People will often tell you to avoid spinal flexion, or spinal hyper extension (just like they would tell you to avoid collapsing your knees in during a squat). There’s a grain of truth in that, after all these are vulnerable positions – and if you load them often, there will be consequences.
However, nothing is black and white. Dig a little deeper and you will find that you can’t avoid vulnerable positions but you can damn right prepare for them. One day, want it or not, you will move / land / be forced into those weak positions and if you haven’t taken time to get some control, strength and stability in those position, then you’re in trouble.
When it comes to the spine, we call it Liquid Steel. Ideally, your aim is to be able to control all parts of your spine / each vertebra (move like liquid, including positions that are vulnerable) and at the same time, stabilize and produce enough strength and control (i.e. make it as strong as “steel”).
So if you are one of those people who are terrified of moving into spinal flexion / hyper extension. Stop!
I’m not suggesting you go with weights and start loading those weak spots with force and sets / reps like a mad person, I’m suggesting you start getting control in positions of weakness. We call that: “mobility” – that’s all 🙂
No Pain, No Problem
Did you know that over a third of the population, without back pain, have herniated discs? That’s right.
Two people can have herniated discs, one feels back pain, the other one is doing CrossFit and smashing personal bests. How can that be? It’s just a question of whether the disc, touches the nerve.
When the disc touches and compress the sciatic nerve (also called “sciatica”), we also often feel it running down our legs.
It should be said, pain is undesirable (for the obvious reasons but also because it changes movement). However, the presence of pain or lack of pain is ultimately just another piece of information in a much bigger puzzle.
The other thing is that our body regenerates and degenerates all the time depending on your function (your function depicts your anatomy, not the other way around). Without getting too deep into stem-cells theory right now (which I am happy to blab about on another post), we start as bodies of very organised tissues and we slowly disorganize over our lifetime until we die (I know… it’s so bleak!!).
Unless we intervene. Human nature, you tend to assume that if there’s no pain, you can basically do anything. But why would you assume you’ve got mobility in hip abduction, if you’ve never actively done work on it (let alone tested it…)? Same about hip flexion, hip extension, thoracic rotation, ankle dorsiflexion and so on… which brings us to the next point.
Make shit work nice
The body works in kinetic chains to accomplish the movement tasks we throw on it (regardless if it’s everyday movement or something a bit more demanding like a 100kg squat). If you haven’t got enough mobility in the hips, your back will have to compensate. The same is true for any other part of your body. This is why we say that pain is often a symptom… part of something bigger. Resolving pain alone (which can sometime take 20 seconds) is great, but it’s far from “job done”.
When you make every part of your body work nice, guess what happens?
- When shit works nice… then shit works nice! Get it???
- When each body part can do more, there is less need for compensations. If your hips can move better, your back wouldn’t have to work double duty.
- When shit works nice… you get less injuries, less pain, better strength and better performance.
This is a massive subject but my point is this:
Don’t let pain direct your work in the long-term. If you want a body that works better, pain is but a small piece of the puzzle. To really improve, avoid thinking fitness is just about how strong / lean you are… start thinking in terms of mobility, range of motion, motor control and explore – make shit work nice!
Avoid finding the best seat, just to spend time in it
We spend way too much time in postures that are energy efficient, like sitting. As discussed before, forward flexion of the spine is not a great position to spend a lot of time in – yes to develop control in.. no to relax into.
So sitting is not great for you.. at least when you do it for a long time – everyone knows that and it’s one of the major causes of low back pain.
It’s also a thing of necessity:
- Most of us spent our childhood sitting in classes for 20 years or so…
- We sit at work, on the car / train and when we finally get home – we just want to sit and relax.
- Even if you stop sitting today. You can assume some “damage” has already been done, you can already assume you’ve got some work ahead of you.
Here’s the thing you don’t hear about very often:
When people talk about “neutral spine and pelvis” – they neglect to mention there is no actual definition of it. It’s somewhere between curved and not curved, between posterior pelvic tilt and anterior pelvic tilt… There is no defined position.
The same goes with posture… somewhere between flexion and extension, where major points along your body align with each other. But here’s the thing: Posture is not static, it’s dynamic.
You can say for a fact someone has a bad posture – especially if they are static and trying to stand tall all the time or if they have pain in the lower back or upper back. Good posture is relative to movement. The terms we should be using to define good posture are more in the lines of:
- Can you extend at your thoracic spine more? Can you control it or do you substitute it for shoulder movements?
- Can you bend at a segment of your spine? Or is L1-L4 basically moves as one unit (because there are 4 units in that example!).
I’m all in for finding a good seat with good ergonomics. I’m really against spending a lot of time in a seat, no matter how good you think it is. Use it or lose it.
On a secondary note.. Please please please invest in a good mattress that’s not too soft. If you’re lying in bed and it sinks too much in the middle – you are spending 7-9 hours of your day in a terrible position, without being able to do anything about it… so look into investing in a good (and solid) mattress, not too soft.
Avoid “stretching” your lower back, even if it feels nice.
How many of you have seen people stretch in rotation, like this:
Yes, you are releasing tension from the lower back and it may feel nice if you have built-up tension and therefore low back pain. You are also rotating the lower back and relaxing into it. I know a lot of people are given this by their physios / manual therapist but it can still be bad for you:
- On the one hand, many of them still prescribe this stretch as a treatment as it feels nice and lowers the pain levels (therefore “it must be good”).
- On the other hand, ask them what they think about Lumbar spine rotation and they’ll say it’s the quickest way to get herniated discs at L3-L4 and that it should never be rotated (their eyebrows coming together and face suddenly gets serious).
- The only way to do it right is to lock hip flexion tight (to prevent the lower back from moving) – but that’s more of a thoracic stretch than a lower back stretch (such as in the Tension Flexibility version of the Brettzel).
I’m not trying to give a bad name to physios and other manual therapists. Some of them are absolutely brilliant – but there are so many trends and directions in the health industry and sometimes not everything sits right. Consider that a fair warning but a common practice we see a lot.
Avoid blaming it on that “one thing”
Run checks and get advice from professionals. If it’s chronic, make sure you check it with a medical professional – only they can run blood work and tell you if it’s cancer. I can’t do it for you. Equally, don’t just on the first surgery option being offered as if you can avoid it (which many people can), you’ll be better off. There is more than one way to treat problems and more than one way to define them.
As you do your checks, try things and explore – remember this one core principle: “never blame it on one thing”.
I hear it all the time:
- “I have an anterior pelvic tilt” = I’m stuck in a position of compensation where my pelvis tilts forward to compensate (usually) for lack of hips mobility.
- “I have tight hamstrings therefore I must stretch them contentiously” = my hamstrings overtakes duties, possibility because my gluteus aren’t doing what they are supposed to do or because my anterior pelvic tilt keeps pulling on them.
- “I have got a herniated disc therefore I’m in terrible pain” – more and more people without back pain have a herniated disc and go about their life not even realizing it… are you sure that’s the source of everything you’re experiencing?
- “I did a deadlift two weeks ago and my back hurts ever since… I’ll never deadlift again” – or… I have some other things going on and doing a deadlift puts a real stress on them, I better go and find out what I can improve around my hips / pelvis areas and do some work on it.
- “I sneezed and pulled by back” – I can guarantee sneezing is not the problem and it’s not you “getting old”, just getting to a point when you really need to work on your body and can no longer get away with it. If it helps, I can introduce you to older people without back pain who like to sneeze.
- “I have tight hip flexors therefore I must stretch them” = my muscle on the front of my hip are working day and night and not getting any rest, possibility because of positions I’m stuck in or because of other things (like hip extension) that may need work. I stretch them to make them feel good but only fooling myself to thinking they are the problem and stretching is the solution.
My point is simple. Don’t blame it on the one link you feel it in (the one thing that’s probably doing its job… and compensating for non-working parts at the same time) as a chain is always made of multiple links.
The best thing you can do is to stop worrying about “stretching” what’s tight and look at range of motion and stability of different links around the body (i.e. “make shit work nice”). Make it a lifelong mission, you can still gain muscle and lose fat but it doesn’t mean mobility have to take a back-sit or that you have to stop being curious about what is better movement, how do you stack up and how to progress.