Never is it more true in regard to the spine. Consider the fact that as much as 80% of the general population will experience back pain at least once in their lives (and by my estimation and experience this is really low-balling how widespread back pain really is), and you get the point.
With that in mind, here’s 6 strategies that you can apply to spare your own spine from potential injury.
Strategy #1 Improve your trunk strength-endurance
Strength-endurance is the ability to apply your strength for an extended period of time before fatigue sets in and alters your ability to effectively perform a task. Since we just went through winter in my neck of the woods, let me use snow shoveling as an example. Each time you scoop up some snow, your trunk muscles must stabilize the spine to protect it from the heavy load. To clear your entire driveway may take a few hundred shovels full. If you lack strength-endurance in the trunk muscles, your spinal alignment eventually starts to breakdown under the load and the spinal structures are at a higher potential for injury.
Applied Strategy: Improve trunk strength-endurance by progressively increasing your ability to hold a plank, side bridge, or isometric back extension exercise for time. Your goals should be to hold a plank and side bridge for 2 minutes each and a side bridge for 90 seconds on each side.
Strategy #2 Sit less
As a nation of sitters, we sit to watch TV, sit to each, sit to drive, sit to surf the net, and so on. Most folks eventually adopt a low back posture that is rounded forward because let’s face it gravity works and it’ll pull you downward all day long. This posture not only exposes the back muscles, ligaments, and discs to increased stress, but sitting also increases the internal pressures in the lumbar discs. The disc pressure is much like squeezing one end of a water balloon which forces the other end to bulge out. In the case of a disc, this can result in a herniated disc and bad news from the spine surgeon.
Applied Strategy: Stand more. In my home office, I have a stand up desk that I’ll use to do a great portion of my writing. This reduces the time and load on my spine that extended periods of sitting will promote. Another thing you can do after prolonged sitting is to perform a set of standing back extensions (bend backwards) to shift the pressure on the disc to a more forward direction. It’s also a good idea to avoid any heavy lifts after sitting for extended periods as a precaution. That means on days that you squat or deadlift, it’s not a good idea to sit down between sets, but if you must, avoid slouching at all costs.
Strategy #3 Improve hip flexibility
In my clinical practice, one of the most common findings in lower back patients is that they actually have more of a hip range of motion limitation, and the back pain is simply due to compensation. Because the body is essentially a connected chain of parts (AKA the kinetic chain), a lack of motion in one area of the body promotes increased motion else where. The lower back really isn’t designed to move all that much and when the hips lack motion, the back motion must increase. This can result in spinal instability, altered spinal alignment, overuse, and degenerative conditions like arthritis.
Applied Strategy: Work to maintain normal hip range of motion by regularly stretch the hip flexors, hamstrings, and hip rotators. You can also improve hip flexibility by selecting mobility and strength training exercises that require these muscles to be placed on stretch such as Romanian Deadlifts (RDL), Lunges and split squats, and an effective dynamic warm-up prior to your main exercise session.
Strategy #4 Avoid repetitive or prolonged flexion of the spine
I work with a lot of injured workers who’ve been performing repetitive forward bending of the spine for months and, in many cases, years resulting in overstretching of the lumbar spinal ligaments, repetitive strain of the low back muscles, and herniations of the lumbar discs. In fact, the primary mechanism of disc herniation is repetitive forward flexion (forward rounding) of the spine, especially when it’s under load.
Applied Strategy: Learn to hinge properly at the hips to avoid rounding the lower back forward. You can see a demonstration of a proper hip hinge for use with any bending activity or exercise HERE.
Strategy #5 Reinforce posture throughout the day
There will be times that sitting, slouching and even bending cannot be avoided for one reason or another. We are human after all. In such cases, reinforcing good postural alignment periodically can prevent the muscles, ligaments, and discs from permanently deforming and increasing potential for injury.
Applied Strategy: Make postural corrections every 15 minutes by making your spine as tall as possible. Tissues (muscles, ligaments, discs, etc.) can deform in as little as 15-20 minutes. By getting “Tall” every 15 minutes you break the cycles of undesirable postures and negative adaptations that may cost you work, training, or play time later on. If you sit at a computer all day, consider setting repeated cues to pop up on your screen that can be set from your Outlook email program.
Strategy #6 Select exercises that reinforce good spinal mechanics
Some exercise are just not great choices for everyone. You must adapt your exercise selection to your personal needs but also your own personal physiology. For instance, people who lack hip mobility may not be able to effectively perform deadlifts from the floor with rounding the lower back. Back squats, with the bar placed across the shoulders behind the neck, can also promote rounding of the spine.
Applied Strategy: Consider switching for primarily front squats until your hip mobility improves. Because of the placement of the bar across the front of the shoulders the spine must be maintained in the neutral alignment otherwise the bar will end up in your lap. Deadlifts can be performed in the squat rack where the bar can be elevated to a more effective starting position.
You only have one spine…take care of it.