A Rounded Low Back: why it’s bad

Most of the time we are told not to round our back, during exercise and bending over throughout the day. We our told that rounding our back is bad beause it can cause injury. And although the spine is meant to bend and move in various ways, there are certain times where te spine should be stable and supported while we use other areas of our body to move. But do you know why? And why are people saying some forms of abdominal exercises are bad for your spine? Let’s start with what a rounded spine means…

Anatomy,-lateral-view-small

What is a rounded back

The term “rounded back” refers to reversing the normal curve in your lumbar spine, taking it from more of a slight J shape (see 1st image below) to more of a C shape (see 2nd image below). The resting position of the lumbar spine should have a small curve like the J, where the muscles are relaxed until needed and the discs/nerves are in there proper place with no added stress. Sometimes the spine is also in an S shape (1st image below), and although we won’t discuss that as much below it is also a stressful position for the spine. [1]

posture03spine

Sitting with a rounded back

This takes the C positioning above and adds compressive load from your body onto your misaligned spine. This means compression on the vertebrae, discs, ligaments and nerves in a position the spine is not meant to be in. This causes damage to these areas, while the muscles are going haywire trying to protect you from the damage you are creating. Below you can see images of 2 spines that have been subjected to stress like this over time, resulting in permanent damage and probably a lot of pain.

On top of all of this, Dr. Stuart McGill did research and found that when the spine is fully flexed it loses 40% of it’s ability to withstand compressive loads[2]. He also found that sitting in a slouched position can weaken your spine and will take a few minutes to return to normal even after you’ve stood up and fixed you spine position. I bring both of these points up becayse the most common error I see besides rounded backs during exercise is sitting in a slouched position in between sets, or during a rest period. This means that in between you are weakening your spine and probably not putting yourself in a good position long enough before you return to exercise to regain the strength you need in your spine. So you get up to do that heavy bad squat with a weak spine that’s less resistant to that 300lbs you have on your back. Hence, the number of spine injuries occurring after repetitive trauma during exercise. So when you sit in between sets and during rest periods, sit in a good position. Actually, ALWAYS sit in a good position. Not only to protect your spine and prepare you for whatever you are doing next, but what you do most often translates into what you will do when you are fatigued.

Anatomy-of-Spondylolisthesis bart2-BB

Lifting with a rounded back

Above I explained how a rounded spine puts the spine and surrounding structures in a vulnerable position, causing it to become stressed and weakened. So when we bend over, pick something up or purposefully lift something heavy during exercise with a rounded back all of those issues are multiplied. Talk about accelerating spine damage! This is because we’ve added movement, weight and sometimes speed to an already compromised position. You may not feel it during the first or the hundredth time you do it, but eventually it will catch up to you and your body will scream at you. Even small movements in the spine during lifting can cause damage over time. This is why it’s so important to hinge from your hips when you bend over, bracing your spine and using you leg the way they were made to be used.

master-the-hip-hinge-1
A good hip hinge, minus her faulty neck position

Abdominal Exercises

I had a friend of mine send me the link for this article written by Dr. Ryan DeBell ” The 4 Exercises Your Lower Back is Better Without.” My friend asked me, so do you think I should stop doing these exercises? It would really benefit you to read Dr. Ryan Debell’s article to help follow this part of the discussion, but he basicallyexplains how bad GHD sit-ups, Ab mat sit-ups, toes to bar and knees to elbow are on our spine (if you aren’t familiar with these movements you can see the videos/images below). The research to back up his argument ( majority of it done by Dr. Stuart McGill previously mentioned above) is based off of people doing normal full sit-ups which repetitively flex and stress the spine. Which is the same thing that happens if you do the exercises Dr. DeBell talks about  with a rounded lumbar spine, or the sitting and lifting I described earlier. In an ideal world, and hopefully those of you looking to become invincible athletes, these movements should be done with very little movement in the spine. Although most people you see doing them have a rounded back and are not being corrected, leading to the statement of why your back would be better without doing them. Some athletes have a lto of movement in their spine because of faulty movement patterns, but mainly because of limitations in hip mobility.  These movements require hip hinging in one way or another which requirmobile hips. If you’re limited then your spine will have to flex more in order to get through the full range.

Yes, your back would be better without doing these exercises poorley. But does that mean we stop doing them? Or do we just hold ourselves accountable to good movement standards and fix what needs to be fixed so we can do them right? So my answer is don’t stop doing them if you’re doing them properly. If you’re doing them incorrectly, stop and fix what needs to be fixed so you can do them properly. That being said you also have to make sure that your programming is well rounded, and that these exercises are not being done in excess. There are a million ways to train the abdominals to create a strong, braced midline for lifting weights,and variety is key for a healthy body. So adding in front planks, side planks, handstands, GHD static holds, etc.

How to do these movements properly:

* Below are links to videos on how these movements are done with a relatively stable spine and lots of hip mobility, followed by an image below depicting  too much spine movement.

GHD sit-ups

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Too much spine flexion

Ab mat sit-up

abmat-situp
Finishes with lower back rounded rather than upright.

Toes-to-bar 

Knees-to-elbow

87_11-ToesToBar
Major spine fault

 

The goal here is to prepare your body to move the right way so that you are training the correct muscles during these movements. If you have stiff hips, you are most likely bending at the spine to make up for lack of movement in your hips. So work on your hip mobility. Dr Ryan DeBell suggested these exercises below to help with improving these movements:

I would also recommend this banded hip stretch below, working on increasing hip mobility for a good hip hinge while the spine is in a good, braced position:

TAKE HOME MESSAGE:

If you are missing hip flexibility, you will be forced to compromise you spine during sitting, standing and moving. In order to move properly during exercise you have to have good hip mobility, in addition to good postural positions and movement patterns.

 

References:

1. Frank H. Netter MD. Atalas of Human Anatomy. 5th edition. 2011.

2. Marc Demers. Mister Spine: an interview with Stuart McGill. http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_interviews/mister_spine

3. Dr. Ryan DeBell. The 4 Exercises Your Low Back is Better Without. http://themovementfix.com/the-4-exercises-your-low-back-is-better-without/

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