Back to the Basics

Conditioning your back to balance your body

Molly O’Brien
Molly O’Brien embraces the challenges of what the human body can do. Photo: Jonathan Evans

Just over two years ago, I hurt my back. Pretty badly. I bent over to pull a heavy deadlift and felt a lightning bolt of pain shot from my head to my feet. A day later I found out that I had herniated seven discs in my mid-low back, an injury that would present me with an incredible physical and mental challenge that I still deal with.

You see, before this injury I was (at least in my head) pretty invincible. I had a successful high school and collegiate wrestling career and prior to that was a competitive gymnast.

I had been working as a strength and conditioning coach with some large national, collegiate, and professional organizations for a few years and was helping to pave new trails for women in the industry. I derived a large portion of my confidence from my belief in myself as a physically strong woman. In a split second, I felt completely and unceremoniously stripped of my identity.

Over the next few months, I went through an unbelievable transformation and not in a good way. As my physical strength and stature dwindled, my personal and professional life began to splinter as well. I woke up each morning with strong resentment for my body and how it had betrayed me. All I could think about was getting back to being the person I used to be.

Eventually I saw I was in an incredibly dysfunctional relationship with myself. I had suffered a physical injury, period. My life was not over, my capacity to learn was not gone, but I was at a standstill as long as I kept wishing that I could go back in time. I needed to stop fearing what my body could do to me, and start exploring what I had the capacity to do with it.

This revelation has been the incentive for a tremendous amount of learning. I did have to start slow and relearn a lot of movements I thought I already knew. I was humbled often, but embraced the challenge and sought out the guidance and expertise of coaches in many areas including gymnastics, grappling, circus, weightlifting, kettlebells, free movement and more.

In the past year I have developed an appreciation for just how important it is to keep learning about, challenging and embracing what the human body can do and I’ve had a pretty good time doing it. The following workout is one that I performed early in my comeback, and is all about learning to move well while providing balance to the body.


Repeat 3x:

  • 10 toe-touch to squats
  • 10 reverse lunges
  • 10 lateral lunges
  • 10 metre crawl forward and backward


Perform 3-5 sets of 8-12 repetitions per exercise (8-12 per side if bilateral), resting 15-20 seconds between exercises and 1 minute between sets.

Postural Cues

Remember to keep these postural cues in mind during the workout to maintain proper form and get the most out of your time at the gym.

  • Spine long and strong (north to south)
  • Ribs down / hold the cough
  • Shoulders broad (east to west)
  • Feet strong (spread the floor)

1. Kettlebell Single Leg Romanian Deadlift to Row

  • Stand on right foot with kettlebell in opposite hand and extend left leg long and strong, keeping core and shoulders tight.
  • With a strong, locked body, slowly row kettlebell toward chest and back down.
  • Finally, squeeze through the ground to stand tall.
  • Repeat all reps on right, then alternate sides.

2. Kettlebell Single Arm Farmer Carry

  • Hold a kettlebell in a front rack position (see image), and a second kettlebell just at your side.
  • Stand up tall, broaden shoulders and walk 20-30 metres with short, quick steps.
  • Switch your rack position and repeat on opposite side.
Kettlebell Single Arm Farmer Carry
Photo: Jonathan Evans

3. Kettlebell 1/2 Kneel Single Arm Press

  • Kneel with right leg forward, KB held on left shoulder in front rack position.
  • With hips and core steady, press the KB overhead with left arm.
  • Own your top position, then pull KB back to left shoulder.
  • Complete all reps before alternating sides.
Kettlebell ½ Kneel Single Arm Press
Photo: Jonathan Evans

4. Kettlebell Bottoms Up Goblet Squat

  • Grab KB by the horns with the bell facing up and hold 4-6 inches from your chest, with shoulders broad and spine long and strong.
  • Slowly sit down and back into hips until thighs are parallel or your own best bottom position.
  • Push the ground away to stand tall.
Kettlebell Bottoms Up Goblet Squat
Photo: Jonathan Evans