Ask Ryan - Low Back

Our first submission for the "Ask Ryan" series, where readers of the blog submit questions to be answered, comes from Rachel out of Missouri. My answers are written in blue. Rachel writes:

Question 1

So the spine, especially the lumbar spine, is intended for stability and not flexibility...yet I feel like keeping a “neutral” spine throughout life is next-to-impossible and almost silly. Our lives demand us to move/bend/fold…

  • When we look at kids...they play, jump and tumble: putting their spines in all kinds of flexed and extended positions, and rarely (that I know of) do we hear about kids with back problems. Is that just because their bodies aren't as old?
  • And what about gymnasts?
  • Or people who practice yoga?

Hey Rachel,

It's hard to say exactly what the spine was "intended" for, but I'll describe what I think it is best suited to handle.

Certainly kids and adults move their spines freely through space and time. We don't all have a rigid lumbar spine and we shouldn't. Movement is life and the discs of the spine get their nutrients delivered via mechanical forces that happen FROM moving the spine. So we certainly can't keep it "neutral" our whole lives. We wouldn't get the nutrients the discs need to stay healthy.

Gymnasts are known for having low back problems. There is a stress fracture that commonly happens in gymnasts' low backs called a spondylolisthesis. This happens from taking the lumbar spines into extension over and over and over again and they develop an overuse injury.

Every tissue in the body can suffer from an overuse injury. If I do 100 pull-ups, I will probably tear the skin on my hands. What I want to do in training is stay below that tissue failure point so I get a positive adaptation. That is how I think about the spine. I need to keep my reps of spinal flexion/extension low enough so I get a positive adaptation rather than a disc herniation or a stress fracture.  In my mind, disc herniations are an over-use injury that occurs over time.

Yoga is interesting. Yogis love taking their spine through a full range of motion and holding it there. I personally don't recommend people stretch out their low backs to achieve as much range of motion as possible there. There's been enough research showing that spinal flexibility doesn't reduce risk of low back injury. I’d rather someone stretch out their hips and upper back, which yoga certainly does.

Question 2

I'm thinking flexion and extension, in and of themselves, aren't bad. We don't want our back to be immobile...but we shouldn't depend on it to be the prime mover/flexor/extender either…right.

  • For example, we should be able to touch our toes...but the main "hinge" movement should come from our hips, not our back? True? So how do we get flexible hips?

I agree, flexion and extension aren't bad in and of themselves. Doing too much of them is. Doing them as an exercise is. The spine should be able to hinge in a toe touch. When I check someone's toe touching ability I want to see if their low back CAN round. If it can comfortably round, it indicates the position isn't threatening to them. I get concerned when people cannot round their low back in a toe touch.

The low back in exercise should transfer force from the lower body to the upper body. It shouldn't create the power. So the prime movers should be hips and shoulders while the low back transfers the power between the upper and lower body.

Question 3

Problems arise when we hang out in, or move quickly through, or add weight to moments of large flexion and extension. Correct?

  • And then there’s the issue of twisting…like a Russian KB twist…also a no-go?

Correct. Something like a russian twist is at the top of my list of things not to do.

Question 4 

And finally, I guess I’d really just like a more life applicable view on this thing. Let’s use your wife as an example, because I really admire her Crossfit abilities. 

  • Does she sub-out certain movements for others (like sit-ups or toes to bar: for planks and T2B on the floor) I just think of workouts like Annie…
  • Does she just do them when she is training for or in a competition?
  • Or does she just accept the risk and generally do whatever to be good at Crossfit?

It's important to note that my wife has very flexible hips. If she does do something like a toes to bar, her lumbar spine goes through less overall motion than someone who has less flexible hips. The movement has to happen somewhere for the toes to get to the bar. The more movement that comes from the spine, the less I like it.

 With that said, she doesn't do a ton of them. She does them rarely and really doesn’t think they are a good movement anyways. A lot of the time the sub is to just do a different movement, either related or unrelated (kettlebell swing, deadlift, plank). It depends on what training stimulus we are trying to achieve.

 Anyway, As a coach and athlete I want to be encouraging movements that heal and strengthen our bodies, not hurt…but also prepare those more competitive people for bigger events."

 Thanks for writing in Rachel! You clearly an astute and thoughtful coach. We need more people like you out there asking these questions and really thinking about what we are doing.

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