Life isn't perfect. Just like life is not perfect, neither is our fitness journey. We get busy, we become unmotivated, and we get injured. Some consider these setbacks, but they are only setbacks if you allow them to be. An example of a common and drastic setback is a lower back injury. Lower back injuries are "career-enders". They can have you in a bind quite fast, leaving you confused on how to work out....even debate giving up working out all together. Because a lower back injury can drastically change one's approach to fitness (and even life if depression sets in), this article will cover how to continue making progress in the gym even with a lower back injury.
You may be thinking "man, what makes you knowledgeable on this subject?" Well, over a year and a half ago I also had a lower back injury. During a high frequency routine (squat 4 times a week and deadlift twice a week) I ended up having to deadlift the day after heavy squats due to time restraints. As a result, I ended up on the ground after a set of what should have been speed doubles with deadlift (sets of 2 reps with sub-maximal weight). I felt a pop in my back, my body gave out, and I felt a chill down my entire body. What did I do? What any other egotistical lifter would have done at the time....rack the weight and walk it off (which took over an hour), thinking I would just rest it and be better soon. Nope! That night as the adrenaline rush went away and the inflammation built, I did not sleep even for one moment that night. The pain was excruciating and life sucked. I couldn't even walk without pain, let alone lay down without it. I couldn't work out with even moderate weights for 6 months and almost 18 months later I am finally back to lifting the same weight (but I still cannot deadlift, barbell row, back squat, and many other exercises). It's been a bumpy road with a lot of struggle, depression, and having to accept my injury (spinal fracture). I realize my experience can serve as an example and explain how I fought (and am fighting) back to continue my progress.
The first aspect of working out with a lower back injury is accepting that your routine is not going to be like everyone else's. The severity of the injury will dictate the amount of change your routine needs. Instead of doing the same exercises you did prior to injury and making it that much worse (like I did, re-injuring my back at least 3 times), adapting your routine to your circumstance will serve you better in the long run.
......Now that you can accept it, let's get into how to change your routine.
Perfect Your Form
Sometimes the pain your feel just has to deal with improper form. You may be performing too much of a pelvic tilt at the bottom of your squat, leaning too far forward in your squat (performing a good-morning instead of a squat), rounding your lower back in the deadlift, or etc. Reducing back pain could be as little as perfecting your exercise form.
If perfecting your form does not work, maybe it is time to try an exercise variation that places less load on the body or places less stress on the lower back. An example would be going from back squats to front squats, conventional deadlifts to sumo deadlifts, or bench press to Larsen press. Taking stress off the lower back can work wonders for letting the lower back recover, crazy right? But....sometimes that's still not enough.
One way to progressively overload and strengthen your legs without the shear force of hundreds of pounds onto your spine is to perform unilateral exercises. Such exercises are, but not limited to: walking lunges, reverse lunges, single leg press, step ups, and Bulgarian split squats.The key is to use proper form and progressively overload your legs more with less weight.
Ah yes, a powerlifter's or heavy lifter's worst nightmare! Some back injuries are to the point where using machines for the majority of your work out is best. Whether it be having to not use the lower back at all, or minimize it's involvement. Majority of individuals with lower back injuries wouldn't fall under this category, but if you happen to....do not be discouraged by you exercise selection. With more and more work out machines being made (a lot of variety) that hit many different angles and muscles, you can get an amazing work out even without squatting (I know, crazy hearing from a powerlifter...right?)
The degree in which you must adapt depends on the degree of injury. Sometimes it just takes form perfecting in order to reduce and get rid of lower back pain. If that does not work, then using a variation that requires less load (weight) to be just as difficult can improve the situation. If you need to REALLY reduce the load, then performing unilateral exercises (while still progressively overloading) can provide you the tools for creating the physique you desire. When none of the above works and your lower back injury is very severe, it's time to accept the situation and deny stagnation. You can still make immense progress in your journey with a lower back injury. It's just a matter of accepting and adapting.