With the rising popularity of Dr. Stuart McGill and his work on the lumbar spine in the health and fitness community, people have started to understand that excessive lumbar motion leads to injuries. The extent of his research (which he has been leading for years) have given all of us a better understanding of the spine, how it works, how it should move, and what leads to injuries.
Like many other things in the fitness business, it caused an overreaction. We started avoiding movement at the lumbar spine at any cost. We started to focus on the hips and the thoracic spine as the places to improve mobility, which I’m not going to say it’s a bad thing because that is exactly what most people need; more mobility in the t-spine and the hips.
This overreaction, though, caused us to ignore that there is a certain degree of movement that is normal to have at the lumbar spine.
As you can see in the chart, although the biggest potential for rotation is at the thoracic spine, the lumbar spine still have a couple of degrees of rotation. The same thing applies for flexion and extension.
To better understand the reason to why we actually need range of motion at the lumbar spine I’ll refer to the pendulum theory that Charlie Weingroff introduced a little while ago. To quote Charlie:
“So every joint has a core and it has a neutral that is decided just like a pendulum. It has to know that the stiffness properties allows it to go all the way to the left, right, front, back, etc., so it can rest with no effort in the middle, the position of optimal force transfer.
The clinical application is that the spine’s neutral is a function of full flexion, full extension, full side bending, and full rotation. Then and only then does the core have it’s premiere chance to do as little work as possible for segmental stabilization, and the phasic lumbar muscles can pick up the bracing slack to handle huge loads and force transfers.
If you don’t have yoga-ish mobility, the middle is always off-center, and the local stabilizers (of any joint system) aren’t triggered ideally via the brain getting “wrong” feedback from the joint receptors (…)”
Even if the goal should always be to lift weights and reinforce proper movement pattern with a perfectly neutral spine, it doesn’t mean that you’re body shouldn’t “own” that range of motion at the lumbar spine.
My personal story is a pretty interesting one in this regard. Since reading the work of Dr. McGill years ago I became a strong advocate in limiting motion at the lumbar spine. When I say I was doing everything with a neutral spine, I mean everything: sitting, brushing my teeth, tying my shoes, and even putting socks on in the morning! Have you ever tried putting socks on in the morning without allowing any sort of lumbar flexion? Trust me it’s not that easy! But I was doing it!
I was also getting pretty strong for my height and my body structure, I was deadlifting a decent amount of weight and I never allowed myself to have anything less than perfect form on every single rep I was doing.
About 2 years ago, I started to get a little less zealous about the whole neutral spine thing in my everyday life. A couple of months later, I was brushing my teeth in the morning and as I was bending over to spit in the sink I felt a sharp pain go through my right lower back just above my right SI joint. A couple hours later, I couldn’t bend over at all, and I mean not at all. Even breaking at the hips slightly to grab a glass from the kitchen table was impossible. The pain started to go away after 3-4 days, but my back bothered me for a couple of weeks. And weirdly enough, a similar event happened about 8 months later.
It’s only when I learned about the SFMA, the pendulum theory and other philosophies along the same line that I realized that my lumbar spine wasn’t flexing at all, which was later confirmed to me by a good friend of mine who’s an enlightened physical therapist.
I’ve been working on my lumbar flexion more recently and making sure my toe touch, as per the SFMA, stays intact and turns out my back has been feeling much better.
That doesn’t mean I’m doing silly stuff like stiff-legged deadlift with a rounded back, or crunches and sit-ups, but I’m doing isolated mobility exercises that don’t involve any type of loading to make sure that my pendulum is in the right “neutral” position.
Do you ever assess for lumbar range of motion? You might be surprised at what you’ll find.
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