As you know, I'm not a medical doctor, a chiropractor, a massage therapist, or a myofascial release specialist1. I'm just a guy who has jacked himself up many times over the years, and learned a few things along the way. And now I get to share those things with you. Some of the aforementioned experts may scoff at any or all of what I'm about to say, but I don't really care because these are the things that I believe in and they have worked for me. And as we've discussed on many occasions before, it's not a lie if I believe it.
I've put this list together with intention and believe that everything on here has contributed positively in some way, but realistically all of this has likely combined together in a giant cloud of goodness to help keep me healthy as of late. However, I did my best to order it from what I believe is the extreme absolute most important down to the only very important. And I better get started or this article is going to be long as hell.
There's actually lots of other fun stuff in the Cloud of Goodness, but I'll save the rest for another day.
Wait, what? Like that thing where we stand up and put one foot in front of the other to move our body from place to place? Yes damn it! It turns out that the most important thing I've done on my way to a healthy back is also one of the absolute easiest and simplest things for most human beings to do: walk. It's worth mentioning that while a lot of my bullets today may not be typical things you'll find in a book or on the Internet, this one is. Every chiropractor or doctor worth their salt in this world will tell you that walking is far and away the best thing you can do for your back. What's the technique, the protocol though? It goes a little something like this: get up off your ass and move. 20 minutes is better than 0 minutes, and 60 minutes is better than 20.
The reality is that most of us spend the vast majority of our time hunched over behind a desk. Then we come into the gym and want to do 75 power cleans, and wonder why our back aches the next day. The body was not made to sit around all day trading stocks and planning widget shipments, plain and simple. Create some new habits, go for a long walk or a bunch or short ones, walk in place in your office during a conference call, do whatever the hell you have to do. This is a big one. The biggest.
They say sitting is the new smoking, because apparently we can't make enough money hooking people on cigarettes and then getting them to quit anymore, so now we're selling books and gadgets to help us not be so lazy.2) Strength Balance
For about 2 years I stayed away from doing heavy deadlifts. I believed that they were contributing to my back issues and destroying my health. This was very wrong. And if they were contributing to my issues in the past, it was simply because my deadlift was WAY stronger than my squat, causing strength imbalances in my lower body muscles and eventually back pain and injury. This is one of those times where a few of you inquisitive types may ask the question of WHY having a healthy balance of strength between all muscle groups keeps us healthy and reduces chronic pain. And I will give you the most honest physiological answer I can muster: I have no f*%king idea. It just works.
This is one of those situations in life where I prefer to apply a nice smooth creamy layer of common sense. Our bodies tend to function as one unit, which is the whole idea behind functional movement and CrossFit in general. If we get one area really super strong (let's say our quads through squatting) and let another area get relatively weak (let's say our hamstrings by neglecting deadlifts) doesn't it just make sense that this will cause some issues eventually? Maybe not, in which case I'll just leave you to enjoy your sciatica for the rest of your life.
So what to do? Once again, it's pretty simple: make sure you are doing a wide variety of movements, and not skipping the stuff you suck at or don't like. I can tell you through personal experience and through watching it happen many times, if we continue to neglect one movement in favor of an opposing one2 , the train is going to fall off the tracks eventually. It's not a question of "if" but "when."
I separated tempo from technique for a couple reasons. One is that I've come to believe for the moment that tempo is ever so slightly more important than technique. Two is that they are both very important and should be discussed separately.
So what is tempo, for those that may not know? Tempo is simply the speed at which we execute a given movement. To keep things simple, almost every movement we do has a down portion (eccentric) and an up portion (concentric). Tempo is the speed at which you execute these individual segments of the movement.
Once again, the rule is simple: keep the down portion of the movement intentionally slow and controlled, and execute the up portion as fast as you are safely able to. This means during a squat, we lower ourselves into the bottom with control, then once we reverse and begin standing back up we should be striving to speed the bar up. Every single day I see somebody dive-bombing into the bottom of the squat or quickly lowering a deadlift out of control. Unfortunately this a great recipe for an acute injury, and the risk can be lowered significantly by simply maintaining better control of the bar during the down portion.
Full credit to my coach at Strength Ratio for teaching me the importance of the last two bullets and the concepts behind them ... and a few other ones as well. What's that, you've never read any of his articles? Strange because I post them all the time ...
I view technique as a slightly different issue than tempo. Technique is more about our positioning, flexibility, and executing the movement within a safe range of motion for our particular individual bodies. Technique is keeping the back as flat as possible during a deadlift for example, and other such cues. It is striving to stay in a solid, strong position throughout the execution of an entire rep or set of a movement.
There are an infinite amount of differing opinions and arguments over what constitutes proper technique. I'm pretty sure by the latest estimates, 80% of the internet is porn and the other 20% is dedicated to arguing about the knees caving in during a squat. Suffice it to say that we are all built differently and therefore all of our technical nuances are going to look a bit different, yet there are plenty of generic rules that we can abide by in order to keep us safe. As a pertinent example here, the spine should probably not be flexing back and forth and changing position under a heavy load ... although I'm quite certain even that could be argued.
5) Stretching and Yoga
Yeah I know, most of us take a foam roller and smash our butt cheeks on it for 20 to 30 seconds or do a couple passes on our upper back after a 2-hour workout. That's not what I'm talking about, because that's not actually doing anything. I'm talking about taking the time every day to stretch and implement some simple yoga movements after our workouts. Yeah, we didn't just add those strange holds into our classes for entertainment; it serves a very valid purpose.
Over the last 6 months, I've made a concentrated effort to get in at least 10 minutes of cool down and stretching after each and every session. Usually I will do more if I have the time. This is something I neglected and dismissed for a long time, and now I'm reaping the benefits. You should too.
Wasn't just added to the class routine to liven up the scenery.
Now we may be getting into the weeds just a bit, but I believe my increased cardio base has helped with my back issues as well. Here's why: as our cardio base increases, we recover faster between sets and between workouts. Faster recovery means less accumulation of fatigue, and entering each workout in a more refreshed state. In my previous 100% unconditioned state, I'm certain there are many times I would start a workout and still be under incredible tension from the workout (or workouts) before it. So basically I would start the workout in an already compromised state, which would increase my risk of doing something stupid or causing a strain in one of those fun muscles right around my spine.
As is the ongoing theme here, the prescription is simple. I'm not necessarily talking about increasing our ability to withstand blood-vessel bursting CrossFit workouts (although that's important too ... probably), but it's more about those longer, slower efforts. Once or twice a week for 30-45 minutes at a moderate pace.
7) Assistance Exercises
I debated that this one should be higher on the list, and it probably should be somewhere right around #2 dealing with strength balance. But I don't have all day to screw with the order, so here it is. These are all the strength exercises that many of us view as pointless and boring filler: Box Step Ups, Good Mornings, Farmers Carry, Suitcase Deadlifts, Split Squats, etc. They actually serve several important purposes. The first is that they shore up lagging muscle groups and unilateral (side to side) imbalances. Perhaps our right quad is a lot stronger than the left, which throws our back into a nice twisting motion when we squat. Well if we do split squats, the weak leg has nowhere to hide!
Another (perhaps just as) important benefit is that all of these movements reduce the loading on the back while still maintaining the stimulus on our skeletal muscles. For example we can't use nearly as much weight on a 1-leg deadlift as we can the conventional version, but for those of you that have had the pleasure of walking around for the couple days following a few sets of these, you know they have a very direct effect on the hamstring muscles.
Makes the quads grow AND spares the back ... What more could we ask for??
So I don't really have any direct "evidence" on this one. I just threw it in because it's important overall and it improves everything else in life, so why would back pain be any exception?
9) Having Superior Genetics (sarcasm)
So that's the list. I'm not saying that if we implement every single thing on this list to perfection, our back issues will disappear forever. I'm just saying that I've implemented every single thing on this list - many of them being things I had never focused on before - and I've felt pretty damn good for the last year and a half. The hope is that maybe this can serve to remind you of something that you may be neglecting, or have left out of your routine entirely.
It's also worth noting that I've been told on several occasions that my recent resistance to injury is actually due to my superior genetics3 . If that's true, then it's only logical to assume that my proclivity to injury in year's past was due to my previously inferior genetics, and the implementation of the above methods has altered the sequencing and quality of my DNA. And for the life of me, I don't understand why the world's most foremost scientists and geneticists are not banging down my door to study me and change the world as we know it. So there.
1 Don't get all excited, this is not nearly as sexy as it sounds.↩
2 As a general rule for the two movements mentioned here, the deadlift should likely be about 120-130% of the strength of the Back Squat across any rep range if you're looking for some hard numbers. There are also a whole host of other ratios for every movement under the sun, and I'm happy to share those with anybody who cares enough to ask.↩
3 I'll try to keep this rant short and sweet since it's a footnote: 99.999 times out of 100 when I hear someone cite genetics, luck, or other "uncontrollable" factors as the reason behind someone else's success, the person doing the bitching is the weaker of the two. This could just be random coincidence or some sort of observational bias, but I personally find that statistic quite compelling.↩