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How to Rehab a Back Injury

I hurt my back four weeks ago. Not the kind where you just kind of strain it and then you are fine a few hours later. I’m talking about the back injury where you immediately drop to the floor and you can’t stand up again without assistance. But that wasn’t even the worst part–I hurt it so bad that Tuesday morning that I had to lay on my back the rest of the day (it was the only position that didn’t hurt). I couldn’t work because I couldn’t move. The next day was no different. Karli had to pull me out of bed because I couldn’t sit up. I immediately scheduled a massage for Thursday and borrowed a muscle stem machine from a friend. I thought that would help. But Friday came and went and I wasn’t feeling any better from either of those treatments. Fast forward a month later and I’ve PR’d my snatch, front squat, back squat, and push jerk. I even matched my previous 1-rep max deadlift. I didn’t just get back to normal–I got stronger! And here’s how I did it: Step 1: Listen to this Podcast Kelly Starrett is one of the nation’s leading physical therapists for professional athletes. He works with the Golden State Warriors, many USA Olympians, and the top CrossFit Games athletes. My first realization with my back injury was that injuring my back was no different than injuring my ankle (I know, sounds crazy). But Starrett says that because the vertebrae in your back and the joint in your ankle are the same type of joint, you need to rehab them the same way. Realizing this, I determined that movement was the cure to my back injury. I needed to move more even though I didn’t want to. Step 2: Follow this Routine Every Day Flexing and extending at the hip and SI joints were key to my rebab. Starrett helped me understand that not exercising or stretching because I was hurting would only delay my return. Here was the daily routine that I put together and did for 21-days straight. Back Injury Rehab Routine*: 10 Toe Touches 10 Alternating Lunges with a Twist 10 Alternating Lunges with a High Hand 10 Inchworms 10 Slow Burpees 10 Kang Squats 1:00 Legs High on the Wall 1:00 Butterfly on the Wall 1:00 Right Hip Flexor on Wall 1:00 Left Hip Flexor on Wall 1:00 Glute Foam Smash 1:00 Back Hyperextension on Foam Roller

*Watch the video at least one time through to make sure you’re doing the movements correctly. Step #3: Pain and Discomfort Are Not the Same The first few days, the above routine took me longer than 20-minutes. It was so uncomfortable to bend over! I couldn’t even touch my knees on the toe-touches or get my feet all the way vertical against the wall. But movement is health to the spine. I needed to remember that this routine was healthy because I was flexing and extending the spine. I experienced a lot of discomfort, but never pushed through pain. As my back was getting better, I experienced less and less discomfort. The routine started only taking 10-minutes. I was even able to start lifting moderate weights in the group classes in my second week of rehab. Step #4: Learn to Brace, Again Filling your belly with air is not bracing. Here are the four steps to bracing. Practice it. You need to get really good at it. This was key in helping me PR my snatch, front squat, back squat, and push jerk only four weeks after injury. Step #5: Consistency Every day, do the routine and practice bracing. Even when you start feeling better. I still wake up in the mornings really stiff. I have to spend about three times as long as I used to warming up before a workout. But that’s the process. My spine isn’t back to 100% again, but I’m getting there. I’m even getting stronger without being totally back to normal. Do the routine and practice bracing. Consistency is king. Additional Resource Below are additional interviews with health professionals on spine and other joint health (plus one interview with a yoga instructor because I thought it was so good). These are supplemental to the five steps above; not necessary, but helpful in understanding the anatomy and physiology of a back injury.

  1. Motion is Life to the Spine and You (Chiropractor: Dr. Bruce Lowry)

  2. Exercise and the Pelvic Floor (Physical Therapist, Dr. Brian Collins)

  3. Dr. Alex Broughton (Physical Therapist)

  4. Dr. Stephen Jones (Chiropractor)

  5. Improving Range of Motion (Yoga Instructor, Sophie Haws)


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