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How I Fixed Lower Back Pain

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A Look at Injuries, Biofeedback Training, and Deadlift Mastery

Earlier today, I got to hit an epic deadlift workout, one of the best I’ve had in a while. 

Anyone who knows me knows three things about me: I like my steaks rare, my bourbon neat, and my deadlifts heavy.

Unfortunately, for the better part of a year, I haven’t been able to enjoy one of those three amazing things. Which one?

Well, you’ll recall I recently finished my summer of All Drunk, No Junk (i.e. you can drink as much as you want, as long as you don’t eat any junk food while you’re drunk), and you know I eat a ton of steak, and have written extensively about its positive effect on Testosterone levels.

That leaves us with deadlifts, sweet, sweet deadlifts. How I love thee. I’m sad to say it, and hate to admit it—but for close to eight months, I wasn’t able to deadlift. In fact, I basically removed them from my programming.

The reason, as you guessed from the title of this article, was a problem with my lower back.

Before we go any further, I just want to state: if you have any sort of lower back pain—even if it’s “occasional”—then you need to read this entire post. You’ll learn a ton.

The story doesn’t actually have a true beginning, because I’m not sure exactly when it started. I’m not sure why or how, but as near as I can tell, sometime in the middle of October of last year, I started to experience intense lower back pain.

First is was just a constant tightness; eventually a throbbing area that seemed to expand outwards, shooting ropes of pain down in my hips and up towards my mid back. It was so bad that getting out of bed too quickly in the morning would aggravate it. Hell, even standing too long would cause it to flare up.

Before long, I needed to make some serious changes to my training; I started doing a lot of things seated, to take the pressure off. I found different positions for me legs during something as simple as bench pressing.

And, of course, had to cut a lot of things from my program, deadlifts first (and worst) of all.

This is truly horrible for a number of reasons, outside of my enjoyment. Deadlifts offer a number of tremendously important benefits, and not doing them is more than just annoying—it’s detrimental.

Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Firstly, deadlifts train a particularly essential movement pattern: the hinge. This helps with everything from general movement to help with picking up and carrying things in real-life situations to improved sexual performance (seriously).
  • Additionally, deadlifts are one of the most efficient (and effective) exercises you can possibly do—this single movement works just about every muscle in your body. Every rep works your entire posterior chain; all the way from where your traps originate at the base of your skull to where your calves attach at the heel. They’re also great for the quads and arms, and are exceptional for developing core strength.
  • As an added benefit, resultant of the above point is the fact that deadlifts are one of the most metabolically demanding exercises around. Now, deadlifts are great for muscle gain, of course. But, because they work so many muscles at once, deads are also extremely calorically expensive—making them a phenomenal fat loss tool.
  • I can’t back this up, but I’m pretty certain every time you hit a deadlift PR, someone, somewhere in the world, gets bitten by the fitness bug and makes a positive change in their life.

In short, deadlifts help with just about everything; they’re like a fitness panacea that cures all ills, and…

I. Couldn’t. Do. Them. AT ALL.

Now, the question you’re obviously asking is, “Well, why, Roman? How’d you hurt your back?”

I asked myself the same question; frustratingly, I couldn’t answer it. I literally had no idea what had happened.

Things were perfectly fine in September. Towards the end of last summer, I was training consistently and nothing hurt. I was doing deficit trap bar deadlifts with 450 pounds for sets of 20. I was doing rack pulls with just around 700 pounds, for multiple sets of 3-5.

I was pulling heavy and often, as part of my training to break my lifetime deadlift Personal Record of 660 pounds for 3 reps. It was going pretty well; I was consistently pulling 530-560ish for 2-4 reps with little trouble, though getting above that was taking a while.

Everything was on pace…and then it just wasn’t.

Right around the end of October, my numbers dropped and I was feeling constant tightness. Just before the holidays, the pain was too bad to do anything heavy, and deadlifts were cut.

In addition to being in a ton of pain, I was also annoyed, because I couldn’t figure it out. There was no acute injury, nothing specific I could point to and say, “aaaah, yes; that’s when I hurt my back!”; just a slow, creeping weakness and the pain, which occurred first gradually and intermittently, and then suddenly and very often.

As you might expect, I sought treatment. The first thing I did was go to the doctor to get both x-rays and an MRI. I wanted to make sure it was nothing serious. Tests were clear—there was no degeneration, no disc issue, no small fractures; just some inflammation.

The doctor said it was “just the perils of aging.” I couldn’t accept that, so I took the obvious next steps. Between October and April I saw every treatment imaginable: sports massages, physical therapy, chiropractic work—you name it.

I started getting Active Release Therapy about three times per week. I even tried electro-acupuncture, which is when they shove giant freakin needles into your back, then hook them up to the equivalent of a car battery.

The entire process was time consuming, painful and expensive. And it didn’t really help. Now, I won’t say it was entirely useless, as I did make some strides.

Mainly, I saw a reduction of pain from the ART treatments. I began to lift again, but the pain would come back, even with baby weights. I realized that the treatments could mitigate the symptom of pain, but weren’t causing the root issue.

I pretty much resigned myself to a life without deadlifting. (Or, at least, a life during which I could only pull light weight, and even then with pain.) I’d never be what I once was.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I was able to find some workarounds, and figured out things I could do without pain. My back did cause issues with a number of common exercises (overhead presses, for example), but with a few adjustments, I was able to train. For some reason, sprinting didn’t bother me, so I did a lot of that.

But, while I was able to do a lot I couldn’t deadlift—and because the movement is so important, it’s absence definitely affected every aspect of my fitness.

And then, suddenly

There was a breakthrough.

My White Night and Secret Magicks

You see, about a month ago, I was in NYC with David Dellanave, a good friend and high level coach who owns a few gyms out in Minneapolis.

We went over to Mark Fisher Fitness (easily one of the best gyms in the city, and certainly the most entertaining) and prepared to get our swole on. Once there, David set about preparing for his scheduled workout, which happened to be deadlifts, and invited me to join him.

I was hesitant, for the obvious reasons having to do with my back, but also for some less obvious: for example, Dellanave is a beast. Seriously. He’s the best example I can think of someone who is exponentially stronger than they look.

He’s got a good build on him, but at 5’10’’ and floating around 200 pounds, he doesn’t look like a bodybuilder. This often causes surprise when people realize just how freaking strong he is. I mean, the dude can lift 315+ pounds off the ground with one hand.

“I’m like the Jaime Lannister of deadlifts.” –@ddn. Maybe.

Add to that the fact that Dave is actually a world-record holder in the deadlift. Specifically, a variation called the Jefferson Deadlift—during the lift, you straddle the bar and turn your hips a bit, allowing one side to do more work than the other.

As I said, David holds the world record: pulled 605 with relative ease, at a bodyweight of 202. Oh, just triple bodyweight in one of the more challenging lifts in existence. NBD.

Here’s a clip: 

The idea of training with Dave would have, under normal circumstances, excited me beyond measure. But now…not so much; outside of my ego not wanting to be bruised from being consigned to pansy weights while he pulled big loads, I also didn’t want to slow him down and ruin his training session.

My hesitance was obvious, and my reluctance must have showed on my face, because David asked what was wrong. I told him the whole saga, including my general frustration.

He said, “Not to sound overconfident here, but…I think I can fix that.”

I was too shocked to even be skeptical. My only answer being a blank, dumbfounded stare, David continued, “Here, let me show you something.”

Let me show you something. I had no idea what a profound impact those words would have.

What David showed me was called Biofeedback Training. This is essentially a method that “collects” information from the body, and then uses that information to teach the body how to perform more effectively.

As he explained it to me, and expounded on the results he’d gotten with himself and clients, I was intrigued. It sounded logical and possibly effective, laced with just a hint of too-good-to-be-true. I was willing to try anything, though, so decided to give it a shot.

This is how it went down:

First, Dave asked me to bend down and touch the ground. “Don’t force the stretch,” he said, “just fold over and see how deep you can go. Measure by where your fingers touch. Okay, now remember that spot.”

Next, he had me deadlift for 3 reps with 135 pounds; nothing crazy. Even at that weight I had a distant awareness of the area, but it wasn’t bad.

After the set, he asked me to bend down again, and see if I got further. No change.

“All right, here’s the fun part,” he said. “I want you to do three more reps, but this time I want your feet offset a bit. Just set up with one foot about three inches ahead of the other. Try the right one first.”

Dutifully, I set up against the bar, with my right leg pretty much pressed against it, and my left a bit behind. I did three more reps. It want up fine, but I felt a very small twinge in the back.

“Now, bend down and check again.” A hair further, but that could have been because I was loosening up.

Dave observed the entire thing, and nodded sagely. “Switch feet.” I walked up to the bar, left leg ahead, and pulled. The weight went up faster, more smoothly, and completely without pain. It felt great.

I told David as much, and he asked me to do the bend-test again. Without trying or straining, I was able to get a full 2+ inches lower. I didn’t see the significance, but it felt better.

David explained why this was so important:

A big part of Biofeedback Training is testing; it’s one of the ways to collect the feedback. In this case, we tested your Range of Motion. Just by placing your one left leg a bit in front of your right, you’ve improved ROM, which means that you’re moving more easily and effectively.

With that settled, we jumped into the workout. For the entire session, I deadlift with my left foot ahead, or what’s called a “staggered stance.” It can take a little getting used to, but using staggered stances can be a nice wrinkle to add to your training.

You can probably guess the ending—if it didn’t work, I wouldn’t bother telling you the story, right? So, yes, smarty-pants, it obviously worked…like crazy.

No matter how heavy I went, I was able to deadlift completely pain free. PAIN. FREE. For the first time in 8 months, I could pull without any issue! It was nuts. Plus, because he’s such a good coach, Dave pointed out and helped me fix a few leaks in my form that may have contributed to the issue in the first place.

All told, I was able to go as heavy as 505 pounds for 2 reps—far heavier than I’d been able to do since October, and only ~10% less than I had been doing before the entire ordeal started.

As you might imagine, it was awesome, and I was very pleased. During and after the session, I peppered David with questions about everything from training grip strength to the finer points of biofeedback training.

The most important question I asked was this: “why the hell don’t more people know about this?”

We had a conversation about why he hadn’t really made the stuff “mainstream,” mostly having to do with wanting to keep some exclusivity for his clients. Honestly, that’s never a good idea. You gotta share your magic with the world. I told Dave as much, and also told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to cut that nonsense out.

I told him that he NEEDED to get the information out into the world to help more people. I told him that he NEEDED to make biofeedback training accessible to people who couldn’t make it to Minnesota to train with him.

Basically, I told him that he NEEDED to write a damn book.

The Most Awesome Deadlifting Book Around

And that’s just what he set about to do, and I’m proud to announce that just TODAY, David was finally ready to release and reveal his masterpiece—Off the Floor: a Manual for Deadlift Domination.

 

DDNbook

I’ve had the opportunity to read the book, of course; I helped him with some parts of it, and give him advice on what to add. And I have to tell you…this thing is epic; truly effin’ epic.

You see, Dave decided that he didn’t want to write a book that only covered Biofeedback Training. In the end, he wanted to write one that covered BT, but also address how it applied to to the deadlift. And, hey, while we’re at it, why not just cover every other aspect of the deadlift imaginable, too?

In short, Dave wrote the most comprehensive book on deadlifting that I’ve ever seen. Here’s some of the stuff he’s got in there:

  • An unreal exercise library; the book covers every variation of the lift you can think of, with detailed explanations of specific benefits and coaching cues.
  • A comprehensive 12-program to increase your deadlift—a program you can use for both muscle gain AND fat loss (just make the necessary dietary changes).
  • A complete manual on Biofeedback Training, covering assessment, application, implementation, and pain management. It fully covers both theory and practice.

And that’s just the beginning; there’s tons more stuff ranging from information on supplementation to breakdowns of specific types of equipment you can use to increase the deadlift.

the whole shebang.

All told, it’s about 250 pages of content, an insane program…oh, and the KEY to eliminate back pain. Or shoulder pain. Or hip pain.

Because really, Biofeedback Training, if properly applied, can address nearly any type of pain. More importantly, it will teach you specific ways to work around the pain you’re feeling, allowing you to make progress again.

So, if any of the following happen to apply to you…

• You’ve hit a deadlift plateau
• You can’t get stronger no matter what you do
• You’re experiencing back pain
• You want to lose fat while getting stronger
• You want to look like and be a bad-ass who pulls big weights

…then you should definitely check out the program. Like, NOW.

Remember, as I covered above, deadlifting is hugely important for appearance, performance, and health. Even if you’re not interested in max numbers, you can benefit from the book, and should definitely read it.

Right now it’s 50% off, and costs less than a few cocktails at a schmancy bar. But this ENDS after this week, and the price goes back up. 

My Results

Oh, and for those wondering about my back…these days I can squat with impunity, stand as long as I needed to, and get out of bed in the morning without pain.

More impressively, I’m currently deadlifting 595 for multiple sets of two reps. During my session today, I was planning to attempt 600, but felt a tiny bit shaky so went with 555 for 5×5. Because I like 5s, yo.

The next time I see him, Dave and I will bro-hug in slow motion. Not as a thank you for helping me, and not because it’s a congratulatory hug for the launch of his book, and not even because it’s been a while since I’ve seen him. Just because, that’s what bros do, bro. Observe: 

ddnsnuggs

Post workout brosnuggles. Just bros being bros.

In all seriousness, I really can’t thank David enough for how he helped me.
Biofeedback Training gave me a way to avoid pain, but also helped me treat it—deadlifting with a stance that was “right” for me strengthened my back, and healed whatever was going on.

And because of my results, and those I’ve seen in Dave’s clients, I really can’t recommend the book enough. You’ll learn tons, master new lifts, eliminate pain, and take your progress to new heights.

If any of those items sound like something you might be interested in, definitely grab your copy of Off the Floor this week.

You are going to LOVE it.

Let me know how you do—and I’ll let you know when I beat my PR!

 

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

  • Deadlift is the number one cause of back pain of gym goers, so proper handling, lifting, and posture should be followed. – ACLS Certification Class

  • A lot of people do state that they get back pain after deadlifting, but we it is recommended to consult with a trainer or professional who has experience in the deadlift.

  • Kyle

    I just jacked my back up…doing deads…But, it wasn’t the lifts fault it was mine for being lazy! I setup the squat rack for deads loaded the bar with 335 and got a fitness step up thing to compensate for the height of the bar(remember it is on the lowest safety catch of the squat rack, so the plate was about 4 inches from the ground). Well i felt like I didn’t get enough out of lifting it from that height, so that is why I added the extra height compensation….
    Anyway, I’m not a noob…promise… apparently I am still capable of doing noobish things though. So, I get up on the step and realize I am going to have to bend a little further than usual because the extra step is making me a little taller than I am used to being…I over compensated…Not a good thing.. Low and behold I ripped all my shit to hell….. So yeah that’s how I got down… But enjoyed your article, I’m a big fan of deads not as big as you, but they have lots extras as you stated.

  • Susan Lozano

    I probably don’t do as much deadlifts as I should, but after reading this, I may need to incorporate this more often into my workouts. Thanks for the tips and I’m glad to hear you’re doing better with your back!

  • Christian

    I haven’t had the liberty of reading the book but coukd this be viewed in a similar light to pelvic assymetries suggested in PRI philosophy? Ie the pelvis adapts to right or left hand dominance?

  • Seth

    Hey Roman. Love everything you share, man. Keep it coming.

    I was curious if a staggered-stance deadlift would potentially cause some nasty asymmetries in hip extensor strength or length? Foot placement certainly matters for heavy lifts–err lifting in general–and I’m just curious if you had any thoughts on that. Thanks, brother!

  • deansomerset

    The most awesome part of Dave’s monster pull is he still had his watch on. No big deal.

  • Carolyn Box

    Do you always lift with that staggered stance now? Do you know why you needed to take that stance? I would like to understand better about why that fixed it. Thx

  • yannick noah

    Great post sir. ive always wanted to hit a triple BW deadlift but somewhere along the way i kinda lost my way and for multiple times hopped to something else. But i am going to do it for real this time.Just bought the book and i cant wait to get to work. And how come u never competed in powerlifting considering u have a godlike PR of 660×3?haha

  • Darrell Greenfield

    I have only just recently started lifting weights. After my recent purchase of the book, “Engineering the Alpha”. I am in my third week of lifting. I used to suffer from cramps all the time. I think this is mainly due to diet. After changing my diet and pushing through the cramps in the beginning, I am feeling f***ing awesome! I go to the gym, hit my work out, and feel like great leaving the gym. All the extra energy is amazing.

    To the point. Yesterday I did about 26 deadlifts. Four lifts with the bar only 2 sets. Then 3 sets of 6 with 65 pounds including the bar. I also did 24 goblet squats (25lb) and 18 one leg hip raises per leg. I am starting light and working my way up every week to ensure I do not injure my self since I am a beginner at this. Felt great leaving the gym. I went back to work. Lifted a few things, no more then 50 pounds. Took a seat in front of the computer for about an hour. When I got up I noticed a sharp pain right underneath my butt cheek. On the inside of my leg. I could barely walk to my car. Every time I put pressure on it when walking sharp extreme pain. This lasted about 2 hours and then vanished!?!? I mean my glutes feel slightly sore. But nothing like that pain I had. Was it a cramp? Now I am scared to deadlift. Then I get a email from Roman and see this book. Maybe I have bad form or just to much to fast. I do not want to stop working out.

    • Tyler RW

      Likely, you had a bit of mild hamstring or glut tendonitis, probably caused by the same thing causing your cramps. Some people get more cramps than others. People who get cramps tend to get tendonitis (anywhere from mild and temporary to severe and incredibly long-term). This is caused by the same things causing you to have cramps.

      Besides that, how regularly you work out, how long you’ve been working out, whether you’ve recently increased the volume, intensity, or frequency of your work outs, how much salt and potassium and water you are consuming, and how well you warm up all will be contributing factors.

      Bottom line, you need to add things like squash, kale, chard, and spinach to your diet, stretch and warm up religiously and almost excessively. You need to actually attempt to get 4000-5000 mg of potassium per day, and to get the RDA of 4000 mg of salt (not too much more or too much less), and 3-6 quarts of water every day. Don’t go on some low-carb or starvation diet and try to improve your deadlift at the same time. If you want to lose weight, drop the weight a bit and work on volume, frequency, and hitting higher reps, without getting outside your comfort zone, and working on form (stiff lower back slow, stable, controlled movements).

      Do some several minutes of light/endurance cardio about half an hour before your deadlifts, squats, or other leg weight training, with maybe some upper body work in between (so you have adequate energy. don’t deadlift or squat tired, or deadlift and don’t deadlift or squat like you do other lifts (ramp up the weight slowly, adding a bit more each set, don’t even near muscle failure, and get more rest; every set should feel almost as good as your first set, and the last rep should not be nearly impossible).

      I’d also do some therapeutic exercises like “glut” bridges, spine extensions, If you do all this you will reduce your chances of having these injuries until you are able to develop more structural and integrity (stronger supportive stabilizing muscles, stronger, healthier, tendons, better neurological control, improved circulation, healthier primary muscle groups).

      However, at some point all the diet and stretching and warming up and so forth isn’t going to be as necessary, because you’ll be in better shape. However, keep being diligent. a lot of people become complacent and end up getting hurt badly blowing months or years of progress in one workout, or worse.

  • Recently got my personal training exam. On the mock program, my client had a back bad, I put deadlift in the program. Though my explanation was based off science and not broscience, I was still deducted marks.

    Don’t care, still passed!

  • Alisa

    First, welcome to Minnesota =) We are pretty awesome.

    I used to have trouble with squatting heavy – for pretty obvious reasons. I was too chicken so I would switch to my low back to get the weight up at the end. Tim Ferriss’s 5/5 cadence helped a lot – forced me to use my glutes more than I ever have because 5 seconds is so freaking slow when you’ve got a heavy bar on your back. Surpassed my pre-prego PR in just a few weeks!

  • Hewy II

    Will check it out for sure!
    I actually get rashes on the insides of my forearms where I scrape against my shorts/pants on the drop. I also scrape my shins a bit with the bar – my back stays perfectly straight thru the lift (observed with video footage), but must be some other cues I need to look out for.

  • James Yoshida

    Awesomeness! I had a disc replaced about 4 years ago and started back with rack pulls…through some trial and error I figured out that I could lift from the floor with my right shin against the bar and my left leg back about 6 inches….my mobility has improved greatly and I can pull like a normal (using normal loosely) person now…Lifting just isn’t the same without deads. Great article.

    • That’s fantastic. Really great that you found a way to make it work.

      Thank you for the compliment, James.

  • David Arroyo

    Interested, but a bit skeptical. From the deadlift variation were you able to ascertain what the root cause of the back pain was? Does the book offer guidance if you know you have a history of back pain connected to particular issues such as tight hip flexors or a funky S/I ?

  • Ryan Graczkowski

    Cool story, bro.

    Honestly, as a mostly gymless dude, I don’t really have a lot of experience with deadlifts. I guess I’m lucky in that whatever back pain I’ve dealt with has been separate from my ability to do deadlifts. (Incidentally, I found your comment that you’d only lost 10% of your strength in that eight month period to be fascinating. The implication is that you’re able to preserve and mimic the effects of deadlifting using other methods. As a mostly calisthenic dude, this gives me hope).

    As far as dealing with pain goes, yoga’s been a really good thing for my back. Also, your boy Dan Go that you recommended a while back. His stuff has eliminated, like, 90% of my back pain, such that I only wake up with pain after having gotten a good night’s sleep. It’s a fair trade.

    Good luck with the PR!

    • Thanks man, really appreciate it!

      Dans stuff is fantastic; will definitely shake off the aches and pains.