cking last: Why is your back hurting, cupcake? I hear people say, "Dude, I don't deadlift because it hurts my back." To which I reply, "No, your back hurts because you're weak, and you don't deadlift because you're a pansy!"
OK, let's get serious. Pain signals weakness or dysfunction somewhere. Don't be a hump like everyone else and avoid it. Instead, use your head and fix it! I'll give you some crucial tips on protecting your back, followed by a solid box squat workout for those with busted backs.
So, Why Does Your Back Hurt?
First, realize that your back probably doesn't hurt just from lifting. On top of lifting too heavy or with crappy form, here's a list of common back-busters, plus some easy fixes you should start using NOW.
Occupation: How many cops suffer from a bad back or a super-tight lower back? A lot of sitting comes with that job. Policemen who stand more often have the, er, luxury of wearing a big-@ss belt that pulls their hips out of place. Wherever you work, stretch and loosen your body at every opportunity.
Sitting: Sitting can be cancerous! Try not to slouch. Get up from your desk or La-Z-Boy as often as you can. A short walk every 1-or-2 hours will make a huge difference for your lower back.
Posture: While standing, walking and running, keep that spine and neck neutral without looking like Mr. Robot Pants.
Diet: Didn't expect this one, did you? A crap diet will lead to poor health in general and can cause inflammation throughout the body. I follow the Paleo Diet combined with some of Kiefer's principles discussed on Dangerously Hardcore. If you want the simplest advice ever, just cut refined and over-processed carbs from your diet! You'll be on your way to feeling healthier almost immediately.
Now that you're aware of your body, eating healthier, moving more often and taking better care of your spine, start actively protecting yourself!
Use these two tips any time you lift heavy weight or perform a tough task like scaling a mountain, wrestling a bear, or getting out of your car.
1. Activate Your Abs!
Tightening your stomach will help brace your back for action. Activate your stomach by tightening up your belly, as if someone were going to sock you in the gut. Think of pulling your belly button to your spine and clenching your entire core.
2. Fire Your Glutes
Clinch up, bro! I know it sounds gross, but your @ss can protect your back. On the deadlift, you will notice this right away.
Next time you pull anything, actively think about engaging your glutes. You'll notice it takes stress off your lower back.
OK, now that I got you thinking, I'll help you train while you're banged up. After all, one of my principles is: "Only rest when you're dead." You may not be able to train at max effort, but we'll get you pretty dang close.
First, let's mobilize the hips and hams to free up that tight back.
While you're hurt, make sure you wear a lifting belt and make sure, instead of regular squats, you perform high box squats. For now, we will limit the range of motion and squat above parallel.
Squatting onto a bench can be nice because it's high and has padding. If you don't have padding, put a sweat shirt or towel on the box.
Box Squatting Basics
1. Squat Wider Than Normal
Use a slightly wider stance than your normal shoulder-width position. Go out 2 inches wider per side, so you'll be roughly 4 inches wider total.
2. Open up the Hips
Force the knees out to where your ankles/feet are. This will help create torque in your hips.
3. Keep Your Back And Head Neutral
Don't overarch or over-exaggerate your neck. Just keep your head up with your neck neutral, and don't allow your upper body to move too much. You're trying to turn this exercise into a hip movement.
4. Brace Your Stomach
Get your gut tight! Expand it with air and push down against your belt to create an extra brace. You want to push down more than out. You don't want to push your stomach "out" and make a beer belly, which can lead to overextension - too much distance between your belly button and sternum.
To simplify how your gut should feel, try a heavy side bend with a dumbbell. You should experience a similar pressure. (If the advanced among you want more info on overextension and mobility tips, refer to my home boy Kelly Starrett's website, MobilityWod.)
5. Booty Clap
Make sure you're flexing dat @ss! If not, then I'll have to check while I'm "back spotting" you! Flexing your butt will help protect your lower back.
6. Wear A Flat-Soled Shoe
Slap on something with a minimal heel-to-toe drop, like Chuck Taylors. This will allow you to force your knees out without rolling on your cheap-@ss space shoes.
Let's do 8 sets of 2 reps with about 60% of your max, so you're basically doing a speed protocol. Every 3 weeks, work up to a 90% single. Go by how you feel. Let pain be your guide.
After this, we need to train our stomach, lats, hams and glutes. Hit those muscles with some really light stiff-legged deadlifts. Let's have you do 5 sets of 5 with 135-to-225 pounds, depending on your strength. Hit up the weighted planks I suggest in my core workout. The static holds will work well for your back.
Finish the workout with some full range of motion seated rows. Allow your spine to round and get a lot of stretch. Let's hit up 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps.
In my gym, we have many lifters who squat over 800 pounds and deadlift over 700, with zero back problems. We allow for proper recovery of our lower backs; we've also developed incredibly strong backs. In addition to the tips and workout above, I attribute our "healthy back record" to the Rogue Reverse Hyperextension, invented by Louie Simmons. The reverse hyper lets you work the muscles in your back with no load on the spine. Great for strength and rehab!
Use Your Head
If you are REALLY injured, go see a doctor! Don't be too stubborn. Try to find a sports med doc who works with lifters.
Certain pains are a necessary evil of pushing your body. Over time, you will learn to love and embrace 'em as much as I do. I have endured and embraced pain because I know it's temporary and leads to success. Get some, son!