“Fuck. This sucks.”
A year later, I can recall saying this like it was yesterday.
Alone. Naked with a bathroom towel around my waist. Shaving cream on my face.
As I laid on my bedroom floor, breathing heavier and heavier, I knew something was wrong – more importantly, something was not right. Shooting and excruciating pain resonated down my left leg. Pain – originating in my lower back spread like wildfire down my left glute, hamstring, and calf – made EVERYTHING impossible.
Sitting in a chair? Nope. Walking? Nope. Standing in front of a mirror in order to shave? Nope
Well, everything with the exception of laying in bed and watching ‘The Office’ (Michael Scott, what a guy).
This was day number 3 of these symptoms and I knew I had to seek medical treatment. Once I decided to go to the hospital, it became a logistical nightmare. Getting dressed. Putting on my shoes. Oh, and I had to remove the shaving cream, too. The worst part of getting myself to the hospital? My vehicle is a 6-speed manual transmission. Now, I consider myself a spiritual man, but without question, I saw Jesus and Buddha each and every time I shifted gears. Traffic lights that were red, that is when I saw the Devil. I may have made it 3 miles before I stopped my car, and lowered the seat long enough to allow the spasming muscles to calm long enough so I could make it to the hospital.
Once at the hospital, my vitals were taken and I was ushered back to the Emergency Room. “On a Scale of 1 – 10, how is your pain, Sir?” Naturally, what is this relative to so I ask, “10 – what’s an example of a 10?” Nurse, “Giving childbirth.” Despite the endless pain I still mustered a bit of wit, “Based on my vast experience of childbirth – it’s an 11…[the nurse didn’t look happy]…but seriously, an 8.”
The nurse would have the last laugh as she had me stand and perform several poses (it felt like a god damn yoga routine) for x-rays. After wanting to collapse on the floor like a sandbag, the Dr. came in to give me his analysis. “Mr. Jones, it appears that you may have herniated a disc,” [no shit] “and I will go ahead a prescribe you some painkillers and you’ll need to follow up with your primary care provider.”
The days and weeks that followed, it took me nearly a month to ‘feel’ remotely better. I rapidly lost weight due to a combination of the narcotics and the pain. Once the pain subsided, stomach ulcers formed due to the medication and lack of food in my digestive tract. Win-win.
How did you hurt your back?
Simply put, there is no one true causal factor. The only people who injure their backs in one secular event are ones involved in a traumatic accident. For me, a collection of factors compounded the symptoms from a ‘tweak’ to herniated discs. In no particular order, these include:
- Golf (asymmetric loading at its finest, i.e., Tiger Woods),
- Running (years later, I now understand why one leg hurt more than the other),
- EXTENDED hours of sitting at a computer desk,
- Minor Back ‘tweak’,
- Weight gain (can’t train [what is life?] + can’t move+ stress = might as well eat),
- Weightlifting form (once you’re on a slope of shitty movement patterns, adding weight is not advised to said shitty movement patterns).
One particular afternoon, 365 pounds squat for a set of 5 sent a shooting pain down my back. I knew something was wrong. At the time in my training, I was avoiding the deadlift because of symptomatic sciatica in my left leg. Huge mistake. Instead of strengthening my back, I avoided it.
The above bullet points were the dynamite and the lighting of the fuse occurred when I bent over to pick up a barbell with a flexed, unbraced spine and then – boom. Herniation of the L5/S1 disc. Herniation of the L4/L5 disc. Basically, a pair of jelly donuts leaked their contents and this jelly placed pressure on nerves that triggered pain. A lot of pain. But damn, I do love me some donuts.
What have I learned?
Well, it has been a year since I was in the hospital for the back injury. Here are 5 things herniating a couple of discs in my back have taught me:
1. Recovery (without surgery) is an on-going process.
I had to deconstruct the whole model – everything. Once pain symptoms were removed from the injury, the real work began to deconstruct the casual factors that made the discs herniate originally. I’ll tell you what will not correct postural alignment – creating a bench press that far exceeds what your body can structurally squat or deadlift. Benching 290 lbs for 3 sets of 5 reps is cool and all but not when you cannot bend over and pick up 135 lbs without shooting pain.
2. Hinge, squat, flexion, and extension – oh my!
I will not forget the first time I put my spine in slight extension in order to maintain a ‘neutral’ spine for single arm barbell rows [hey, have to start somewhere] – my SI joint popped into place. In the last 6 months, I can not begin to tell you how much my body has adjusted and realigned stemming from postural issues since 2015.
The very movements commonly believed that are ‘bad’ for your back are the exact movements required to make your back better. Squat. Deadlift. Progressive, incremental loading. Sandbag movements. Lower back tight? Take a 120 lbs. sandbag for a walk. I GUARANTEE your back will thank you.
Quick test – bend over and touch your toes. Can’t do it? Fix yourself. Another test – sit in the bottom of a squat for 10 minutes. Can’t do it? Fix yourself.
3. The best kind of fitness is one in which you remain consistent.
If you discuss fitness, a sensitive topic for many which serve as an extension of their identity. CrossFit. Powerlifting. Strongman. Bodybuilding. MMA. BJJ. Yoga. Running. Triathlon. Pilates.
Ultimately, who. fucking. cares. Live a healthy life. If your vitals and blood work comes back a hot mess, something is wrong – you are not fit regardless of the medium of fitness in which you choose to practice.
The one that works for you is one that you implement and remain consistent with each day and improve upon each day, too.
Hypertrophy gains in order to bring out your delts? Fuck yeah – do you.
Another fahve pounds for 3 sets of fahve on your linear progression? Fuck yeah – do you.
Editor’s Note: The sole ‘fuck no’ is reserved for those who sell Ponzi schemed juices and cleansers – you’re the absolute worst.
4. The ghost of yesterday haunts you for as long as you choose.
I once competed in an NPC Men’s Physique Show. I once ran 26.2 miles. After the injury, I looked more like the Michelin Man [an anterior pelvic tilt does wonders for your abs] and I could barely walk from my car to work.
I was defeated. Defeated by the comparision of who I was in that moment against who I was in years prior. During the rehabilitation process of physically deconstructing everything, I too had to deconstruct the expectations I placed upon myself.
The greater the expectation, the greater I grew unsatisfied with the day’s small win. I ran 1.0 mile today – still slow as fuck. I deadlifted 225 lbs pain free – still weak as fuck. This iterative loop played over. And over. And over.
Of all places, the loop stopped while at a yoga class. Standing half naked in black, Nike shorts with my Michelin Man physique – I stared myself in the mirror. And then I chuckled and smiled. I could do a hot yoga pose before with minimal effort, but now, I was all over the damn place. All I could do was just laugh. At that moment, I accepted who and what I became and ultimately where I was at on that day. Yoga is a practice in which you, your mind, and body serve as a vessel for your interpretation of that pose on that given day. My vessel resembled a tugboat on that day but damn it, it was a glorious tugboat at that, too.
5. I am not dead.
Read that again. I am not dead. Fitness hurts. A lot. I ‘feel’ like I could hurt myself again. Well, so be it. More people get hurt by inactivity than actual activity. And the time to get stronger, bigger, and faster is now. As you read this, I hope you eliminate any and all excuse as to why you did not get to the gym.
The only thing worse than being unable to physically go to the gym is mentally choosing not to go when you’re physically able.
And so, in that vein, today, you’ll find me at the gym squatting, benching, and doing a couple of 800m sprints.