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Sparing the spine: Training the hips for power and pain relief
by: Chris Kelly

As a personal trainer, I often witness gym goers rounding their backs, coming forward on their toes and using their spine, rather than their hips, to jerk heavy weight. Combine this habit with several hours of leaning forward at the computer and the cumulative trauma is a prescription for injury. Able to support several thousand times it’s own weight, the spine nearly doubles in strength as it arches to support heavy loads. It is estimated that the spinal tolerance of an average healthy young man is around 2688-3360lbs while compressive loads on the spines of competitive weightlifters have approached the equivalent 4480lbs during exercises such as the squat and deadlift.

But before you head out to power lift a car, keep in mind these figures cover both static loads hoisted during exercise and cumulative pressure piled on by improper walking and slouching forward. Either scenario can load excess weight on to the back and result in acute and chronic trauma. Anyone familiar with low back pain would go to lengths to avoid this sensation. But completely avoiding tasks which involve bending is that this teaches the nervous system to forget this particular movement pattern. Over time, this leads to chronic stiffness and bad posture in this area. The reality is bending over is simply unavoidable, but whether squatting heavy loads or climbing stairs, the key to injury avoidance is preparation through flexibility and dynamic movement in the muscles around the hips. This begins by stretching the muscles which pull the spine in to flexion and/or extension before a corresponding task. For many new and novice trainees alike, pre-workout stretching (particularly static stretching) amounts to suicide due to the myth that it will somehow “make you weaker”. True, static stretching a muscle group does decrease force production, however stretching a two jointed muscle at one joint will actually increase the muscle’s ability generate force at the other joint. For example, the hamstring is stronger and more flexible during exercises which involve knee flexion (deadlift, hamstring curl) when optimum flexibility is present in the muscles which involve knee extension (the quad) In this way, flexibility in the areas surrounding the muscles you are attempting to exercise is both beneficial and necessary for performance in training and daily life. For those who remain seated for 8 hours or more, the areas that generally benefit from stretching are the hamstrings, quads, piriformis (ass muscle) and psoas (hip flexor). When it comes to weight training, static stretches should be employed for the muscle group opposing those that are directly employed. For example, because the quads are targeted in the squat, the hamstrings should be stretched statically as part of a comprehensive warm up. Once this is done, a proper warm up focuses on “active flexibility” in the shoulders, knees and hips with tasks which micmic your sport or activity. These exercises should begin at a manageable pace and build gradually to the intensity of your task. Listed below are several drills which I commonly employ with my clients to increase flexibility and depth for lower body exercises:

1. Cat Camel: Position yourself on all fours with hands directly beneath your shoulders and knees directly beneath your hips. Arch your back like a cat, then transition to camel position. The Cat-Camel is intended as a motion exercise–not a stretch–so the emphasis is on motion rather than “pushing” at the end ranges of flexion and extension. 5-8 cycles have shown to be sufficient to reduce most vicous-frictional stresses. 2. Deep squat progression: Begin by standing erect with heels elevated on a 1-2 inch block and feet spread shoulder length apart. Now, reach for the ceiling, stretching the arms as high as possible and bend forward so that the finger tips touch the toes. Repeat eight to ten time and then elevate the your toes on a 1-2 inch block and complete another set. The next set in this progression incorporates a deep squatting pattern. Standing with feet spread shoulder length apart, once again elevate your heels on the block and place a block or step directly in front of you. Now, reach for the ceiling and bend over placing your fingers on the block in front of you. With the hands on the platform keep the heels in contact with the 1-2 inch platform and sit deeply in to a squat. Concentrate on keeping the knees outside of the elbows and try to relax as much as possible. If this position is uncomfortable, squat down as far as possible and hold for 20 seconds. Repeat this exercise eight to ten times. Done over time, the movements learned in this exercise initiate the glutes by teaching relaxation of the lower back and shifting weight on to the heels. 3. Potty squats Once you have relaxed the lower back, it is time to groove in proper use of the hips. Sitting on the corner of a stool or chair, position the feet shoulder width apart and rise without using momentum. Repeat rising and sitting eight to ten times next to a mirror and notice the natural path your hips took in order in to response to this motion. Perform this exercise for two sets of eight to ten reps. 4. Wall squats Begin by facing a wall with a dowel rod held behind your shoulders with feet spread a bit wider than shoulder length apart. From this position, a traditional squat is performed, but rather than returning to your original upright position, the upper body rises shifting side to side to challenge active flexibility from many angles. The bar is maintained over the shoulders and over an upright and braced spine. This exercise should be performed for two sets of fifteen to twenty reps.

In summary

Performed as either a warmup or on non workout days, this series of exercises is a great way to increase range of motion about the spine. It is important to note however that any changes in joint and muscle ROM are short lived and must be reinforced by stretching on a daily basis. While stretching appears to increase active range of motion, it does nothing to improve performance or inhibit injury. These tasks are best accomplished by maintaining a neutral spine and upright torso which minimizes torque and spinal load during stretches and tasks which involve bending over.

The general guideline for stretches and activities which involve bending is only bending down as far as you are able to maintain a upright torso (with shoulder blades squeezed back and down). Once you feel your shoulders and low back begin to round, you have gone to far. An example of this technique can be observed during a static “toe touch” stretch for the hamstring. At around 70-80 degrees of flexion, the back begins to round and enters the “danger zone” for disk herniation. Holding the stretch in this position for 15-30 seconds would place extreme pressure on this area and the associated disks. By contrast, performing the same stretch statically in a seated position spares the back potentially trauma. With these techniques in mind, here are further guidelines for effective static stretching:

  • General hip flexibility improves by stretching the following muscle groups: piriformis, hamstrings, hip flexors (psoas), quads, and groin (adductors)
  • Performing static stretching for the muscles opposing those you aim to work before exercise helps to increase force production.
  • Static stretching targeted muscle groups after exercise minimizes post workout soreness by maintaining optimal length between muscle groups.
  • Static stretches performed 1-2 per day has shown to increase ROM in targeted muscles in as little as four weeks.
  • Avoid bending over to full flexion in any static stretch.
  • Avoid stretches which involve hip flexion (seated or standing) until 3-4 weeks after performing the “active flexibility” drills described above
  • Squeezing the shoulders back and down helps to lock the back in a neutral position during stretches which involve hip flexion (seated groin stretch,
  • Placing a hand under the low back during back lying stretches helps to spare the spine.
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