I hesitated to even write about this, because A) there’s really no lesson to be learned from it, and B) the last thing I ever want to come across as is a crybaby. But ever since I started this blog back in early 2002, I’ve traditionally shared the ups and downs of my training. So here goes.
This past Saturday morning, I hurt my lower back badly while doing squats. I said this wasn’t going to be a cautionary tale, and it’s not. Going over things from that workout and from the days leading up to it, I can’t find a single thing I did or didn’t do that easily explains why it happened.
Normally I start my leg workouts off with about 5-6 minutes on a stationary bike as a general lower body warm-up. I didn’t on this day, because I was taking my son to train after my workout and he had us running late taking too long getting ready. I was meeting my training partner. But, it wasn’t like I was rushing right from the locker room to heavy squats. I would never be that foolish.
Because I was feeling good and felt like pushing up some decent weight on squats, I didn’t start with barbell stiff-leg deadlifts as I typically do on leg day. I find that they tend to involve my lower back and fatigue it somewhat even though I never round my lower back.
The workout started off with lying leg curls. The way I have been doing them every second or third workout, and how I did them this day, was to do several reps from the midpoint to the contraction, then the rest of the reps from a full stretch to the midpoint. I did 3 sets like this, going up in weight and decreasing the reps from 10/10, 8/8., and 6/6, before finishing with a fourth set of normal full range of motion reps.
Next to that was the leg extension, where I did three sets of 20 smooth, controlled reps with a pause at the top of each. From there I proceeded to squats. Here’s how those went: 135 x 12, 135 x 12, then 225 for 12. I considered all of those to be warm-ups. My working weight was going to be 315 for a couple sets, and as long as those went well, I would hit 365 for 8 or so. I had done that less than two weeks before in a workout. 315 is a very manageable weight for me, one that I’ve done hundreds if not thousands of times for sets of 10-15, and have done for 20 reps on several occasions. A couple of those 20-rep sets are posted on my YouTube channel, RonHarrisMuscle.
I’m not sure how many reps I got before it happened, but I was coming out for rep number 7 or 8 when something just popped in my lower back like I’d been shot or stabbed. I told my training partner to take the weight, as there was no way I was standing back up with it. The poor guy is 6-4 to my 5-8, and I wasn’t too far up out of rock bottom when I told him to grab the bar. He basically had to do an upright row with 315 and set it back on the rack.
Standing up hurt, even standing still was painful. Stubbornly, I tried to do leg presses. But after a couple sets with what was laughably light weight, it was clear my quad workout was effectively over. The toughest part was getting in and out of the leg press. You would have thought I was a 90-year-old man if you’d seen me climbing up and out, wincing in agony.
I did manage to do a couple sets of seated leg curls, as those didn’t seem to involve my lower back at all. But after that I was all done. Once I had trained Christian, I couldn’t get home fast enough to start taking ibuprofen and icing my back. A few hours later, the general pain had localized to an area down low and to the right on my lower back, just above the glute.
Luckily, I have a great chiropractor and an excellent deep tissue massage therapist to help get me through this. And since I have hurt my lower back literally dozens of times over the years, possibly into the hundreds, it’s nothing I haven’t dealt with before. But now it’s time I said goodbye to squats for good, at least normal back squats. If I do them from now on, it will be using a safety squat bar or front squats. My lower back simply can’t seem to take heavy (and 315 really isn’t that heavy, I know) squats for long before my luck runs out.
The upside to this is that I have already built very good quads thanks to 25 years of squats. Any time I’ve competed, my quads are what always got the most compliments. So if I could afford to go easier on any bodypart, that would be the one. That being said, there have been phases in the past when my lower back pain was such that I couldn’t squat for months at a time. Not only was I able to maintain my quads in those phases, I am pretty sure I actually continued to improve them with leg presses, hack squats, front squats, and walking lunges.
I would never sit here and tell any of you not to squat. Absolutely you should! Squats were an incredibly productive exercise for me, and I credit them with most of the quadriceps development that I have. Unless you have some legitimate injury or limitation that makes squats dangerous for you, by all means keep squatting. As for me, I have reached the point where it is now obvious that the risk to benefit ratio is skewed much too far toward the risk end of the continuum to continue squatting. Every time I have hurt my back in the past, I remember vividly how much it sucks. Without help, it takes my about five minutes to put socks and shoes on right now. It could be much worse. Many who have severely injured their backs literally can’t get out of bed for days on end. Thankfully I am not in that situation.
But still, there is no reason I ever have to go through this pain and the slow process of recovery ever again.