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Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone — Justin Bossert on Deadlifting with Low Back Pain

Published November 20, 2017    
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Chronic back pain warriors, meet Justin Bossert, deadlift champion. He's a Spencer, West Virginia, native with primary interests that include human conflict. He is intrigued by war. This Valparaiso University alum studied science and biology as an undergraduate, though in retrospect, political science and international relations may have proved more useful to him now. A cynic? A pessimist? Probably, he says.

He doesn't think like most people. A contrarian? He doesn't try to be. Someday, he hopes to author something important.

Just as war interests him, so does peace and love. He's a rhyme and reason kind of guy who found himself experiencing chronic back pain that didn't seem to go away. Regardless of his chronic back pain, he stays motivated and active as a deadlift-er and exercise junkie. He spends his days in the gym blasting techno music while trying to remain as pain-free as possible from a chronic back pain diagnosis.

Don't forget that you're human, he reminds himself daily. It's OK to have a meltdown — just don't unpack and live there. Cry it out and then refocus on where you are headed, he suggests.

This chronic back pain patient proves that the definition of true strength is to not give up even if you want to, but we'll let him do the talking. This is his story. 

Q: Hey, Justin. Can you share with our Backer community a little bit about yourself? (i.e. hobbies, interests, etc.)

A: I grew up in West Virginia, went to college in Indiana, then returned to West Virginia after graduating. I currently live in Morgantown, West Virginia, and enjoy hiking, trail running, dog sitting, as well as attending and performing at electronic music events.

Q: When did you start experiencing back pain?

A: I should first mention that the first time I ever experienced serious back and spinal pain was after an incident where I was unloading equipment from the back of a truck. The equipment fell to the ground rather quickly with my hands attached, resulting in my arms going down while my head faced forward, resulting in a whiplash type injury.

For the next week, I could not sleep at night because of the pain. I was able to get all of the pain corrected after four or five visits to the chiropractor using spinal manipulation as my top treatment option. I still experience some stiffness at times but for the most part, the neck pain is gone.

More recently, probably about two years ago, I was doing deadlifts at the gym and must have gone with too much weight. I did not notice any pain at the time, but within a couple of days, it had become apparent that I had strained something.

I haven’t been able to do heavier weights on that exercise since, although I have not taken the necessary steps to address the issue. This manifests itself on long drives, after binging on Netflix, or after being hunched over, as what I would describe as mild tightness and mild pain. Although I do not experience pain all day long, there is a noticeable stiffness and lack of flexibility.

I do remember when the injury first occurred I experienced what I would describe as a stretching sensation. The muscles in my lower back felt as if they were stretched beyond a point of no return. I always stretch, but this time, I must have overdone it causing another set of painful experiences. I try to not overexert myself these days and pay extra attention to the amount of weights I am using, if any.

Q: On a bad day, what does your body feel like? (i.e. if you are standing or remain in one position)

A: The most persistent problem I experience is the need to constantly shift my weight around when working at my home office or on the road commuting to and from work.

I experience severe discomfort as well as stiffness in my lower back and hips while sitting for prolonged periods. I find it is uncomfortable enough that it affects my quality of life so much so that it requires me to make regular adjustments whether I'm sitting, standing or lying down.

Also, it makes the prospect of sitting for a prolonged period seem highly undesirable. This has an effect on my life in that a road trip I might normally make (i.e. a flight or a long drive) has to be weighed against the discomfort. Will it be worth it? Or, will my pain be so bad that I should just say no and not go? I have to ask myself this before going on a trip and suggest the back pain patient reading this, consider it as well.

Q: You live in Morgantown, West Virginia, which has been known as a “party town” — does your chronic back pain get in the way of you having a good time with your friends? If so, how do you deal if your pain hurts and you're out and about?

A: When I am out and about I do not experience too much chronic pain. The issue really only arises in sedentary situations. I could certainly imagine a situation though in which I would miss out on a social event because I would rather not deal with the pain. The struggle certainly is real.

Justin Bossert at Bryce Canyon National Park.Caption: Bossert takes some time off from sitting and soaks up some vitamin D while getting some cardio in on a trip to Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. It's all about experimenting and finding ways to make working out fun.

Q: You mentioned deadlifting. Share with us what deadlifting is and why people get into it?

A: Deadlifting is an exercise where a straight bar with a weight is placed in front of you. You then grip that weight with both hands and lift up using your lower back. It is one of three powerlifting exercises, in addition to the squat and bench press.

Core strength, which involves the central muscles of the body, lower back, glutes and the abdominal region, supports the body in practically every movement and position. If you want to increase your core's strength, you could consider deadlifting. I've heard my doctor say, “If you want to have a strong back, you need a strong core.”

I will say that patients with lower back issues should talk to a personal trainer or their medical professional before beginning any exercise.

Q: Where did the term deadlifting come from?

A: Deadlifting is a very specialized lift from the "compound exercise" category. You pick up a dead weight using a loaded barbell. It's as simple as that. If you do just that, you are deadlifting. This exercise is extremely intense and it can provoke severe injuries if not properly performed. I would definitely know.

Q: How did you get started deadlifting?

A: I've always been pretty into working out and exercising. I remember I was at the gym with a friend doing my normal routine and he asked if I ever deadlifted.

Honestly, I didn't know what it was, but after he showed it to me, I enjoyed it. I was trying to bulk up and this seemed to be the best way to do so. I cannot stress enough, though, to make sure you are doing everything correctly so none of you guys hurt your back.

Q: What are some exercises and drills that you can share with our community to become pain-free yet have stronger lifts at the same time?

A: For the BackerNation community, I would recommend focusing more on cardio and the number of repetitions first. I think a lot of strength can be built up with simpler exercises, sometimes without any weight at all.

With anyone already in extreme chronic back pain, adding weights without building that strong foundation can really have a profound effect on your already painful back. For example, try sit-ups, pull-ups, or push-ups. Do them for as long as you can. Continuously strive to increase the intensity and number of reps until you've reached your goal.

Q: What are some exercises back pain patients should avoid? (i.e. are there some that can increase someone's pain levels?)

A: In addition to avoiding deadlifting initially, I would say be careful with doing too much weight while squatting. Sometimes the force of the weight pushing down on your spine can result in even more pain throughout the spine and even the lower back region.

Always start small and go from there. There's no need to start at a 50-pound weight if your body cannot handle it. Don't compare your status of weightlifting to anyone else. We all have different body types and some of us can lift heavier objects easier.

Q: Would you say that stretching is necessary either before or after a workout? Why?

A: Yes. I think it helps with injury prevention, but also results in better lifting results — if you spend some time warming your muscles up and stretching before working out.

It helps to build that solid foundation I mentioned earlier. You don't go on a hardcore run without doing some light toe touches or your stretching preference first, so working out in a gym means doing the same thing.

For anyone who doesn't feel like stretching, simply take five minutes pre-workout and stretch. Your body, back pain, and the results will thank you later.

Q: Is there a specific technique or body position our Backers should be aware of when beginning at deadlifting? If yes, what would that be?

A: Bending over is a frequent cause of back pain. This is mainly because many people bend from the hips and the waist rather than the knees. Doing so stretches the muscles and ligaments in the back and places excess strain on your muscles. So, my number one tip would be to not bend over too much. I believe this is what caused my injury.

Q: What clothing or accessories should one wear (or not wear) when deadlifting to make it safer and prevent further back pain?

A: It's important to always wear the lower back lifting belt. However, please be aware that this is not a guarantee that injury will not occur. You want to start light, continue light with only small increments in weight, and focus on your form.

Q: In your opinion, how long should someone with back pain exercise for?

A: I think this would all depend on the intensity of the patient's back pain and the region of the back affected. It's always best to “listen to your body” and carefully consider your unique situation.

If necessary, talk to a medical professional about what you are wanting to do and your end goal — just make sure your body will not experience further injury.

Q: How many calories should someone consume for deadlifting or if they want to lose belly weight to get that strong core in an attempt to reduce their back pain?

A: I would recommend trying your best to make healthy eating choices and to also incorporate plenty of cardio into your workout routine.

My view is that it's better to eat enough to where you are satisfied and not starving but also incorporate cardio, which has lots of other health benefits. Doing so will help you burn the calories whereas weightlifting builds strength. You don't want to eat too much and, on the contrary, you don't want to eat too little. It's all about balance in working out and eating right.

Q: Do you follow a specific diet plan that either helps you deadlift better or reduces back pain?

A: I do try to limit red meat consumption, but that is more of a general health strategy unrelated to deadlifting. In theory, I want to eat healthily, but sometimes my cravings get the best of me.

Q: In the exercise arena, do you find there's support or assistance available for someone who wants to stay active, but has chronic back pain?

A: Here in Morgantown, the gym I am a member of does have a physical therapy department and other services where people need help working out because of an injury. I have never sought out services, but I imagine there are some helpful, qualified people who could be of assistance. For anyone in need, go to your local gym and see what they can do for you.

Q: And finally, what's something you want our Backer community to take home from this Q&A in regards to having back pain, but wanting to remain active?

A: Although the bulk of my answers have been about lifting in the gym, there are many activities out there in and outside of the gym to experiment with to see if they can be pursued without it leading to greater back pain. I would suggest contacting a physical therapist or personal trainer to find the ones that will work for your specific conditions. I would also encourage people to keep searching and try things that might initially seem like something you wouldn’t be into.

After all, doesn't life begin at the end of your comfort zone? Take that into your exercise routine and you may be surprised as to what you are capable of, even with a chronic back pain diagnosis.


Thank you, Justin, for taking the time out of your day to talk with your fellow back pain warriors. For anyone struggling to get back into a fitness routine, let this be your reminder that you really can do anything. People may look seemingly healthy until you learn their story, however, regardless of where you are on your wellness journey, as long as you take one step forward, you can succeed. 

Backer, Justin Bossert hiking through the wilderness.

Hey, we never really knew the depth of Justin's back pain —until now and look what he's accomplished. You can too.

Justin Bossert not allowing back pain to slow him down.

We think that's the beauty of life and pain, of war and peace — individuality. We all travel down different paths with different stories, and we just loved hearing Justin's.

Another amazing journey.

If you take anything from this Q&A, take the fact that so far, you've survived 100 percent of your worst days. This too shall pass. Thank you again, Justin. 

Last change: February 23, 2018