Managing Injuries Article 1: Spinal Alignment
by Erik Strouse — VIDA Fitness Trainer
Video coming soon to compliment this article.
In light of a recent injury to my lower back, I felt it appropriate that I write about how to manage and prevent injuries when living an active, healthy lifestyle. It is safe to say that injuries will be experienced by anyone that is actually pushing him or herself in or out of the gym. In fact, it should be expected that, at some point, you should experience a minor injury due to physical activity. It is highly unrealistic to believe that you can go without injury as you progress through a fitness program unless you are simply “going through the motions”. The trick is to ensure that any injury experienced is kept to a minor one. Catastrophic injuries are 100% avoidable!
With that said, I will be posting a few different articles and media sources (pictures/videos) referencing different vital regions of the body to keep your chances of catastrophic injuries to a minimum. They will be fairly basic in nature, so if you have questions, email me!
The first area I want to discuss falls in line with my most recent injury, the Back. The back is comprised of 33 vertebrae and soft discs, houses our spinal cord, and has large nerves radiating out to the rest of the body, thus making it one of the most complicated and significant regions of the body. It is literally our lifeline. Injury to any one location can be devastating and life-long making something as simple as laying down incredibly painful. It is safe to say that this area of the body should be treated like the most delicate, breakable item on the planet. Do not abuse it!
To prevent injury, practice the following 6 tips:
Prioritize Strengthening Spinal Extension/Hyperextension:
(Please note that spinal extension and hyperextension are more or less synonymous for the sake of this post.)
This rule applies to new or inexperienced lifters. This should be top priority in program design. One of the most cliché sayings in the fitness industry is “strengthen the core”. Many people practice this, but do so incorrectly. When you think “core” you think abs, and when you think train the “core”, you think crunches, sit-ups, and side crunches, OH MY! The region of the body that is left out, that is far more significant to train, is the back! Before you start to perform really heavy lifting or doing any extensive ab work, the back should be strengthened, specifically within spinal extension/hyperextension. This means you should strengthen the spines ability to bend backwards and remain in this position by training the back extensors. Spinal extension/hyperextension is the weakest link of all of your major lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and bent over rows, and is often one of the most undertrained regions of the body. This will change as you take the time to build strength in the back. Therefore, it is in your best interest not only to train it for the sake of safety, but also for the sake of performance for other major regions of the body.
“Lock” the Back Out:
During 95% of all lifts, the spine should be ”locked out”. This especially holds true during your traditional weight training exercises such as squats, deadlifts, or bent over rows. What this means is intentionally engaging the back so that it is arched much like that of a swan dive. This arch should be slightly exaggerated, although not so much as to cause discomfort. When the back is arched, it should then remain rigid through the length of the lift. This is where the “lock it out” saying comes into play.
Please note that during high intensity training workouts, bending the back under a load is necessary. However, the difference is that the loads are going to be much lighter, and should be manageable. If the load is high, and requires the rounding of the back, you should greatly reconsider.
Stop A Lift Once Back Reaches Fatigue:
This is a major fundamental flaw that many lifters practice. Many lifts are targeting different primary muscle groups, and merely use the back as support (ie: squats, deadlifts, bent over rows, etc). However, as mentioned previously, the back is likely the weakest link in those lifts. Once your back rounds, and your “lock out” starts to fade, stop the lift. Most training methods have repetition goals, however, you are not to sacrifice form to achieve your rep numbers.
Avoid Excessive Abdominal Work:
Your basic floor work for the “core” tends to involve hundreds of crunches, twists, and leg lifts. This can be incredibly troublesome for the spine if your hips, abs, and lower back are not strong and flexible. If you cannot do a full sit up in a controlled, slow manner without generating momentum, you should avoid large amounts of abdominal work. Work slowly to your goal developing strength in the hips, abs, and back first.
Engage in Regular Stretching and Foam Rolling:
I am convinced that one of the reasons I injured my back has to do with how tight my hips, quads, and glutes are with my hips and quads being the smoking gun. As a result of modern civilization, computers, and 40-hour workweeks, these muscle groups get tight by default. Add resistance training, and you exacerbate the situation. Our back extensors, on the other hand, are likely over-stretched from rounding our backs from sitting all day. Stretching the back may not be as much of a priority as the other regions of the body that play a role in spinal health. Another area to pay attention to is the upper back, known as the Shoulder Girdle, where the shoulder blades are found. This region is very complicated in anatomical layout, and can also greatly affect the neck. Foam rolling and using a dense ball (ex. a tennis ball) to self-massage does wonders.
Practice Good Lifting Form In Everyday Life!!
This is what did me in folks. I hurt my back bringing my fitness sandbags to my gym and in the front door. I did not hurt it working out… That being said, the saying “lift with the legs and not the back” holds very true. Also, if you lift awkward, large objects, it may be in your best interest to do it with someone else. Do not be a hero, because unlike them, you are not invincible…