In life and exercise injuries are a constant. Especially back injuries. No matter who you are or what you do, no matter the amount of stretching or whatever crazy amount of time you spend doing hot yoga, sooner or later you will hurt yourself. It’s a stupid fact of life that we all have to live with. When you injure your back, more often than not it will be of the lower back variety and the most common type of low back injury is when you tweak it. A lot of people will take this as a sign to not do whatever they were doing when they tweaked their back anymore, but I’m here to tell you that’s stupid and there’s a very easy way to fix a tweaked back.
What Is a Tweaked Back?
A tweaked back is a type of low back injury that happens when we put our back in a position that it wasn’t meant to be in. That may sound scary but it can be as simple as having bad technique when you squat or picking something heavy up off the ground with terrible form. Typically after you’ve tweaked your back it feels very sore and it’s difficult to walk or bend over. There’s usually no severe pain with this sort of injury. A lot of people when they tweak their back will at first think something broke or that they have some terrible life-long injury. I thought that the first time I tweaked my back too, and I ended up making it a whole lot worse than it could’ve been.
A tweaked back should heal fairly quickly. Usually a few days to a week. As I’m writing this I just got over a tweaked back from a couple days ago, and my back feels completely normal now. The important thing about any injury, not just the back kind, is to remain calm and assume that it’s not as bad as it really is because we as humans have a bad tendency to assume the worst case scenario. Okay, so now I’m going to tell you the secret to healing a tweaked back. The magical sauce that will keep you in the gym and continue making progress. Are you ready?
Don’t stop working out!
One of the single worst pieces of advice you can get once you’ve tweaked your back is to stop working out. Obviously, rest is good and will speed up the healing process. But a lot of people fail to understand that exercise heals, it gets the blood circulating through your body which also helps heal a lot of things. The only time you really shouldn’t be in the gym is when you have a very serious debilitating injury, of which a tweaked back is not. Whenever I tweak my back, the very first thing I do is air deadlifts which are just deadlifts without a bar. It sucks getting into the deadlift position with a tweaked back but once you’re there and you get a few repetitions down your back will thank you. Then I do some air squats, and once I can complete these exercises with full range of motion I’ll add a barbell.
Generally, this all shouldn’t be done in the same session that you hurt your back in. Once it’s tweaked just get a few air deadlifts and squats in and call it a day. Come back the next and add a barbell, then the next time add some weight and continue on until the tweak is fixed. You really want to focus on deadlifts and squats since they stretch out your low back when you use a full range of motion with them. Usually, this alone is enough to fully rehabilitate my lower back. For me if I tweaked my back on Friday my workout and recovery would look something like this;
Friday – Back Tweak
- Sets of air deadlifts
- Sets of squats
Saturday – rehab
- Empty barbell squats
- Empty barbell deadlifts
- Medium weight barbell squats
- Medium weight barbell deadlifts
Monday – light workout
- 50-60% 5RM Squat x 5 sets x 5 reps
- 50-60% 5RM Deadlift x 5 sets x 5 reps
Wednesday – medium workout
- 70% 5RM Squat x 5 sets x 5 reps
- 70% 5RM Deadlift x 5 sets x 5 reps
Friday – fully recovered
- 80% 5RM Squat x 5 sets x 5 reps
- 80% 5RM Deadlift x 5 sets x 5 reps
This is generally the protocol I follow and it gets me back to the gym at 100% the fastest. You want to have a light/medium/normal workout in that order the following week. By this I mean you need to decrease the weights you use or the amount of workout you do in one session to something that would be relatively easy, followed by moderately easy, and then back to what you would normally be doing. The speed at which you can go back to working out normally depends highly on how your lower back feels. If it feels good, then move towards the regular workout faster. If it feels not so good, consider having light workout week followed by medium, then normal rather than just a light/medium/normal workouts in a single week. Try to avoid any other exercises that put a strain on your back aside from squats and deadlifts until fully recovered, this helps speed up the recovery process by keeping your exercises limited to movements that stretch the lower back and keeps you from doing something stupid that would hinder your recovery and just make life a lot less fun.
Compress, Heat, Ice, repeat
Anything outside of the gym is optional since you get the best results from what you do in the gym. If a tweak is really bothering you at home or at work, there are a few things you can do that will help. First and foremost are ice baths or cold showers. If you can only do the cold showers than that’s fine, the point is to cool the area and keep inflammation down. If you can’t do either of these then just toss an icepack in the back of your pants like I do or get one of those fancy strap-on icepacks. Usually, when the soreness is really bad I’ll ice it for an hour, heat it for an hour, and then put on some compression gear. Along with some Ibuprofen, I hardly notice the soreness throughout the day.
The last and probably most important bit of advice I want to give you is to be patient. Things take a little while to heal and you have to respect your body in this. What I mean is don’t try pushing new PRs with a hurt back. Take the time you spend off and try to recover as best as you possibly can. Use the time you aren’t spending in the gym to do something productive, chase a dream, or resolve yourself to recover better than anyone else could and come back stronger.
Keep going to the gym, but do light exercise for a while
keep it iced, heated and compressed
take some ibuprofen