Back pain as it relates to an active and physical life

Ryan Richards
Make it Count

A cheerful heart is good medicine for peace and happiness in life. Too often though, it’s difficult to give thanks when you’re living in physical pain.

Back pain is something I’m familiar with, and many locals in our valley seek my services for deconstructing the source of pain and its relationship to an active life. I don’t have all the answers because back pain is a complex issue and I’m not a medical care provider. But because of my extensive history with back problems before undergoing a massive spinal fusion surgery 20 years ago, I have come to some general conclusions.

The origin of back pain is numerous and complicated. Sources include psychosomatic distress, mechanical dysfunction, arthritic changes, soft tissue injuries and disc problems to name a few. However, a diagnosis from a medical care provider is merely a starting point; if the pain isn’t life threatening or puts you at risk for disability, then it’s highly advisable to optimize alignment and muscular efficiency with a physical therapist, chiropractor or other pain management professional first.

Optimize spine fitness

Next, you can optimize spine fitness through physical training. Here’s what you need to know.

Support Local Journalism

I underwent an 18 hour spinal fusion surgery in 1998 that left me in peril for a year following the operation. Exercise science and sports medicine weren’t even close to today’s efficacy but through trial and error, I figured out how to rehabilitate my spine to optimal health. Throughout years of experience with my own training, and through trends in physical therapy and advances in fitness, I have drawn a concise conclusion — weak backs often hurt, strong backs rarely experience pain. It’s that simple.

It’s certainly a “chicken or the egg” question, but it makes sense. If someone is experiencing back pain on a regular basis, then how can she train with any substantial intensity to promote muscular strength throughout her spine? On the other hand, if someone is very strong, clearly his back is able to withstand stress, further promoting a robust torso that is resilient against pain. The secret is finding exercises that build strength, without causing a pain response during the execution, and the days following.

For example, I train a woman who was diagnosed with a large cyst on her spine. Initially, her left leg was noticeably smaller than her right leg, and she experienced significant back and leg pain. The surgeon suggested that she strengthen her back to help alleviate the discomfort. Without considering the doctor’s advice, a spinal fusion would have been imminent. Fast forward a year to today, she is not only out of pain, but is physically capable of feats impossible before training on a consistent basis. Her legs are of equal size. The journey simply consisted of finding exercises that promoted muscular fitness in her legs, hips and back without causing pain along the way. Like any journey in life, there were setbacks. But how can we learn anything in life without failure as a teacher?


Sometimes I hope to cause pain during training for the specific purpose of revealing postures and movements that exacerbate pain — a great way to source the cause of mechanical dysfunction. How do you get rid of the problem? Stop performing the exercises that promote discomfort, and try other exercises that promote muscular fatigue without pain. Now, there are some very strict guidelines to follow that aren’t negotiable when training for spine health. That’s a complicated guidebook for the professional. However, with enough consistency and persistent training during several months, back pain can be alleviated without surgery. The biggest challenge is patience, perseverance and hard work.

Here’s a full disclaimer. I am not a guru, miracle worker or other self-proclaimed expert selling snake oil with promises of deliverance. I have a reasonable batting average of .400 to .500 training back pain sufferers. These are fairly good odds, and I can usually figure this stuff out half of the time. Some of the variables that promote failure is a lack of commitment to the process, medical issues that aren’t cured with fitness solutions and genetics.

Stay tuned, next week I’ll discuss the general guidelines for optimizing spine health through exercise. Have a great week.

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at or 970-401-0720.

Support Local Journalism