Even if it’s not what you’re targeting, almost every exercise you do with weights puts pressure on your spine. It’s therefore imperative that you practice keeping your spine in a neutral form to avoid serious injuries. Here’s training expert John-Francis Kennedy’s guide to keeping your back on track.
Bad form = bad back
Exercises like deadlifts, back squats and bent rows are great for muscle hypertrophy and body composition changes. If done with proper form, they can be some of the best and most-bang-for-your-buck gym exercises you can do. However, when performed with bad form, they can pose a serious risk for the body, especially for the lower back or “lumbar spine”.
The main cause of lower back pain
Lower back pain while training is caused by repeated overuse and repetitive strain. Deadlifting with a round back, back squats with bad form and rowing with an hyperextended spine all contribute to lower back pain. Improper alignment of the vertebrae increases the strain on the discs, which in the long-term can set you up for disc protrusions and even herniations. To get stronger and stay pain and injury-free, you have to train certain exercises with the spine in a neutral position.
How to achieve a neutral spine
A neutral spine is the ideal posture for compound exercises. Imagine your spine as a pillar that supports your body. This pillar moves and functions as one unit. A neutral spine means that the vertebrae stay aligned without moving relatively to each other.
Consider an everyday example to illustrate this concept. You went to the supermarket to get some water. You’re standing in the parking lot and are about to put the cases of water into the back of your car. Instead of mindlessly hoisting the cases of water, you practice a neutral spine.
You bend over by initiating the movement from your hips. Instead of rounding (“flexing”) one segment of your spine, you keep your back straight - from the crown of your head all the way down to your tailbone. Once you reach the handles of the case, you then use your hips and legs to pick it up, maintaining the integrity of your spine. Once you stand straight, you cautiously turn your entire body to face the trunk of your car. To gently put the water in the trunk, you simply reverse the movement by pushing your hips back again.
While training, the same concept applies. The spine is made up of three segments: the cervical spine, the thoracic spine and the lumbar spine. All the segments should move as one unit without bending or extending relatively to each other. For optimal health and safety, you want to keep the segments properly aligned.
The deadlift checklist
Keeping a neutral spine during deadlifts and bent rows and thus protecting your lower back is simple with the hip hinge. This takes away the stress from your lumbar spine and effectively transfers the force to your glutes, hamstrings and core - the muscles that support your lower back.
A proper hip hinge starts standing. Push your hips back whilst preventing your back from flexing. Ideally, you should feel a stretch in your glutes and hamstrings and observe only a slight bend in your legs. Picture yourself standing with your back against a wall and trying to push the wall away with your butt. In the end position you are leaning forward with the legs slightly bent and your spine neutral.
Your back is a complex and integral part of your anatomy and taking time to focus on technique before a weights workout could make all the difference both to your performance and your back health.