This past August marked the 15th anniversary since I underwent a T1-L3 spinal fusion to correct severe Scheuermann’s Kyphosis. Prior to this 18-hour operation, I was instructed that my intended recreational pursuits would not likely come to fruition and that a modest life of working a desk job would be required. I didn’t mind ignoring the doctor’s request and decided to take a different path in life. After skiing 600 some days during the past 11 years pain free and developing fitness for hundreds of people, I have learned a few things about spine health.
Here is what you need to know. Most people with back pain fall into one of two categories: Some face chronic pain that is often a result of, but not limited to, disc injury or degeneration, facet joint dysfunction, arthritis, or ligament and muscle strains. These problematic spines are rarely life sentences. The other category of people often have back pain resulting from a severe disc injury that is so bad it lays them out in so much pain they cannot even move. Sometimes these patients require surgery (not always); often the patient can recover without too much fuss.
Even though I am not a medical care provider who diagnoses or treats diseases, these have been my observations from exercisers who suffer from back pain. Many exercisers throw in the towel and with sorrow say, “I guess I will just live in pain.”
Because of this, I have had to gain a real understanding of spine mechanics and have been successful in producing spine performance and pain reduction for my clients regardless of what the underlying cause is. The exercise system uses basic exercises and common sense.
The first solution in dealing with painful spines is removing so called therapeutic exercises that people perform that lead to further damage. For instance, the exerciser feels like his low back is tight and performs a series of stretches to improve mobility, which only causes more problems. Another example is the exerciser who performs countless crunches because she believes that a strong core can reduce the symptoms of her problematic back. These two examples of treatment aren’t ideal because they involve exercises that promote motion of the lumbar spine. Most lumbar spines respond very well to stability training — not mobility training that increases range of motion. Spines don’t need motion — they need a reduction of motion that can be obtained from stability training.
Dr. Stuart Mcgill, professor of spine biomechanics and a member of the faculty of applied health sciences at the department of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo, said, “Effective spine stabilization approaches must begin with a solid understanding of what stability is. In fact, in many instances the unstable spine is also flexion intolerant (bending of the low back) and with associated intolerance to compression. Sitting on an exercise ball performing movement exercises increases spine compression to a flexed spine. This retards progress, and in fact it is generally a poor choice of back exercise until quite late in a therapeutic progression. True spine stability is achieved with a “balanced” stiffening from the entire musculature. Focusing on a single muscle generally does not enhance stability but creates patterns that when quantified, results in less stability. It is impossible to train muscles such as transverse abdominis or multifidus in isolation — people cannot activate just these muscles.”
McGill is agreeing that spines generally don’t enjoy the company of movement. Also, trying to isolate and train specific muscles is unwise. Furthermore, performing exercises such as crunches on a stability ball increases movement and loading of the spine that often results in pain. Stability training, on the other hand, improves the endurance of these muscles that create spinal stiffness, often reducing pain. Crunches, rotational movements, such as wood chops, and other numerous core movements are out for the back patient. Stay tuned on what stability exercises should be used to create the high performance spine.
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Contact him at www.r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.