We spend a lot of time helping members learn how to tell the difference between soreness and pain. Or how to tell the difference between an injury and recovering from a hard workout. One specific version of that is the issue of the lower back. Or the bad back. During workouts, “feeling my back” tends to be one of the first issues or requests for needing a break, needing to sit, or needing to lower the intensity of the workout. Outside of the gym, in the real world, I run into a lot of people that mention a bad back as a limiting factor for physical labor. The physical labor can range from gardening, to moving furniture, to the requirements of their job.

So here is what I want to address:

Do you have a bad back?

 Your low back pain is from either, injury/damage, weakness, or an increase of use. Most of the time (barring some specific injuries) it is fixable without pain pills, or surgery. The big problem with low back pain is that it feels the same regardless of what the cause is. While this may be true in general, it seems to be more so with regards to the low back. For most people, it can be easy to tell the difference between your bicep being sore from your workout and your bicep being in pain from smashing it into something. But the low back does not discriminate with its pain.

So if the pain in your low back feels the same regardless of its root cause, how are you supposed to tell the difference between whether it is injured, weak, or simply been used more than normal?

By paying attention to when the pain started.

In order for your low back to actually be injured, a specific, traumatic, instance must have taken place. Traumatic may seem like strong word, but really it just refers to sudden violence. Which can be something as small as grazing your elbow against a cardboard box. In a specific traumatic instance, you will feel or hear a pop or twinge, or be blatantly aware that you fell down, ran into, or stood up into something. It's pretty easy to tell if the traumatic event took place. Sometimes you won't feel pain right away. Sometimes you will feel the pain the next morning when you wake up. It is your responsibility in that moment to realize you hurt yourself the previous day, and NOT blame it on how you slept. Because,

It's never how you slept that puts a krink in your neck, or makes your back sore. It's what you did the day or two prior, that forced you to sleep in the manner you did.

If you wake up with back pain after a traumatic instance, or feel the pain immediately, you should get it checked out by a doctor, arm yourself with the knowledge of the injury, and do what you can to help it heal properly. If you do not, you will be living with an injured back causing you pain and discomfort the rest of your life.

If you worked out the day before and feel pain in your low back when you wake up, or begin to feel pain during the workout, and do not feel a specific bump, twinge, or pop, you are NOT injured. If the pain comes on gradually during a set, or you notice it between sets, you are NOT injured. You have simply used it more than it is used to. 

This is good! This is the same as your legs being sore or your arms being sore. It means you have convinced your body it needs to grow stronger. If you are working out properly, the soreness should show up later in the workout, or be less severe the next day as you progress.

If your back is in pain from being used more than it is used to, sitting as still as possible is going to make the pain worse. It will cause your muscles to grow extra stiff in response to the soreness, making it harder to stand up or move. Which is what makes it FEEL injured. 

To prevent this you want to take time to move in a manner that is different and less intense than the workout that caused the pain in the first place. 

If you have not experienced a specific traumatic instance and wake up with pain in your low back, feel pain when you bend down, feel pain when you pick things up, or feel pain walking or running, your back is NOT INJURED. It is weak or immobile, either due to lack of use, or imbalances built up from poor use. Ibuprofen and the doctor aren't going to help you if this is the case. Laying as still as possible on the couch isn't going to help it get better because, and here's the kicker,

NOT MOVING IS WHAT CAUSED THE ISSUE IN THE FIRST PLACE! That would be the equivalent of trying to treat a burn with boiling water.

So no, you do not have a bad back. 

If you want your back to get better, you have to strengthen it and move it to improve mobility. Which will probably cause it to get sore in the beginning. Make sure to recover with different and less intense movements to keep the soreness from feeling like an injury.

Start carefully of course but know if you don't, you put yourself at risk of actually injuring your back in a specific traumatic instance.

And that's on you.