Vail Daily column: Outlifting back pain |

Vail Daily column: Outlifting back pain

I have a very bad back on paper. I had an 18-hour operation on my spine in the fall of 1998. Eighteen years later, I still live relatively pain free regardless of hard skiing and heavy lifting. I say relatively because it’s estimated that 31 million Americans experience back pain at some time.

Low back pain is the leading cause of work disability worldwide, and it is estimated that 80 percent of humans will experience back pain in their lifetime. Yes, I experience back pain, but it’s rare — only a few times per year — despite the two 20-inch metal rods and 24 screws that run the length of my spine from the surgery in which Dr. Pernendu Gupta fused thoracic level 3 through lumbar level 2. It was a significant back surgery.


People ask me all of the time why I lift “heavy” weights and perform exercises that look like they would cripple most people. I always reply, “I can’t afford to have a bad back because it would hurt my reputation.” You see, we live in a society that is too concerned with playing it safe all of the time. We don’t risk allowing our kids to go to the park alone and it’s unacceptable to skateboard down a steep hill anymore because we have become spineless in our country, no pun intended. People are afraid of lifting heavy weights because they may hurt themselves. You may get hit by a car tomorrow. Living in fear about something that may never happen is no way to live.

Lifting heavy weights is “dangerous” apparently. I have heard it from chiropractors and doctors alike that say lifting heavy weights is indeed dangerous. Sorry, not listening to any of you, credentialed or not, as you sit in your lab coat recovering from a back injury that you incurred as you bent over to pick up the medical journal your mailman delivered this morning. Don’t tell me about back pain sustained from heavy lifting as you don’t even have the street credentials to lift your own bodyweight off the floor.


Here’s my point. It’s little bit of the chicken or egg thing. Are people with strong, enduring backs living pain free because they have strong backs? Are people living in pain because they can’t train heavy; their backs hurt, disabling them from training hard to get their spines strong in the first place? I don’t even come close to having all of the answers. But here is what I do know. It is almost impossible to be strong and have a bad back. Bad backs cannot support heavy training. In other words, I’ve rarely encountered strong, hearty people who had bad backs. I have seen countless people who have really bad backs; typically they are very deconditioned individuals. Pain and injury are complicated issues. I am not qualified to deeply discuss or fully understand the complexities of medical problems. I’m not going to even try. But …

For clarity, I’m not suggesting that you must lift gut busting loads to build spine health. Not at all. For the record, I’m not even that strong in the big scheme of things. I am what most would call entry level strong, but let’s not kid ourselves. I’m not an elite lifter, so even though most average gym-goers around here might think I’m some sort of animal, it’s not the case at all. Really, it’s that our lifting community here in the valley is just overly weak and underdeveloped making my lifts appear to be something superhuman.

Whenever I visit Ohio, my lifting buddies back home tell me I’m too skinny and should eat more. I’m close to 200 pounds. I’m a big old boy in Colorado considering most males here are mountain goats who weigh 138 pounds. We are all “strong” here because we can run and bike up a very big hill quickly. Which is a very good thing, by the way. Arguably, even more important than being able to display strength by lifting heavy iron. But …

That back pain thing? I don’t know much of anything, but I know heavy proper weight training seems to support back health and back health supports heavy lifting. So … stay tuned and I will tell you how to lift heavy weights for back health.

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.

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