In the not so wise words of Mike Tyson. “I broke my back, my back in broken……SPINAL” Yes you’ve guessed it’s time we talked about bad back Barry. A hot one to talk about with everyone seeming like they've broken their back, but is that really the case? Most people will have had a slightly herniated disk somewhere along the spine and haven't even realised it.
The spine is made up of 33 individual vertebrae that interlock to form the spinal column. It allows you to stand up tall, twist around and bend over. From the side, you should see an S curve in the spine which will be made up from the cervical, thoracic and lumbar curves. You have 5 regions creating the spine, at the top, your neck is the cervical region c1-c7, this will support the big ol brain you have. Mid back is the thoracic region T1-T12, limited range of motion in this region of the spine. Low back is the lumbar region L1-L5, this section will bare most of the weight of the body. The sacrum, S1-S5, these vertebrae are fused together and connect the spine to the hip. Lastly, you've got the coccyx region, or the tailbone C1-C4 are also fused together, these will provide attachments for ligaments and muscles to the pelvic floor.
You have 4 movements: flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation. The type of joints you have in the spine are called facet joints which work like a hinge and link vertebrae together. Between vertebrae you have an intervertebral disk, these keep the bones from rubbing together and act like a loaded spring. To keep it simple we will focus on the trunk and not the neck, we will cover that later.
Anatomy lesson 101 on the trunk.
Prime Mover - Rectus Abdominals
Synergists - External and internal obliques, psoas.
Antagonist - Erector spinae, latissimus dorsi
Stabilisers - Transverse abdominals, diaphragm, pelvic floor.
Prime Mover - Erector spinae, latissimus dorsi
Synergists - Quadratus lumborum, multifidi, Longissimus thoracis
Antagonist - Rectus abdominals, external and internal obliques, psoas
Stabilisers - Transverse abdominals, diaphragm, pelvic floor.
Trunk Lateral Flexion:
Prime Mover - Quadratus Lumborum, Internal and external oblique
Synergist - Erector spinae, rectus and transverse abdominals
Antagonist - An odd one, but it would be the quadratus lumborum and internal and external oblique, just on the opposite side of the working side.
Prime Mover - Erector spinae, internal and external obliques
Synergist - Quadratus lumborum, psoas
Antagonist - same as lateral flexion, its antagonist to itself. Making it the erector spinae and internal and external obliques.
Now, testing for flexibility in the spine is a bit of an odd one. Because as lifters we want to do so in a safe manner, with a flat and neutral spine. You don’t aim to flex the spine in the squat or deadlift so is there any reason to test for the range of movement at the trunk in how much flexion and extension we can achieve? From past experience and from people I know and have dealt with my own back injury, the problem is very rarely that the back is too tight. During a deadlift, we want to keep the back and spine tight to prevent any form of injury. The problems seem to occur from muscles and joints around it being too tight like hamstrings, glutes or quadriceps. Which can then lead you to think your back is the problem as that is where the pain is when in reality something is pulling on something else which is making you feel some form of discomfort. Don't get me wrong, testing for the flexion, extension, lateral flexion and rotation of the spine is essential but only for a professional and someone who knows what they are doing and looking for when making you perform these tests, as it’ll help them figure out your problem. So if you wanted just to test your range of movement to log down or for fun, I wouldn't bother, there’s no need for it as you should be moving and lifting with a neutral spine. So if you are currently suffering from back pain, my best advice is to see a GP or physiotherapist to be on the safe side. But at some point, you are going to want to strengthen the back and core which brings me to my next point.
One of the best all-around exercise for strengthening the back, spine, core, whole body is the deadlift. When done correctly you definitely will notice yourself packing on the size and strength. I mean what's not impressive about loading up a heavy barbell and standing up with it. It’s impressive and looks cool as shit!
Deadlift instructions - stand with your feet shoulder width under the bar at midfoot. Bend down and grip the barbell with a pronated grip at about shoulder width (personal preference). Take a deep breath in your belly, engage the core and brace. Now engage the lats, puff the chest up and creating a flat back. Stand up with all your power, making sure to squeeze the glutes. Lower the bar by doing it in reverse, hip hinge and break at the knees, making sure to keep the back flat. Best to learn how to perform this exercise correctly first so leave the ego at the door.
The second exercise I am going to suggest is a static exercise. Simple yet effective. This exercise is the reverse plank. It’s as it sounds, the opposite of the plank.
Reverse plank instructions - to perform this exercise you will need 2 benches or something similar. You will place your upper back along one bench and your feet on the other bench, stretched out as tall as you can be. You’ll need to squeeze the glutes and engage the core to keep yourself up and in the correct position. Add weight if its too easy but you'll notice the burning sensation build up in the erectors and glutes.
Another static exercise. How could we talk about strengthening the trunk without focusing on the core specifically? This one when I first tried this exercise was intense, I’ve never felt my core work like this before. It is the pallof press.
Pallof press instructions - For this, you will need an adjustable cable machine or a resistance band. Set the height of the bands to just below shoulder height and walk out to the side taking the slack from the band. Use a shoulder-width stance, with feet pointing forward and sit down into a quarter squat. Now, still holding the band, hold your arms out straight in front of you and don't let them drop down, brace the core, and the aim is not to let the band pull you away from this position. Once held for your time, turn around and repeat on the other side. To make this more challenging, you can do this exercise at different squat heights. For example, quarter squat, half squat and full ass to grass squat.
An added bonus, Loaded carries, whether it be farmers, sandbags, stones anything you name it will not only develop your core, improves posture, it’ll pack on the size and strength to your back like you've never seen. As its dynamic as well you get the added bonus of helping with your cardio. Want to become unstoppable then start carrying weight.
Stretching & Self Myofascial release:
Low back smash. Similar to one of our glute smashes, we have our feet propped up against a block or bench and place a lacrosse ball on our low back just above the pelvis. Shift your hips and weight to the side with the ball on and slowly move up and down, holding it the tense areas.
Side Smash. Place a lacrosse ball on the side of your low back between your hips and ribs. Lay down onto the ball and turn your hips to the side you are working, trying to keep shoulders on the floor still. You can create more pressure by rotating your legs to the side. This can be performed with a foam roller, but it won't be as specific.
The next one you will need something to hang off. We use the rage cage at Devanney Strength. It’s easy to do, just put some moon boots on and attach yourself to the top of the cage and hang around, let gravity do all the work. If you don't have moon boots, you can just grab a pull-up bar or the top the cage and hold on and hang.
Lastly, we got the classic spine twist. Lay on your back with feet and shoulders flat on the floor. Keeping your right shoulder on the floor, bring your right knee over your left leg. Grab your knee and pull it towards the floor, aiming to bring knee to floor and shoulder to stay flat on the floor. Look towards your right arm and repeat on the other side.
Having a tight or immobile back could lead to many problems such as sprains, herniated disks, sciatica. But assuming you’re a lifter reading this then I’ll start by mentioning that your lifting will more than likely take a step back. I mean you can’t squat 200 kilos if your getting shooting pains running down your back and you won't be deadlifting 300 kilos if you’re struggling to get in and out of bed every day. That's not to say you have to go cold turkey and stop till everything stops aching. From what I’ve learnt through past experience is that keeping moving helps the whole recovery process, whether it be just bodyweight work with what you can do without any pain or going up for walks and stretching. Obviously, you should consult a professional on the matter if something serious is wrong or you've got a pain that isn't going away. Developing a back problem comes from literally anything, whether it be from work like manual labour or sitting at a desk, playing sports, or even just twinging it a little in the warm-up, they all come with risks, and it’s how you deal with the problem will determine what you can and can’t do.
Dean"Don't be like Mike" Collins