There’s no way around it. Weightlifting is very intensive on the low back muscles. For those of us in the weightlifting population that are stuck in extension (almost everyone) heavy pulls, squats and explosive extension aren’t the best things to combat this. However, it’s our sport and we have to deal with it if we want to be good. I’m going to give you a simple test to determine whether some of your vertebrate are ‘’stuck’’ in extension and an easy method to fix it.
We’ve all probably seen the common S-curve that occurs in a normal, healthy spine. The discs between vertebrate and the natural S-curve are meant to help absorb shock placed upon the spine. Ideally, we can keep this alignment and put our spine in the best position to stay as healthy as possible. In sports where extension is the primary method of force production (most sports), this isn’t always the easiest thing to do.
When we look at the body’s joints in general, we want the ability to move them through a full range of motion while being stable in all positions. Some joints require more stability (like the knees) and some require more range of motion (like the shoulders). The spine is no different. We want the ability to move the joints when they need to be moved i.e. not stuck in one position, but the ability to stabilize the spine in the best position and resist movement to lift the most weight.
For reference, the most stable part of the spine should be the lumbar spine. As we travel up the spine, ideally there is a gradual increase in range of motion. Where we run into problems is when our spine gets ‘’stuck’’ in certain positions. These immobile vertebral joints put extra strain on the other vertebral joints. These hyper/hypo-mobile joints are very common in athletes, especially weightlifters.
Toe Touch Test
eThe toe touch test is a very simple test that you can use to assess the mobility and stability of the spine. What most people use as a hamstring flexibility test, we use to look at joint hyper/hypo-mobility of the spine
A few notes on performing the test. Knees should not stay locked, but not be too flexed either (excuse my picture, it was 5AM :)). An ideal amount of flexion in the knees can be seen in the middle picture. Let the head hang down so we can better see the curvature of the thoracic spine. If you’re assessing someone else, have them hold this position for at least a few seconds to get a good look at their spine. The person touching their toes should be cued to ‘’Let the head hang and relax.’’
Now that we know the test we’re using, let’s take a deeper look at what we see above.
Looking at the picture on the left, I outlined some segments of spine that are locked in extension (Click on the picture to see an enlarged version of each). Even in the position I’m putting my body in, you can see that they still want to stay extended and flat. Both the lumbar and thoracic spine have been big problem areas in the past and while this isn’t great looking, it’s much better than it used to.
Looking at these locked down segments and what happens as a result of them, we know that if a joint doesn’t have range of motion, the body is going to find it in another joint. As an example, if I lack range of motion in my ankle and I’m trying to squat, my body is going to use as much range of motion of the hip as possible. Most times, this leads to a mild to severely forward angled torso.
The spine is no different. When one or multiple vertebrae lack range of motion, that range is made up in other segments. These are the segments most at risk for injury. You can see in the picture above I circled and labeled the hypermobile segments. With a good eye, you can see these flat segments and hypermobile joints in anyone that has them.
Now if we’re to look at the middle picture, again we can see someone whose lumbar spine is severely locked in extension. Assuming he was cued to do the test correctly, his lumbar spine is so locked down that it actually maintains a concavity even when reaching towards his toes. This is something we always want to fix. We also see that his thoracic spine is very flat.
Believe it or not, it took me a while to find a picture of a good C-curve in the spine. The picture on the right is the best I found. While she might be a bit hypermobile throughout her whole body, we can see that she has the ability to reverse the natural curve in her spine. Consequently, she doesn’t present with any hypermobile spinal segments and is at a much lower risk for spinal injuries assuming she has the ability to properly stabilize her spine..
So what can we do to fix these problems? Here are two exercises that we commonly use at Lift Lab.
Full Rockback Breathing
Both of these are great at increasing the range of motion in these ‘’locked down’’ segments. One uses position and breathing techniques to gradually open up these segments that are locked in extension. The other drills a stable lumbar spine while increasing the range of motion through the thoracic spine. Both of these will help mobilize any hypomobile spinal segments, lessening the strain on hypermobile segments.
While these exercises aren’t meant to be fixes for a painful back, they can go a long way in reducing the risk for injury in an athlete that is stuck in extension. These are also great prehab exercises for athletes whose sport requires a lot of aggressive extension (most sports) as a way to prevent hyper/hypo-mobile joints and get the abs firing. To be effective, it is best to integrate these into your warmup before you train at the very least. If time permits, I'd recommend finishing each training session with these as well.
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