By Piers Edlund-Field, MTI Contributor
Three weeks into a heavy powerlifting cycle, I tested my 1 rep maxes and was pleasantly surprised. All those hours grinding away under the bar had paid off: I’d made big gains on bench and weighted pullups, capitalizing on “newbie gains” after some time spent in the field. My deadlift numbers jumped the most: from 360 to 385. The numbers weren’t out of this world but to me, they were a huge validation.
The next three week cycle began and I adjusted my training percentages to fit my new PRs. Squatting and pressing felt great – easy, even! – but when I reached down to pull the bar off the floor, something felt… off. The new weight was just a little too heavy, or so my gut told me. The thought of using a training max (slightly lowering the max percentage I used) briefly crossed my mind, but my ego quickly stepped in to override my rational instincts. Even though I didn’t feel like I owned that weight yet, I had to use the weight – otherwise my new deadlift PR was false. With so much of my self worth tied up in those abstract numbers, I felt I had no choice but to carry on.
And so I began deadlifting. My workout called for three to five sets of three to five reps. By set two, my core was trashed and I struggled to create adequate tension to pull the bar from the floor. I did not lift with a belt. My rational brain was begging to stop at three sets and call it a day – but my ego urged me to carry on. I reached down, gripped the bar tightly, began creating tension, and…”Pop.”
That’s what it felt like, at least. I don’t remember if there was any audible noise as I folded in half, stubbornly clinging to the bar and washed through with pain radiating from my lower back. Worse than the pain, though, was the immediate thought: I’ll never deadlift again, will I?
Immediately after the injury, I could not stand up straight; I was folded over at the waist like a lopsided origami swan. I called the doctor – this was during COVID restrictions, so a phone call was the best I could get – and he diagnosed me with a herniated disc based on the information I gave him. The prescription: zero activity for the first week, followed by light walking and zero lifting for quite some time. Become a couch potato, or else.
So I did nothing. Every day the pain worsened; sitting or laying down was unbearable. I eased back into some light calisthenic training, determined to regain my strength (and confidence) but I stayed well away from targeted core training. I replaced running and rucking with bike rides – anything to avoid loading my spine – and scrapped almost all lower body training. In my day-to-day I avoided anything remotely resembling a deadlift; my “hinge-phobia” had grown to the point where I didn’t even want to bend down to pick up groceries.
After a month and a half of confused, core-avoidant training, I set off on my first post-injury exercise: a tactical bridge build. Done by hand, bridge builds require group deadlifting of 200kg panels and 500kg beams. Some heavy components have to be pressed overhead to fit them into position. Some components like decking are carried one-handed, demanding great grip strength and core stability. I was totally unprepared for all of the above.
For the entirety of the 48 hour build my lower body was in agony – but not for the reasons I’d expected. Standing and walking for long periods of time loaded my spine in a way that I had avoided for the last 6 weeks, and every second on my feet felt like I had an anvil on my shoulders. As I leaned down to pick up the first component – a 200kg top panel lifted by four – I braced myself for another *pop* and months out of commission. But as I leaned back and stood up straight, pulling the panel to waist height, I was surprised by a new sensation: relief.
For the first moment since the injury, my back felt good. For the remainder of the exercise, the only time my back felt anything but pain was during the activity I’d chronically avoided: deadlifting.
A Revised Approach
Evidently I had done everything wrong. The injury happened because of core deficiencies, and I needed to build my core up – not let it get worse by training “around” it. I began reading everything I could get my hands on about lower back injuries, devouring Dr Stuart McGill’s “The Gift of Injury” in hours and following up with Dr Andrew Lock’s spinal rehab series.
Here’s what I did wrong right after my injury:
1. Total rest.
2. Avoiding hinge movements.
3. Limited walking and standing
As it turned out, I needed to (carefully) load my spine in order to strengthen it again. For the next two months I eased into the MTI low back training plan, supplemented with the McGill “Big 3” daily routine: curl ups, bird dogs and side planks. The plan had me doing everything I was afraid of: walking with load, hinging, pulling. At the end of it, though, I accomplished something huge: I could stand for 10 minutes without pain. And I was ready to begin barbell deadlifting again.
One year later I was sent to a 9 week leadership school. Ordinarily, the school would not have been a physical challenge but in my state, the months of “military movement” – kneeling with a ruck on, conducting fire and movement, digging, hitting the prone and getting back up, walking with armor on – presented a huge test of my abilities. So I prepared: every night after classes, I ran to the woodline and hammered away at squats, swings and MTI’s chassis integrity circuits, armoring up my posterior chain for the field. Although I experienced some minor flare ups, my back never failed me and I graduated without issue. Confronting my “hinge-phobia” head on and training my weak links – working with my lower back, not without it – paid off.
Two years on, I have altered my approach to training in some small, but significant, ways. I am not an expert by any means, but these are the strategies that have worked for me.
1. Front squat frequently. The core stiffness demanded by this move has carried over to all my other lifts.
2. Deadlift with caution – not fear. I experimented with rack pulls and sumo deadlifts, finding moves that worked well with my anatomy. I keep the work sets minimal, and call it a day if my form deteriorates. But I still deadlift.
3. Incorporate asymmetric work. I’ve implemented a lot of suitcase carries, one-handed deadlifts and unilateral squats alongside some core activities. These movements have significantly increased my core “stiffness” and trust in my abilities. They also give me faith that I won’t “fold” when doing awkward lifts in a field/non-gym environment.
4. Pre-lift core engagement. Before picking up something heavy, I walk through a quick checklist to engage every component involved – core, legs, etc – and get myself into the correct mindset.
5. Forgetting the Numbers. Despite what my ego whispers in my ear, I always use training maxes and adjust my numbers downwards if my gut tells me to do so.
Ultimately, the most difficult change for me was not physical, but mental: I had to learn to sideline my ego and disengage my sense of self worth from the numbers I was putting up in the weightroom. The root cause of my injury was not poor form, or a weak core, or a lacking grip: it was my obsession with numbers above all else.
My injury forced me to focus less on abstract numbers, and more on being strong. And it’s not possible to be strong while out-lifting your numbers, lying to yourself and speeding toward an inevitable injury.
Piers is a historical researcher and combat engineer with the Canadian Army primary reserves.
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