Jump and Land Like an Athlete: Box Jumps and Low Back Pain

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Box Jumps and Low Back Pain

If you do box jumps and get low back pain, this article is for you. Yes, this article is about box jumps. NO it is not about your Achilles tendon. Maybe I will write about that another day, maybe. Train to improve, compete to win. That’s where we will leave the Achilles story at for now.

What I want to talk about in this post is the thing you probably DON’T think about when you are doing box jumps (mainly because it is shadowed by the Achilles rupturing phenomenon) and that is low back positioning, low back loading, and low back pain. You should really jump and land like an athlete, especially when a workout consists of a lot of box jumps.

If you have been reading any of my stuff or have been to one of my workshops, you have heard me say this before, but I will say it again here. When you are TRAINING, you should be training to improve. When you are COMPETING, you should compete to win. Those are two very different things, especially in the high repetition world that is CrossFit.

Ok I digress, let’s talk about the low back.

We need a little background on the lumbar spine in order to fully understand the consequences of the contents of this article. Please review my article on  The Joint by Joint Approach to human movement. Read this before moving on, please.

Back to the low back. If you understand some basic anatomy, the curtain is lifted off of why people’s low backs commonly hurt, so let’s talk a little anatomy. The lumbar spine is made of the lowest 5 vertebrae of the spine, L1-L5. The lumbar spine typically needs to have more stability aka motor control in most people (which really is just a fancy way of saying that your low back shouldn’t be sloppy, it needs to be a well-controlled orchestra). Between the bones of the spine are discs, which you have heard about from people saying they have a “slipped disc”. The spine is then surrounded by a stocking-like collection of connective tissue, primarily ligaments. On top of that is a layer of muscle. And then another layer of muscle. And then another lay of muscle. You get the point.

Ligaments and discs are not stretchy beings. They don’t stretch very far before being injured (which we call a sprain). In fact, ligaments lose a lot of their inherent stiffness after you have been sitting in a crappy position for roughly 20 minutes. Luckily when you have good motor control of your spine, the muscles keep you from LOADING the ligaments and discs (they are only loaded at your end range of motion, not in neutral positioning) when you are wodding it up. Herein lies the problem.

ONS AND TONS OF PEOPLE DON’T LAND ON THE TOP OF THEIR BOX JUMPS WITH A NEUTRAL LUMBAR SPINE POSITION!

(But wait, how do you know what a neutral spine position is? Watch my video of the cat camel. The place between the two ends of the movement is roughly your neutral position. When you load your spine with it being in a neutral position, you are not putting undue stress on the ligaments. That is a good thing).

Research shows that highly repetitive loading of the lumbar spine in a flexed position leads to damage to the structures on the back of the spine, like those ligaments and discs we talked about earlier. That leads to low back pain. Low back pain sucks. Stop compressing your lumbar spine in a flexed position. Jump and land like an athlete.

What is landing like an athlete? It is landing with your lumbar spine in a neutral position. It is landing on the top of a box like how you would catch a well performed power clean.

So how do you fix this? What is The Movement Fix? Train away the bad habits. If you cannot jump onto an RX height box and land like an athlete because you have to flex your lumbar spine to get to that height, jump onto a lower box. And then do lots of reps there. Imprint that movement pattern into your brain. Most people will argue that CrossFit gives you a lot of opportunities to ingrain poor movement patterns into your brain, but I like to think that CrossFit gives you lots of opportunities to ingrain GOOD movement patterns into your brain. The way you perform a movement the most will tell your brain what “normal” movement is and that becomes your habit.

Your TRAINING is the time to fix these patterns. You aren’t competing on a day to day basis, so use those opportunities to make jumping and landing like an athlete your habitual way of doing box jumps. Then when you do compete, it’s second nature, it’s your habit. Sacrifice a few seconds on your WOD time to save yourself from the annoyance and perils of low back pain. That will make you a better athlete in the long run. It will improve how you move, it will improve your athletic abilities, and it will improve your habitual and unconscious movement patterns.

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