Burpees or back surgery: you decide!


Show of hands: Who knows exactly how this guy feels? Who cringes when they view this picture? I see a lot of hands out there…

My back hurts.

As I write this, I’m shifting around in my office chair to find a comfortable position, because couple of hours ago, I completed a Crossfit WOD (workout of the day) that involved a bunch of deadlifts.  It’s funny that when I type the word “deadlift,” my computer tries to change it to “deadliest.”  (Go ahead and try it.  See?)  It’s funny because for a person with chronic back problems like me, the mere concept of a deadlift does seem pretty deadly, so my computer is spot on.

Let me insert a quick disclaimer before I proceed any further.  I’m a blessed man.  I mean, really, really blessed.  I’ve got an awesome wife, three incredible (and slightly crazy-making) kids, and a very cool life.  There are a blue-million people out there who are facing much more formidable challenges than me, so believe me when I say, I’m really not complaining. And I blame my back pain on basketball, not deadlifts.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

But after some consideration, I’ve decided that the world’s population can be neatly divided into two kinds of folks: Good-Back People (GBPs) and Bad-Back People (BBPs).

GBPs think they have their own problems, but they’re wrong.  They don’t have any problems.  They just don’t know it.

Channeling Chubby Checker

BBPs spend a large portion of their lives shuffling in and out of chiropractic offices, laying prostrate on floors, strapping heated, electrified bands around their waists, and fantasizing about being GBPs.

We covet our neighbor’s backs and we make no bones about it.  A BBP with a cool mill in the bank, a hot spouse, and freshly showered, well-adjusted kids would chuck it all for a lower torso that would allow them to simply tie their shoes without grinding their teeth in agony.


Chubby Checker must’ve been a BBP, what with all that twisting.

BBPs are easy to spot in public because we rarely stand still.  We are often found lifting one leg up like a stork or thrusting out our hips in a kind of self-chiropractic adjustment or twisting our upper body back and forth like Chubby Checker, who must’ve had an absolute nightmare of a back.

If you notice someone suddenly jerk as if they’ve been shot or stabbed or have stepped into an invisible pothole, you can bet they are a BBP. This is because back pain can be ninja-like.  You’re going along, enjoying your day, exhibiting proper posture, not trying to lift a VW or hoist an anvil or install a child seat in a 1990 Honda hatchback or anything crazy like that, and then — BAM! — the ninja springs out of the darkness, knees you in the lower back like a thug hired by Tonya Harding, and disappears into the mist.  In an instant, a grown man becomes a 39-weeks-pregnant woman with one hand on her lower back and the other groping for the nearest stable object.

If I only had a spine

It’s nearly impossible to adequately describe back pain to a GBP, but here’s a good analogy:  Imagine you’re the Tin Man, and you’re still in your rusted state, the way Dorothy and Scarecrow found you in the Evil Woods or Forest of Doom or wherever it was.  Remember that terrible creaky sound he made and how Dorothy oiled his  joints until he could move around?  This is how my back feels (and actually sounds) practically every morning, except there’s no Dorothy and no oil can.  There’s also no Scarecrow, thank God, because that would scare the hell out of me first thing in the morning, but I digress.

Because of our Tin Man-like mobility, BBPs often have irrational fears.  For example, we sometimes believe that we may actually break in two.  As crazy as it sounds, we truly believe that if we learn forward a little too far, we’ll just snap right off at the waist.

BBP-husbands have fears that thugs will approach us in an alley as we leave the show (like in “Ghost”), insult our wives, and force us to make a choice between a) defending our bride while screaming, “Ouch, ouch, back, back, back!” with one hand clutching our L-5, or b) ignoring the slur and losing our Man Card for all eternity.

Crossfit: temporary insanity

It was the impending loss of my Man Card that ultimately spurred me to try Crossfit in 2010.  Some eight years before, I had undergone lower back surgery after two decades of chronic pain.  ( I can trace my problems to an injury that occurred while dunking a basketball when I was 21.)  In the years following the surgery, I had essentially decided that my athletic days were gone forever, and given the slightest provocation, my lower back might literally disengage from the rest of my body and plop to the floor, leaving me with an unsightly gap between my upper and lower, er, hemispheres.  When my do-gooder wife started Crossfitting at a local box, I thought she was suffering from temporary insanity.  And when she first described a burpee to me, and then suggested that I TRY one, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she had increased my life insurance earlier that day as part of some diabolical plot.  The idea of purposely casting myself to the floor and up again repeatedly was so absurd, I could scarcely formulate a response.  I believe “Aa-aackk…” is what I came up with.  (My burpee form is fairly well documented and can be found in the blog, “Top 12 reasons why this 47-year-old HATES Crossfit.”)

Sorry, Dr. Evil, because that's essentially the way I do them.  So, suck it.

Sorry, Dr. Evil, because that’s essentially the way I do them. So, suck it.

Through various forms of coercion (I believe the withholding of marital favors was involved at one point), I finally consented to try Crossfit.  Three years later, I’ve learned some interesting factoids, like:

  • My back is stronger than I gave it credit for,
  • Sitting or standing still for long periods of time is actually a lot worse for my back than strenuous exercise,
  • I can do burpees, but they’re much worse than I expected,
  • The Mona Lisa doesn’t have eyebrows or eyelashes, and
  • I dislike GBP Crossfitters even more than regular GBPs.

Back surgery = “Band of Brothers”

I want you to focus on the first two factoids.  When a person suffers from back pain, the natural inclination is NOT to go to a gym and start banging giant tires with sledge hammers like Thor trying to fix a flat.  Rather, it is to hobble to the nearest sofa, lie motionless, and let people bring you refreshments.  I’ll admit this can be fun — I watched the entire “Band of Brothers” mini-series the week after my back surgery — but it’s never really going to help strengthen a bad back, which is the only true antidote for back pain.

But there again, I digress, because I’m not a doctor nor am I sponsored by Crossfit or any other fitness program.  I can’t make recommendations for what you should do with your own sorry excuse for a muscular/skeletal system, only tell you what I’m doing with mine.  Amazingly, I can deadlift almost 300 pounds with this old Tin Man frame, and while that’s not much compared to many, it’s an incomprehensible miracle for me.  But more important is the fact that I can still offer my “Daddy Express” piggy-back rides up the stairs to my 6-year-old at bedtime.

The take-away from all this?  If you gotta dunk, make it a doughnut.

Also see: “Top 9 Reasons why I should be the ‘Face of Crossfit’ instead of Rich Froning,” “The Top 11 Things a Crossfit Virgin Should Know,” “Top 10 Lame-Ass Reasons Not to Exercise”, ”Top 11 Things a Warrior Dash Virgin Should Know,” and “I Know You’re Trying to Be Nice. Don’t.”

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22 Responses to “Burpees or back surgery: you decide!”

  1. martha says:

    Scheduled for my second spinal fusion surgery since the first one failed. Already plotting when I will be back at cf…

  2. Jj says:

    From a GBP to a BBP, I admire your willingness to get out of your comfort zone and your bb getting the added benefit. Love your post

  3. Rachel says:

    Thanks for the humor! And the truth. I’m a BBP, started CF at age 40, and while I do have lots of CF goals,the one overarching goal is to become and remain strong enough to perform normal daily routines(like getting my own pants or socks on!) when my next disc ruptures.
    And I agree-burpees are much worse than they appear!

  4. Erica says:

    Yes..BBP here! Injured reaching for a library book on the bottom shelf with a backpack full of huge college textbooks(when they existed in actual book form), I was 23 at the time. When I lead a sedentary lifestyle I would aggrevate my L4/L5 bulge once a year, causing me to crawl from the bed to the bathroom for about a week. I started with Zumba 3 years ago and grew into bootcamp and now Crossfit! As my back gets stronger, I worry less about putting my back out when I bend over to put on a shoe. My burpees start out strong for 3 and than they turn into falling to the ground, get to hands and knees, right foot, left foot, hands on thighs stand up clap over head, no jump and insert many bad words. But I show up……..

  5. Todd Fletcher says:

    Once again, you’ve been able to put words to paper and describe the life of a BBP and CF! I too, have had a number of injuries to my back as I retired after almost 30 years in the fire service. Herniated discs, and subsequent micro-discectomy, and now pain free, and a burst fracture of my L1, with no complications. I was afraid of any real hard exercise, as I was certain I would be crippled with pain. But I am so much stronger and definitely more confident in my day to day life because of CF. But I still don’t have pretty burpees. I don’t think I will ever have pretty burpees. But that’s OK. At 57, I have lifting goals, and they are in sight.

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Todd, you’re awesome. Thanks for your years of service of keeping your neighbors safe. I’m sorry those years resulted in so many back problems, but the fact that you’re out there Crossfitting speaks a lot to your character. Best of luck!

  6. MoCounselor says:

    Thanks for the humor Mark! I’m somewhere in-between a GGP and a BBP myself, (having made a stupid decision at 23 years old that I need to bench press, and didn’t have a bench, so what the hell, the edge of the bathtub is bench-like…) I have definitely struggled with LBP since then off and on, and much like you, CrossFit has been my saving grace: 5’7″, 160 pounds, and I’m dl-ing 245 for sets with out my back hurting the next day!

    Love the blog, keep it up, you’re an inspiration to this fellow musician/CrossFitter/older-guy!

  7. Amber says:

    Fortunately I am a GBP and I have incorporated mobility. I just bought the book Becoming a Supple Leopard by Dr. Kelly Starrett. I refuse to find my 1rm anymore if I don’t have the correct posture and technique. Deadlift is one of them, who gives a shit of how much I can pull up off the floor. I want to be able to get up off the floor after petting my dog who is on the floor. I love your stories.

  8. David M. says:

    Love your writing dude.
    Got here when googled “Insanity after 40” since I’m in that neighborhood too.

  9. Caty says:

    Just came across your blog while looking into workouts to try. I am a complete beginner but I figure I should go all out and try something challenging. I am only 24 but I have been a Bad Back Person since 16 :/ I can’t pick laundry up off the floor more than twice in a row without my back threatening to give out. Thank you for the inspiration to try crossfit and the knowledge that I can help strengthen my back by doing so.

  10. roger says:

    dont do burpees!. i literaly disabled myself for one weak and now i can only walk fast and can barely bend. i cant run and my right leg feels funny but painful. dont do burpees.

  11. Vincent says:

    ha very well written. entertainment value aside it’s nice to see some positive stuff like this attached to the Google tag back pain. great stuff

  12. Julia Williams says:

    Just scheduled my microdiscectomy on L4-L5 for Jan 2017. I found your blog when I searched “working out after back surgery”. I NEED to work out for my sanity and my family’s safety!! Lol! Thank you for the humor and encouragement! It’s good to know that there’s workout life after back surgery!

    • Mark Johnson says:

      Julia, thanks for reaching out. I’m very sorry you are a BBP like me and need surgery. My thoughts and prayers are with you. However, as you mentioned, I’m living proof that you can be active after back surgery! The very best of luck to you and Merry Christmas!

  13. BrandyAnn says:

    I had L5-S1 fusion 3 years ago. Recently started boot camp workouts, which involve the dreaded burpees. I just cannot do them! Wasn’t sure if it was my fusion or just me. Sounds like it’s just me. I guess I will keep at my awkward rolling around on the floor until I can finally do them!! I’m glad you mentioned dead lifts. I really enjoy them. But, as I was doing them in my workout today, the question did cross my mind if maybe this was bad for my fusion. Sounds like it must be A-OK! I’ve been pretty sedentary since my surgery, afraid of hurting my back. So all this “activity” is new for my post fusion self. I’ve been surprised to see how much my back can handle, and it feels great! But situps. I can’t seem to do damn situps!

Let me hear from you!