Earlier this month, I had a bad back tweak from squatting. It was terrible. I was limping for almost a week. At one point, it was so painful to wake up from bed; I was shaking for a few minutes standing up.
I got it checked with a doctor three days after the tweak because there was some swelling on my lower back, which was uncommon. He tried to palpate around the region and check if there were any pain around the areas he pressed — no pain from palpation.
He gave me some paracetamol and advice me to take an X-Ray. He also tried to explain that he knew cases where patients with some imperfection of spine segments might have a higher tendency to have this swelling; however, he didn’t think that I had a slipped disk.
I mentioned that, yes, I was diagnosed with something similar when I was 15 years old. I then asked, what were we trying to see from the X-Ray then? He mentioned that it’s just to have more certainty that nothing abnormal is happening and compare the previous scan with the current one, but the treatment will be the same.
He said it’s OK to wait for a few more days and decide whether I need the scan. He also mentioned that I could resume my activity as usual once I recover, I don’t need to do anything differently or avoiding any activities.
So here’s a more detailed story of how it happened, why it happened, and what I did to recover.
How did it happen?
Warming up for a squat. I felt a back tweak as I was coming up. You can see the video below. WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
If you watched it, you know that I was kidding about the graphic content. I squatted just fine. I didn’t fall with the bar; nothing scary happened. It was still lightweight for me. The form was also arguably good and probably looked better than your squat. HA!
So, why did it happen?
After the lockdown, my training has been fantastic. I was doing volume PR for all of my lifts. I have never deadlifted 140kg for more than 1 rep before, yet the week before, I did 150 for 2 sets of 5. My 1RM squat was 145kg, and before I tweaked my back, I squatted 140kg for 3 sets of 3. It was getting heavy, I can feel it on my body and my recovery, yet for weeks and weeks, I manage to come back and recover enough to make it look doable for more weight increments.
I decided together with my coach to push, until the week before I had a minor back tweak 2 days before doing the 150kg deadlift. We were planning to deload immediately after, so the squat that tweaked my back is a warm-up for a deload.
So, you can call it bad luck. You can say that I was asking for it. The truth is there’s no single factor that causes the whole thing, and it’s probably just the accumulation of excessive stress that I requested from my coach.
What did I do afterwards?
I immediately took ibuprofen and paracetamol. I took 800mg of ibuprofen and 1g of paracetamol per day. This is not a prescription. Please consult with your doctor for advice on medication!
But, these are painkillers? Yes, it’s also anti-inflammatory and has been proven to help with muscle strain and sprains. However, again, let your doctor prescribe you the dosage and the duration of the consumption.
Besides the oral medication, I also use some topical creams to help (such as Voltaren, Tiger Balm, or Counterpain). Is it effective? I don’t think so, but it gives extra comfort by overwhelming the receptors in the region. So, I believe the cream’s top benefit is to distract you from overthinking about the pain.
You can skip the medication, but you should do the rehab. You asked what the rehab is? SQUAT and DEADLIFT. The same exercise that got you injured can help you recover. Funny, but true. Here’s how I did it:
Day 1 – Tuesday:
Tweaked my back
Day 2 – Wednesday:
Bodyweight to 5kg squat – 5 rep x many sets. Unable to deadlift
Day 3 – Thursday:
Squat with belt:
20kg x 5 reps x 2 sets, 30×5, 40×5, 50×5, 60×5, 70×0 (too painful to support the weight), 60×5.
My back angle was slightly more upright than my usual back angle – no problem!
70x5x3. Getting up from the bench was really painful. Using zero arches, and sometimes feet on the bench.
20x5x2, 30x5x2, 40×5, 50x3x2. 60×1 x3 (decided to stop, hurt too much)
Day 4 – Friday:
Felt better in the morning. Loaded plates and carried safety squat bar during coaching. I took a nap afterwards and realised that there was some swelling; decided to visit a doctor. This day was the peak of the discomfort.
Day 5/6 – Saturday/Sunday
Continued with medication.
Day 7 – Monday:
20×5, 25×5, 30×5, 40×5, 45x5x3
The warm-up felt horrible, then I tried using a belt, and surprisingly it felt worse. I decided to continue without a belt. Everything felt more comfortable starting from the 40×5 set, but felt some sensation holding the lockout, thus using soft lockout for the rest of the workout.
I can immediately walk without limping after the squat.
Day 8 – Tuesday:
60x5x3. Easy, with a low arch.
Felt minor sensation on my right glutes during ascend and when sticking my arse back during setup. As always, after training, it felt terrific; reduced stiffness around the lower back and hip area.
I included some of my training clips here. You can see that the first “real” training on Day 3 was not comfortable. You can clearly see that I was in pain; however, it indeed gets better afterward!
I can resume a normal day’s activity after the eighth day. However, if I were to summarize the process and create a simple template for you to apply, this is what you can do:
3 sets x 5 reps @ maximum weight you can tolerate, or follow your previous program if it doesn’t affect you for the press.
4-6 sets x 5 reps @ ascending weight (not including 20kg warm-up) with a “maximum weight” for each training. You can add 10% more to your “maximum weight” each session until you are close to your previous working weight (pre-injury).
3 sets x 5 reps @ maximum weight you can tolerate, or follow your previous program if it doesn’t affect you for the bench press.
2-4 sets x 5 reps @ ascending weight (not including first warm-up) with a “maximum weight” for each training. Use the same concept as written in “Day A.”
Some additional notes/clarification:
• Your first day back to training will feel the worst! Don’t worry; it gets better as the workout goes along.
• Do the upper body exercises first. Upper body movements are generally less affected by the back tweak. Get it done first, so even if the lower body exercises suck, you already have some workout done. Doing the upper body exercises first also helps to warm your body up for the subsequent exercises.
• By setting a target number of sets and maximum weight, we can get a more consistent amount of stress during the recovery while preventing us from rushing back into the heavier weights. There’s no harm in being a little patient.
• On good days, you can take the more sets at the maximum weight; otherwise, you can take lighter weights as long as you fulfill the total number of sets.
• Do it 3 to 4 times per week, for instance, Monday-Wednesday-Friday, or Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday for at least 2-3 weeks. Once the weight gets heavy again, you can convert back to your old program.
I hope this article is helpful. Please feel free to contact us if you need more help or clarification about this issue. And special thanks to Dr. Nick D’Agostino, who helped me through this injury.