Saturday, May 28, 2011

Step 7: Mobilize your Mid-Back

The Desk Warriors Guide To Building A Healthy Back 7/10

Now that we are working to stabilize our lower backs in an effort to limit the chances of lower back injury; we must in turn mobilize the joints immediately above and below. In the case of our lumbar spine which includes the bottom 5 lumbar vertebrae, we are talking about mobilizing the hip joint below and the 12 thoracic vertebrae above. Our body has this pattern of a mobile joint followed by a stable joint and so forth. Strength coach Mike Boyle describes this pattern and the joint-by-joint training approach in his great article here.

Joint-By-Joint Approach

Ankle needs Mobility

Knee needs Stability

Hip needs Mobility

Lumbar spine needs Stability

Thoracic spine needs Mobility

Scapulo-Thoracic needs Stability

Shoulder needs Mobility

Why do our bodies necessitate a mobile joint be followed by a stable joint? It’s because we don’t want to be a loose gumby-esque amorphis jello-creature as we would be if all our joints were hypermobile. Nor do we want to move like a 16th century iron clad English soldier, as we would if all our joints were overly stable.

Instead we compromise joint-by-joint and follow stable joints up the kinetic chain with mobile joints. When one joint sacrifices mobility for stability, the joints immediately above and below must pick up the movement slack with increased mobility. This allows for optimal movement and athletic performance and is precisely what we want out of the hips and thoracic spine as to allow for our stable low-backs.

So why train for a stable lumbar spine? Why mobilize the thoracic spine?

This comes down to the intended use of the joint. The lumbar vertebrae are thick and stable by nature. They are intended to act as a conduit from which our powerful lower limbs will move us about. The lumbar spine doesn't allow for a great deal of rotation or flexion/extension. The thoracic spine instead is where we are designed to get most of our rotation and flexion/extension from. See the lumbar spine has a huge job, supporting our the entire load that is yourself at the center of our gravity. It does this by being stable and needs to be trained for this task.

Poor thoracic posture or kyphosis coupled with poor mobility is an epidemic similar in magnitude to our nations obesity epidemic. Look around you. Notice all the bent spines? Notice that forward head posture with the turtle shell back? This posture predicts poor thoracic mobility & increases risk of injuring the joints directly above and below. Namely the lower back, the shoulders and neck. Let me tell you what is likely to happen to these folks.

Low Back Injury

So if we are supposed to perform a squat and get decent depth. If we can't maintain a neutral spine because of our hunched posture, we will lose our lumbar curve at the worst time, under full flexion. This is how we herniate discs apply a load to a fully-flexed spine and WHAM-O, PAIN CITY.

If we can't get full rotation as in throwing, or other twisting movements because of sub-par thoracic mobility, our lumbar spines will pick up this slack as well. Twisting motions have been found by McGill to have up to 6x the compressive load as simple flexion/extension exercises. This increased compressive load will more quickly lead to injury in the dysfunctional spine.

Shoulder Injury

When it comes to any overhead lifts, poor thoracic extension makes these very difficult. Kyphosis prevents your shoulder blades from tilting backwards when your arms are raised. This leads to decreased subacromial space and increased risk of shoulder impingement. Over time you may tear a rotator cuff in this manner. Know anyone with a rotator cuff tear that hasn't done a thing to earn it? As Borat would put it, I'd bet the eyes of my first born that they have bad posture.

Tangent. Think of a creep. The most vile and foul of all creeps. Take a moment to picture them creeping about as they slither through their creepy day. Now tell me that creep you painted in your mind did NOT have a rounded out back? ALL creeps have a degree of kyphosis, perhaps earned from hours of facebook creeping or perhaps by nature. Regardless, don't allow yourself to fall into this category simply because you've plugged too many hours in at the job.

Not only is this kyphotic posture unnattractive & creepy, it is unproductive and injurious. So what can you do about it? Well for one, start with purchasing a high density foam roller and using it daily. Here is a video on the simple foam rolling technique that will help you preserve or improve your thoracic mobility.

Not only is the foam roller effective, it feels DAMN good. When you relax onto the foam roller and slowly roll up and down, you’ll feel all these mini-cracks. This is just gas release from the ribs at the articulations with the vertebrae. This is nothing to worry about. The ribs provide stability to the thoracic spine protecting it from injury. The articulations with the ribs increase thoracic stability but predispose the cervical and lumbar spine to injury at the expense of the T-spine safety. Approximately only 5% of disc herniations occur in the T-spine. Most disc herniation occurs in the lumbar spine in the young and as we age disc herniation becomes more predominant in the cervical spine.

The foam roller is an effective tool. So effectively that a client of mine once gained ¾ of an inch in height via thoracic extension. This gain of height came with improved movement patterns in the joints above and below the thoracic spine. We were able to achieve better overhead positions (improved shoulder function) and able to avoid lumbar flexion due to the improved posture and thoracic mobility. Thus we were able to train harder without risking injury to the joint above and below the immobile thoracic spine. Are you getting this?

As for assessment and correction, I’ll point you to a great post by Mark Sisson’s. He tackles this topic well at his blog post on

Hopefully between Mark Sissons and I you now have a better understanding of the importance of thoracic mobility as it regards to building your healthy back. Now let's work on decreasing our creep-factor and improving our thoracic mobility. Not only may you melt away low-back and shoulder/neck pain. You'll feel better, move better, look better and lift more. I'm sold! Sign me up!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Client Before and Afters. Quick Transformations.

I put together a video of some clients that I've worked with. The results were achieved with 2-4 lifting sessions per week and some dietary changes. 8-12 weeks and Wallah!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Step 6: Stabilize your lower back

The Desk Warriors Guide to Building a Healthy Back 6/10

Before getting into the importance of low-back stability, I want to rant about a common misconception that leads to many ill-informed folks doing various ineffective and potentially injurious core exercises. Core strength SHOULD NOT be measured by your ability to perform sit-ups, crunches, weighted sit-ups or any other bending/twisting exercises. Core strength IS the ability of your core musculature to RESIST MOVEMENT against an external force. More simply put, core strength is your ability to resist being moved or bent by something or someone. We're talking resisting the effects of gravity, meeting a fullback in the hole, lifting a sack of concrete overhead, squatting a 1/2 ton etc... not doing a weighted incline sit-up with a 45 lb. plate on your chest or doing 1000 crunches per day. If you want to get herniated discs perform them as desired.

The person who can tense their core to the extreme is the person with the strongest core, not the person who can do the craziest variety of sit-up. The hardest hitters in football are those who upon impact tense their entire bodies so that in effect, they are hard as rock. The impact generated when they hit their opponent loses very little energy thus the impact happens instantaneously rather than over time. The result is an astronomical collision that leaves the foe decimated and draws a penalty and a fine in the newly soft NFL. This ability to resist movement against an external force is not generated by performing bends and twists. It is generated by resisting gravity in extreme situations, squatting heavy, practicing levers and overhead lifts etc...

The desire to get 6 pack abs almost always leads to exhaustive amounts of forward bending. Targeting those elusive lower abs with various bending exercises is a huge waste of time and detrimental to the lower back. Don't believe me? Check out the University of Waterloo's own Professor Stuart McGill as he takes you through the science. The truth is, you can get similar or even greater contractions from those target muscles with exercises where you are not repeatedly flexing the spine. Getting full muscular contraction under a fully flexed spine is a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, exhaustive ab work doesn't do a damn thing to the overloaded fat cells floating atop that ripped six pack that we all have. Doing crunches doesn't elicit fat loss from your love handles. QUIT WASTING TIME AND DAMAGING YOUR SPINES!

For those of you who want to get started on your path to ultimate performance, or just reduce your back pain. First master these three exercises.

These three exercises were found by McGill to be the best bang for your buck. During EMG testing they elicited the great contraction from the target muscles while having minimal amounts of spinal compression and virtually zero spinal flexion. As we learned, this is a good thing as full spinal flexion coupled with compression is a recipe for disc herniation soup.

The cumulative effect of practicing these 3 exercises will train your core musculature to act like a spinal stability belt. You see these 3 exercises target the spinal erectors, the internal and external obliques and the anterior abdominal muscles. These muscles wrap all 360 degrees of your torso so that when trained properly you'll essenetially have a bulletproof core. If you still have LBP and decent endurance in the big three, you may benefit from increased posterior chain work in the form of glute-bridges and supine planks as McGill found those who suffered from LBP had a poor ratio of posterior extensor endurance to anterior musculature endurance.

I am not speaking from an ivory tower in regards to this back injury and rehabilitation stuff. As a reckless youth, I managed to herniate my bottom disc (L5-S1) and 2 years later the disc above it (L4-L5) while simultaneously re-injuring the initial disc herniation. Yes, my lower back is jacked up! Both of these injuries were earned by performing deadlifts with poor form coupled with a tad of trying to be Superman. The pain came quickly and chronically after both injuries. After the second injury when I herniated both lower discs I spent months limping out of bed, crippled by sciatic pain. It took me a few hours to be able extend my right leg more than a short strides length without horrible pain.

By practicing what I preach & what I've taught you in the previous six posts I have been able to regain my function. It was a long hard road but I now manage the injuries without the help of any health practitioners and NEVER used any pain medications. LBP starts a downward spiral in the health and wellness of many and it doesn't have to be that way.

The above 3 exercises were integral in my rehabilitation process & should be a part of yours. (check with your Doctor. & don't sue me yada yada) My CHRONIC lower back pain decreased as my endurance and proficiency in these moves increased. As they got boring and easy, I was able to progress to higher level movements; starting with increased lumbar stability challenges & culminating with 52" Box Jumps, 385 pound Squats & 600 pound tire flips.

The main reason I know so much about building a healthy back is that I have successfully done it myself. If I do ANYTHING wrong, my lower back let's me know about it. This has been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I educated myself by reading 4 books by the best people in the spine-sparing universe and now possess the knowledge that can many people with bad backs & a curse because, well I'm sure you can figure that out!

I hope this information provided aids you in your efforts towards building a healthy back! Please post questions and comments.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Step 5: Walk More!

The Desk Warriors Guide to Building a Healthy Back! 5/10

My biggest pet peeve is seeing people spend minutes searching for a close parking spot; driving up and down the rows of cars when they could have easily parked a hundred yards away and walked. Not only are these rats wasting time, they are wasting a fossil fuels, contributing to global warming, wasting money, wasting energy, stressing out about their parking spot and greatly increasing their risk of being in a car accident. O yea, and they are spending more time SITTING when they could have gotten off their lazy asses and gotten a small dose of some exercise medicine.

While some may find walking to be a chore or laborious exercise, others get great relief from walking. Walking speed may have something to do with the above dichotomy. Strolling, or walking slowly reduces spine motion and statically loads the spine. This contributes to the same overloading of tissues that we’ve discussed earlier, and thus pain in the associated tissues. I feel this pain as I aimlessly meander after my girlfriend while she bounces between various female clothing stores while shopping at the mall.

Faster, more purposeful walking results in greater more cyclic spinal movement. This cyclic movement migrates the forces to more tissues. This is hypothesized to be part of the reason why a quicker walking pace is more restorative to the spine. Also, arm swinging (from the shoulder, not the elbow) as in the faster walking clips has been shown in studies to reduce spinal compression by up to 10%. (Callaghan, Patla, McGill, 1999) All other factors being the same, arm swinging from the shoulder, not elbow results in lower lumbar spine torques, muscular activity, and loading.

Get outside and walk people!

Walking is often a first step in various rehabilitations. Studies show walking to be a positive cofactor in prevention of LBP (low-back pain), and more successful recovery from LBP (Nutter, 1988). Besides reducing compressive forces, torques and muscular activity, the light reciprocal muscular activation is hypothesized to not only migrate tissue load but to increase circulation and bloodflow to the area. Tissues heal in correlation with the amount of bloodflow or nutrients they recieve. Think of walking as nutrition to your lumbar spine and the rest of your body for that matter.

Some may find relief simply from changing their morning routine. When we sleep, fluids accumulate in and around the discs. (we are often up to 1cm taller in the mornings) This intradiscal fluid build-up increases pressure in the back, manifesting as a stiff lower back. (ever notice how much more difficult it is too tie your shoes first thing in the morning?) Putting on and tying the shoes in the morning is always harder than at night for this exact reason. Snook and colleagues (1998) found that avoiding forward bending postures upon awakening is very effective in reducing symptoms in a group of back-troubled individuals. This would mean avoiding sitting or performing work where you frequently bend over or forward in the morning is prudent for those with LBP. Forward-bending stresses on the ligaments and discs are higher in the first two hours after rising, requiring less loading or degree of bending to induce injury. (McGill, 2007.) Again, take the dog for a walk, take yourself for a walk, cook and eat standing up. Avoid flexion while your discs are fully juiced.

Desk Warriors, I urge you to pace around in between bouts of sitting. Stand and walk as you take cell-phone calls. (I personally feel more in charge and clear headed when I stand or pace while on the phone) Purposefully walk between tasks. Park farther away from work rather than wasting time and mental energy fighting for the closer spots. Take a brisk walk first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. You will burn fat efficiently and allow for the release of intradiscal fluid pressure. Good luck!

Callaghan, J.P, Patla A.E., and McGill, S.M., (2001) Low back joint loading and kinematics during standing and unsupported sitting. Ergonomics, 44 (4): 373-381

McGill, (2007) Low Back Disorders. Human Kinetics, Champaign Illinios. P. 155.

Nutter, P. (1988) Aerobic exercise in the treatment and prevention of low back pain. State of the Art Review of Occupational Medicine, 3: 137.

Snook, S.H., Webster, B.S., McGarry R.W., Fogleman, M.T., and McCann, K.B. (1998) The reduction of chronic nonspecific low back pain through the control of early morning lumbar flexion: A randomized controlled trial. Spine 23 (23): 2601-2607.

STEP 4: Take Frequent Breaks From Sitting

The Desk Warriors Guide to Building a Healthy Back! 4/10

We learned from Step 1: Sit Less that most of us spend too much time seated and that sitting is associated with disc herniation and low back pain (LBP).(McGill, 2007) When we are required to sit for long durations, it is essential to practice all the best sitting techniques learned in the previous posts. Besides improved posture and lessened pain, we can reduce our risk of heart disease by sitting less. Sitting is an independent risk factor for heart disease. So forget popping your statins like your cardiologi$t told you, how about sitting less?

One of the best ways to sit less is to take frequent breaks from sitting. Regardless of how well you follow the previous posts instructions on how to sit better, you still should to take frequent breaks from sitting. This is usually an option, unless you drive for a profession. Try to stand up often, preferably every 15 minutes and atleast every 50 minutes. Remember how sitting delaminates the annular layers of the disc, pressing the nucleus of the disc backwards?

Annular delamination and posterior disc bulge

This is the mechanism causing bulging and herniated discs. To restore equilibrium in the disc simply stand up, push your hips forward and lean back into extension. Do this a few times or for an extended hold. This combats the chronic lumbar flexion we experience from sitting and helps to allow the discs nucleus to return to equilibrium. Also, extension alleviates the stress placed on the overstretched spinal ligaments, allowing them some time to return to a more normal length.

Next externally rotate your arms, by turning your palms outward and elevate your chest by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Retract your head and lift your chin. Now you've assumed proper posture. Assume this proper posture every time you rise from a chair. Let this become a habit and you will be a healthier, more attractive hominid. If you can spare the time, walk for a few minutes to avoid the monotony and degradatious effects that sitting places on the spine. If your boss has a problem, let em talk to me and I”ll set em' straight. Desk Warriors, don't be afraid to TAKE A STAND and sit less!