By Guest Contributor David Lasnier
Introduction from Jenni:
I’m more than excited to share this fantastic piece that I asked Dave Lasnier, a personal trainer whose work I admire a lot, to write for my blog! I thought his personal story about debilitating low back pain, movement, and exercise would be a helpful and inherently interesting one for our yoga community to learn from, and I was thrilled when he agreed to write about his experience for us!
To me, Dave’s story is important because it’s an example of finding that right balance between “exposing” and “protecting” the body in response to a persistent pain condition. The “expose vs. protect” debate is a hot topic in the rehab and movement worlds these days, with some people arguing that protecting the painful area by avoiding loading it is crucial for recovery, while others argue that exposing the painful area to load so that it adapts and increases its capacity is key for recovery.
I also think Dave’s story is valuable because it’s an example of how allowing our beliefs and biases to be challenged can often lead to very positive paradigm shifts. Thank you so much for taking the time to put your story down on paper so we can benefit from reading it, Dave!
Everything I Thought I Knew About Low Back Pain Was Wrong
By David Lasnier
Low back pain is so common these days. The World Health Organization states that between 60 and 70% of the population in industrialized countries will suffer from back pain at one point or another in their life. That is crazy! For the first 30 years of my life, I never had any issues with my low back. I was actually told by a chiropractor as a young adult that my back seemed much stronger than my dad’s, who had his fair share of back problems when I was growing up. But one day, things changed….
In college, I studied kinesiology (exercise science) because I was passionate about health, fitness, and performance and wanted to make it a career. Going through college was a little bit of a struggle for me. I easily lost interest in class as I often felt like we weren’t covering the topics I was actually interested in. After I graduated, however, I started reading and studying significantly more than I did while in college! I could finally dive into the topics that I was really interested in. Low back pain was one of them. Not because I had any problems with it at the time, but because I knew it was affecting so many people.
Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the leading researchers on low back pain, was brought to my attention early on in my career. I started reading his books, studying his methods, and applying the concepts he was teaching. If you’re not familiar with his work, most of it revolves around using a “neutral spine” approach to move, exercise, and lift weights. Thinking I was doing the right thing, I started applying his ideas to my own training and with my personal training clients. I was continually perfecting my bracing technique to keep my spine and core rigid when lifting weights, as well as performing all sorts of core exercises that would challenge the core and the spine in a neutral position.
Here are two examples of neutral spine exercises I commonly did:
The Onset of Pain
My training was going well, I was getting stronger, and I wasn’t having any issues with back pain. I was doing everything “right,” and it was working…. until one day it wasn’t anymore. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when my low back problems started, but it was around 2011. One time my low back got excessively sore for almost a week after a deadlift session where I pushed the weights a little further than I should’ve that day.
Around the same time, there were a few episodes of intense pain where I “tweaked” my back doing the most mundane things – one time bending over the sink to wash my face, and another twisting to get out of a chair. Each time, the pain would escalate within a 24-hour period after the incident to a point where I could barely function. Sitting down, getting out of a car, bending forward, and picking up grocery bags would all feel excruciating.
The pain would then subside over the following week or two. Those episodes would happen 3-4 times per year. The time periods in between weren’t as painful, but I would feel very stiff most of the time. The mornings were the worst, as my low back was so stiff that even putting my socks on became pretty challenging. Needless to say that my training progress and all the strength I had worked so hard on for 6-7 years were whittling away.
In Search of Relief
I decided to double down on the knowledge I had about low back pain and the neutral spine approach. I increased the amount of core work I was doing, and I paid special attention to the positions I was adopting outside the weight room. I even sought out fellow coaches, physical therapists, and chiropractors to help with my pain and to work on my imbalances. Nothing seemed to work.
I ended up getting an X-ray and an MRI and consulted with an orthopedic doctor around 2014. I discovered that I had an old fracture on both sides of my L5 vertebra that hadn’t healed properly because it hadn’t been diagnosed at the time of injury. To this day, I have no idea how that happened; I have no memory of a severe fall or accident, which I was told is how that type of injury happens. Doctors said there wasn’t really anything that could be done at that point, other than managing my symptoms. Fusion surgery was the only other option, which they weren’t recommending at my age, as there is a significant loss of mobility that comes with the surgery.
There was a little bit of relief in knowing exactly what the problem was, but I was also feeling discouraged wondering what else I could do. Having a better perspective on what my situation was, I started being even more careful about the type of workouts I was doing and the activities I was partaking in outside the gym, but I was still feeling no improvements.
In 2016 I heard a podcast with coach Christopher Sommer, a former gymnastics national team coach. In the interview, Coach Sommer was talking about his training philosophy and more specifically his approach to reducing the risks of injury and rehabbing them. He delved into lower back problems specifically and how he thought the standard approach to dealing with that type of injury was nonsensical. He even took a few digs at Dr. McGill, pointing out the limitations of his research.
Needless to say, I was taken aback by his comments and the strong views he had on the topic. It was hard to disagree with anything he was saying, however; everything was logical and everything made sense in his explanations. His argument revolved around the fact that our spine is required to move in all sorts of ways in athletics, as well as in everyday life. For that reason, he believed in training the spine that way and challenging it in various positions.
After some reflection and realizing I had made zero progress with my current approach to treat my back pain over the past 3-4 years, I felt compelled to try Coach Sommer’s methods. He had an online training system called Gymnastic Bodies, which I decided to sign up for. After all, what did I have to lose at that point?
The program was centered on flexibility, bodyweight movements, and full range of motion strengthening exercises. There were no flips or acrobatics involved, just ways to strengthen your body in a variety of positions. At first, I was excited to try something so completely different from what I was used to and something that challenged my current beliefs. At the same time, I was a little hesitant to start moving my back in all these “weird” ways I wasn’t used to – ways I’d previously considered off limits. There was a little bit of fear that I could make things worse. I had believed for the previous 8 years that the spine was meant to stay neutral at all costs, so this was quite the paradigm shift!
Here are two examples of spinal full range of motion exercises I worked with:
On the Mend
When I shifted my approach to training and strengthening my back this way is precisely when things started to change. My back pain didn’t suddenly disappear, but I was starting to notice signs of improvement. The first one was how my back actually felt better and looser after that type of workout, rather than tighter, which is what I was used to after working out. Then the morning stiffness began to lessen.
Despite these encouraging signs, I was still very cautious. I was taking things slowly and really easing my way into these new exercises and new positions my body wasn’t familiar with. Through this new adventure, I was always listening to my body and my lower back, especially. Things just kept improving and improving. I was getting very excited about the progress I was making and the freedom I now had in my everyday life. You have no idea how great it feels to be able to effortlessly put your socks on in the morning after struggling to perform that simple task for a few years! It’s amazing!
After about 5 years of debilitating pain, it’s now been 4 years straight without hurting my back or having incapacitating back pain using this new approach. Just in the past year or so, I even started re-introducing some of the more traditional strength exercises I used to do (e.g., squats and deadlifts) because my back feels that much better. The main focus of my training remains around flexibility and full range of motion exercises, which I believe are key for me to maintain a healthy and optimally functioning body.
I’d be lying if I were to say I have zero issues now. Every once in a while, I get a little bit of stiffness in the morning or after spending too much time in the same position. However, I can say that my low back problems have gone down 90-95%. The little bit that’s left is so minor compared to what I used to experience. It doesn’t affect my everyday life anymore. It doesn’t limit what I can do.
It’s been quite the journey dealing with low back pain. As difficult and incapacitating as it was to deal with, I’m actually grateful it happened. That might sound weird to say, but when I look at my journey, there’s no other way to look at it.
Back pain is no fun, but it’s taught me a lot. It taught me resilience. The whole time, I was refusing to accept the status quo, and I always believed there was something that could be done to get better.
It’s opened my eyes to a whole new perspective on training and working out. I had strong beliefs about what I thought was the best way to approach training and working out. Those beliefs got shattered with my experience with low back pain and the new things I learned.
As a coach/trainer, I can now apply so many new concepts to the way I train people. I have actually had a lot of success helping people feel better using many of the same concepts I used to rehabilitate myself. I wouldn’t be nearly as good of a coach/trainer today if I hadn’t had to deal with this issue.
Finally, it’s taught me humility. It’s taught me that I don’t always have the answers, and that keeping an open mind is so important.
About the Author
Dave Lasnier is the owner of LaserFit Training and has worked in the strength and conditioning/fitness industry for the past 13+ years. Dave has worked with a wide variety of clients throughout his career ranging from weekend warriors to professional athletes. He currently trains athletes from the NHL, MLB, AHL, ECHL, MiLB, and NCAA. Dave holds a Bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology from the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada. He is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA.