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Lifters and Back Pain

The following article came out of a conversation regarding the use of unstable loads as a fix for lifters suffering with back pain.

Back pain is ridiculously common.

And the stories that have been built around it are many.

There is such a term as "non specific low back pain"

Which is to say, "your back hurts but we don't know why"

I don't like terms like non specific back pain, I'd much rather day "you're back hurts and we don't know why"

Old school physio is to advise strengthening the core to help support the spine.

There's logic in this.

If you are dealing with non specific pain, in that you can't identify the cause, then a non specific intervention that reduces pain is a good thing.

For a while Pilates was the treatment of choice, and if you look on my bookshelf there is a very well worn Pilates book that you should study.

After Prof Stuart McGill came into the spotlight, a lot of the strength community moved away from Pilates type exercises towards McGill style "anti" movement exercises.

This means resisting movement, of which the unevenly loaded bar, especially the "Bamboo bar" idea of an unstable load (as in the Squat U video) is an example.

The wobbly load is asking the Central Nervous System to react to the wobble. Every vibration from the hanging weight out on the end of that barbell will stimulate muscles to be reacting, contracting and relaxing to keep the body in position.

It's exactly the reason why bottoms up Kettlebell work is so good for the shoulders, the chaotic interaction between the unstable load and the muscles holding it is too fast, too chaotic for the person to handle conciously, so the CNS has to up it's game and take control sub conciously.

Other "anti" movements would be:


Pallof press

1 arm press/pull

Renegade row

Single leg RDL


And so on.

While these build strength and potentially upgrade CNS action around the spine, they're not dealing with the root cause.

If the back hurts but was never injured, why does it hurt?

The body rarely makes mistakes, almost everything that happens has a reason.

A very large percentage of people I personally have helped with back pain are loading through the area that hurts.

Try this:

Stand up, now shift your weight until it is resting predominantly in one heel. Keep this shift subtle, small, but feel your weight move into that one heel and just stay there.

Stand for a few minutes.

Do you feel, any pressure or even pain in the back?

Swap sides, compare the difference.

What do you notice?


Most people notice a tightening in the low back, usually on the same side they're weighting.

Tightness, that if allowed, starts to hurt, it becomes pain.

So is the back pain the problem?

Or is the back pain simply alerting you to a problem?

The heel exercise is merely an example of how certain positions we assume may overload certain structures in the body.

The low back just so happens to be very close to our centre of mass which is generally accepted to lie just in front of the L4 or L5 vertebrae.

As a point of interest, the L4/5 disk is one that is commonly reported as herniated or "slipped"

Is it coincidence?

Now I have to add here that very little in the body happens by accident.

If the body has chosen the heel heavy posture we had you try out, it's done so for a reason.

What this reason is, well that's in your history.

Did you roll your ankle?

Damage your knee?

Break your wrist?

Take a heavy hit to one shoulder?

Participate heavily in a one sided sport?

Get a crack on the head?

Only you know your history, but it might take an assessment from a good therapist to follow the breadcrumbs and figure out the exercises that allow your central nervous system to let you whatever strategy it's using go and maybe that painful tightness could melt away.

We may discover that that non specific back pain wasn't really a back issue.

We may discover it was a protective, or a trained strategy that you no longer need.


Dave Hedges

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