Spinal stability, diaphragmatic breathing and neutral posture, among others, are all “buzz words” that, as of late, have entered the conversation in a multitude of training facilities, across a wide array of practices. This is due to the fact that the underlying concept is extremely important. It is no secret the sport of strength requires years of hard training and adaptation to achieve its highest levels. Due to the demands and potential risks associated with loading the spine, its health and maintenance are among the key contributors to performance across a long and successful career.
Before one can understand what spine health is or what training with it in mind translates to, it is important to grasp the biomechanical function of the spine. Under ideal conditions, the role of the spine is to evenly (key consideration) carry load and transmit force while maintaining length-tension relationships and permitting distal mobility through proximal stability. In order to derive this functionality, the physiology relies on three subsystems the passive and active musculoskeletal systems, which include muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, joint capsules, etc. and the neural-feedback loop. The combination of these three subsystems produces system-wide stability capable of managing the instantaneous demand of posture and load. In this case, it’s relative to the successful performance of the powerlifts. The actions responsible for managing forces at the spine can be defined as anticipatory postural adjustments (APAs). APAs are minute changes in length and tension about involved musculature, with the goal of placing the spine and relevant structures in a position where they can express their role to the greatest capacity (4,9,10,12). With that in mind, Lumbopelvic rhythm (LPR) can be classified as an APA assigned with the management of spinal load in the sagittal plane. LPR is classified as functional or dysfunctional, based on individual neutral zone parameters, and expressed as total lumbar rotation over pelvic rotation (11,12,13).
Most if not all readers will have seen exactly what is being described. The “butt wink” or “hips tucked deadlift” are real world illustrations of these principals in a dysfunctional system; the difference is now you understand what is taking place. Poor movement quality specific to LPR is often overlooked and misunderstood. For this reason, it can be identified as a contributor to global instability and associated with an increased risk of injury (9,10,11,12,13)
In a dysfunctional system neutral spine cannot be maintained and appropriate APAs are replaced by suboptimal compensation patterns. The spine and its related structures are placed in a compromised state of elastic equilibrium and the system is subject to unnecessary and unbalanced loading. In this state, degenerative processes may occur and have the potential to detract from both performance and overall spine health. These degenerative processes include, but are not limited to, tissue dehydration, contracture, a decreased ability to tolerate load and passively restrict motion (6,8,9,10,12). “Simply put, if any one part of the biomechanical chain is utilized in favor of sharing the load, it will undergo greater cumulative micro-trauma and is most liable to undergo changes in tensile strength and eventual degenerative change” (12).
If that is not enough to change the thinking surrounding spine health, an addition to these principals outlines the suboptimal compensation patterns themselves. Allowing for compensation to persist, “to get the lift done,” reduces the potential for maximizing force production qualities over time. In the short-term dysfunction may add momentary increases in poundage, but serves poorly as a long-term strategy for development. An example can be drawn considering the “hips tucked deadlift.” In this example, often, the influence of a prime mover in hip extension, the gluteus maximus, is substituted for the influence of the much smaller and less capable spinal erectors. The lift may start fast, but often the lockout comes to a grinding halt. At the top of the lift leverages drastically change and poor movement quality (LPR dysfunction) can force the lifter to place an emphasis on spinal extension over hip extension. This has the potential to detract from mechanical advantage and creates a position likely to promote degenerative change (3,12). Left unchecked movement patterns such as these continue to strengthen dysfunction and place a ceiling on developmental capacity. Unfortunately, in this example, the spinal erectors become the limiting factor, as they can only contribute so much when compared to the gluteals.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is a squat or deadlift executed with balance, stability and functional LPR. This encourages a state of elastic equilibrium and a system under minimal load (6). Placing the spine in a neutral positon can maximize the potential for mechanical advantage through the maintenance of length-tension relationships and body-segment positions. Doing so places the lifter in a position to take full advantage of their own developmental capacity. If remaining injury free and performing optimally is among your goals, this is not something to just hope for… it’s a goal to actively pursue and constantly assess.
In order to train with spine health in mind it is important to take a step back and evaluate your movement quality. This can be completed either through video analysis or through seeking qualified coaching. During the analyses it is crucial to be subjective, especially when evaluating yourself, to note deviations from neutral, flexion or extension while under load, and assess what may be the contributing factor (i.e. muscular weakness, lack of mobility, motor planning, etc.). The core musculature (abdominal complex, spinal erectors, psoas, diaphragm and pelvic floor musculature) is generally noted as a good place to begin evaluation. This is due to its associated role with systemic functionality (4). While it is a good place to start it will be up to the lifter to complete their own due diligence as compensation patterns are numerous and individualized.
Once the potential limiting factor(s) has been identified a plan can be implemented. This plan may heavily influence choices in training and programming. Factors to consider while planning may include competition form (sumo vs conventional, high bar vs low bar, stance width, etc.), assistance exercises and warm-up protocols. Each component should be rationalized and grounded in the effort to improve movement quality and related force production. Exercises that may be useful given the prerequisite evaluation, include the Lewit, McGill curl-up, cat-camel, birddog and side bridge exercises (1, 7). To augment, one may also consider planning general physical preparedness or “pre-activation” exercises around muscle groups or movement patterns assessed as potential contributors. For example, the classic illustration of upper back inactivity contributing to improper execution of the squat or deadlift. In this case, an exercise such as the face-pull could be utilized in a post-activation potentiation capacity to “fire up” the upper back. The effort is designated to further recruit and ensure a strong neural connection while executing the lift (5). On the other end, the same exercise could be emphasized in the program with rationale regarding long-term carry over to increased postural awareness and stability. Along these lines one can start to build programming that is targeted, instead of just throwing proverbial “darts in the dark.”
Lastly, a cue, which can be successful concerning correction of dysfunctional LPR, is “rib cage down.” To cue this the coach or lifter could visualize several things with the goal of keeping the rib cage closed, but not collapsed during expiration, inspiration, bracing and throughout the lift. Cueing “rib cage down” aligns the diaphragm with the pelvic floor creating the zone of apposition. The zone then becomes a platform for establishing proper intra-abdominal pressure and length-tension relationships between the anterior and posterior core musculature. Doing so may help to yield all the benefits associated with maintaining a neutral spine under load (2).
Taking these few points into consideration has the potential to help guide your training for continued improvement, while maintaining spine health and ensuring the longevity essential to a successful career in strength.
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- Wu, M., Wang, S., Driscoll, S.J., Cha, T.D., Wood, K.B. & Li, G. (2014). Dynamic motion characteristics of the lower lumber spine: Implication to lumbar pathology and surgical treatment. European Spine Journal, 23(11).