Back Training: Spine Strength, Mobility, and Resilience

By on September 30, 2020

If a “back workout” to you means training your lats and traps, then you may be missing out on the transformative potential of a truly powerful and mobile spine. As they say “you are as young as your spine.”

Not only can back complaints instantly put an end to athletic careers (and normal, daily activities), but a weak spine will also weaken every other movement you perform.

Why Our Backs Are Weak and Stiff

And the truth is that MOST people have weak, stiff spines. This is because we spend a huge amount of time sitting with poor posture: weakening our glutes and tightening our hamstrings – muscles that are meant to support much of our weight. Meanwhile, we hunch forward creating an abnormal, exaggerated curvature of the upper spine called kyphosis. That same forward-leaning position will further stretch and weaken the erector spinae that aid with extension of the spine (bending backward), while tightening the core in a shortened position. Lower back pain is common, as your weight is often distributed oddly with the buttocks shifted forward in relation to the back.

Back injury

We then hit the gym with hundreds of reps of sit-ups that only exacerbate this issue! How many exercises do you perform for back extension? Perhaps one? (Superman?)

If you happen to sit with one leg crossed over another, you’ll likewise be engaging the quadratus lumborum more on one side than the other. The hip flexors tighten meanwhile, tugging on the lower back and adding insult to injury.

When we then DO get up, we are so out of practice bending and lifting, that we move with bad biomechanics: flexing the lower spine and lifting from our backs when moving furniture or picking up screaming kids. Or we head to the gym and attack these vulnerable muscles with heavy, explosive movements that they are ill-prepared for. These sudden bouts of intense activity shock an exhausted and already-weakened and inflexible spine, resulting in injury.

Weakness and degeneration that has built up over months and years comes to a head and we feel a sudden spasm that shoots through our spine as a muscle tears, nerve twinges, or disc bulges.

Weakness and degeneration has built up over months and years

So, how do we fix this? The first key is to recognise that, as the “back mechanic” Dr. Stuart McGill is keen to point out, back pain and injury is usually cumulative rather than instantaneous. The moment you felt the pain was not the moment the injury began – that was merely the “straw that (quite literally) broke the camel’s back.” The issue is the long term degeneration.

Back Fitness and Performance

The spine itself is actually surprisingly weak: capable of withstanding only around 20lbs of force before collapsing. What provides the crucial stiffness, the separation, and a stable base from which all movement can occur, is the amazing strength of the muscles surrounding it. These are what we need to strengthen further in order to prevent injury, while also avoiding degeneration and friction.

The Muscles of the Spine

The muscles of the spine work the entire day to keep you upright. The erector spinae handle extension (backward bending) and work as antagonists to the rectus abdominis (the six pack), maintaining a delicate pull in either direction to support an upright posture; just as the quadratus lumborum do on either side.

Then there’s the multifidus. The multifidus muscles are a group of short, deep, bilateral muscles that are arranged along the spine. These work in conjunction with the rotatores, and were believed to be unimportant until relatively recently; demonstrating once again just how little we really know about the body. We now know that these muscles serve a crucial role in stabilizing and stiffening the spine, supporting the joints across 2-4 vertebrae each. They contribute both to extension and to lateral flexion and rotation, and contain fibers that are stiffer and stronger than any other fibers in the human body (reference). Whereas the erector spinae – the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis – are “intermediate” muscles associated with movement of the rib cage, it’s the multifidus that control individual movements of spinal vertebrae.

Multifidus

These muscles act in an anticipatory manner: bracing the spine against other movements in the body. This helps with anti-rotational stability, and anti-extension. To this end, they contain an abnormally high number of muscle spindles, thus providing proprioception. That is to say that they can detect and react to changes in balance and the beginnings of movements, enabling graceful and rapid movement. The problem is that they are so underused by most of us, that we have deadened this awareness of our posture.

Contrary to popular belief, the transverse abdominis does not provide local segmented stability in the spine, but rather a global tension throughout the core – which is not to say it has no benefit. The lats even play a role in spinal/core stability, as we discussed in a previous video.

These muscles act in an anticipatory manner: bracing the spine against other movements in the body.

These are the muscles we must train in order to strengthen our spine, and therefore to make every single movement more powerful and stable – moving from more solid, and stable foundations.

Core Endurance

A good starting point is to train the muscle endurance of these areas, especially as stabilizers.

Seeing as these muscles work throughout the day when we are moving, and undergo unusual patterns activation when we are sitting, they are particularly vulnerable to injury when it comes to explosive, powerful movement at the gym, or when carrying heavy things around the home. This is why we need to build strength ENDURANCE as much as power. This is missed by many training programs.

You may have powerful glutes and quads to drive you through that squat, but if your spine is tired after a long, hard day – or unresponsive due to hours of sitting – then this is the weak link that is going to snap.

Bird Dog

One great exercise to counter this issue is “Bird Dog.” Which, as a parent, makes me think of a Mog book. Let me know in the comments if you get what I’m talking about! This movement involves getting onto all-fours and then extending one hand forward and the opposite leg backwards. This requires stabilization in the spine, training the multifidus muscles. You can hold this position for long durations, thereby gaining that much-needed mind-muscle connection AND strength endurance to keep the spine stable and protected.

This is also where the beauty of many so-called “functional exercises” become apparent once again. When I perform a cable punch or one armed press, I must brace the spine to counteract the force. This is again how we punch and push in real-life; not lying down as in a bench press. The Paloff press focusses purely on the anti-rotational aspect of this movement.

Band Training Spine

When designing fastenings and connectors from an engineering and design point of view, it is always pertinent to make them less strong than the material they are connecting. Why? Because, under force, you would rather that the eyelet or the screw break instead of the metal or cloth. With that in mind, is it a good idea to be able to push far more weight that your spine can support standing up?

Lizard-crawls and one-arm push ups (among other push up variations) have a similar benefit. Although prone, they challenge you to brace under a variety of different positions and support structures, preventing rotation, flexion, etc. Performed mindfully, this also helps to reawaken the sensitivity of the spine: to train it to be aware of how we are moving and to react and brace accordingly. This is why I like to slow the lizard crawl right down and move in all directions in an unpredictable manner.

One armed rowing movements are also useful, such as the bent dumbbell row, or one armed body weight row with rotation. These have a stabilizing element, while also challenging the spine under heavy loads.

Remember that you should be easing into these movements if you aren’t used to them. Easier variations exist for everything: from one-armed wall push-ups, to bear crawls.

Farmers’ Walks and Running

Then there are carries/farmers’ walks. These train muscle endurance and stabilization in an upright position, helping the erector spinae to keep you in a good posture for long durations. This is useful, seeing as it is how we are meant to use the spine in the first place. If you can walk long distances holding weights and maintain a strong, neutral spine, then you should have no problem blasting out a few squats, or carrying your kid to the car. Especially if you are using a uni-lateral variation, such as the suitcase carry. Using front-loaded carries is also a great option, as this can provide anti-flexion benefits, teaching you to keep your back straight for long-periods of time, even when tired and counteracting all that leaning-forward you do throughout the day.

Train this at the end of a workout, not the start. Fatiguing your core muscles this way before attempting a deadlift is inviting an injury!

Running is another extremely useful tool. When running, you should focus on keeping your body in an upright position. This is actually why many people will injure themselves when attempting a 10k for the first time (or similar). They are simply unable to maintain that proper posture when fatigued. Practice this by slowly increasing your distance while being mindful of your biomechanics. Of course, skipping or other upright cardio could also have similar benefit.

Erector Spinae

We can also actively train extension using movements like the superman. Of course, this involves lying flat on your face and then raising your hands and legs, effectively balancing out all those sit ups and dragon flags.

Extension, Rotation, and Spinal Mobility

Except some experts, like Stuart McGill, advise against the superman move AND the Roman Chair – stating that it places too much compression on the spine. He recommends the bird-dog as a replacement, though this doesn’t offer much in the way of anti-flexion and is really more of an anti-rotation movement.

I also personally perform the back bridge, which is a fantastic movement for quickly restoring both shoulder mobility AND thoracic mobility. This is a static stretch though, so do not do it before the rest of your training. Honestly, I started to see improvements after using this intermittently for just a few weeks (I have a long way to go still). By pushing through the chest, you are strengthening the muscles at the end-range of motion, providing more control and power in these positions but without apply lots of force.

I’m also partial to the Hindu press up/divebomber, which I think is a great movement for its ability to combine both a great pushing workout AND mobility training. Keep in mind that both the Hindu press up and back bridge place compressive force on the spine and thus aren’t recommended by everyone. The issue that the likes of McGill have here is with long-term microfractures and the like.

Hindu Push UP

Don’t use these (at least to begin with) if you have any back complaints, and consider starting with the short bridge (on your shoulders) if you’re new to this. Honestly, yogis and Indian wrestlers have been doing moves like these for decades with mostly good things to show for it. But your mileage may vary, so think about what you want to achieve, listen to your body, and proceed with caution.

Even more controversial is the Jefferson Curl, which Dr. Stu also does not love (he believes it is useful for sport-specific training but not the general population, and may still contribute to long-term degeneration). This movement is key in gymnastic strength training, and is heavily promoted by the likes of Coach Sommers. This movement is akin to a straight-legged deficit deadlift (meaning you’re standing on a slightly raised platform) but where the aim is to allow flexion in the spine and to imagine each vertebrae unfurling as you move through your complete range of motion. Keeping the chin tucked the entire time, you then contract the glutes before gradually reversing the movement. As you can probably guess, you use a very light weight for this one.

Jefferson Curl

Should you perform this movement? I would say that if you have ANY history of back pain, then certainly approach with extreme caution. Definitely start out VERY light. Personally, I believe that strengthening the muscles through their entire ranges of motion can only be a good thing, but it also depends on individual lifestyles and goals. And there are safer alternatives that we will get to in a moment.

You see, we can’t really talk about extension without also discussing thoracic mobility. Because while the lumbar spine should be very stiff to reduce degradation and maintain stiffness, the middle of the spine (thoracic spine) should have decent mobility for twisting and bending in BOTH directions.

While many of us are afraid to bend our spines – especially under load – the truth is that the spine is clearly designed to move this way. Try moving your body without bending or twisting the spine at all, and you’ll find you are significantly less agile and functional. A little flexion in the spine is almost inevitable in daily life during movements like picking a child out of a cot, or unloading the dishwasher – especially for untrained individuals. Then there are racket sports and countless other activities that require rapid extension and twisting as part of the stretch-shortening cycle. Throwing is a very natural movement for any human.

Many of us are afraid to bend our spines

And guess what? If you have a stiff thoracic spine, then it’s the lumbar spine that is going to bend instead. And that’s where an injury can creep in.

But what can we use to regain some mobility here that isn’t quite so controversial? This is where more animal movement-type training really shines. The crab walk and table top movements for example will gradually increase mobility in the spine, while also serving as beneficial anti-flexion movements.

For those that would rather shy away from the trickier stuff, there are other options. I’m also a big fan of the bridge reach-over, which I also got from Jeff Cavalier. If you’re unsure, defer to Jeff! I’ll link to his video below. This also provides some thoracic rotation, which you can likewise get from the crab reach or windmill.

Another option recommended by McGill is the Cat-Camel. Here, you rest on all-fours and simply move the spine from an arched-position to a concave one.

Conclusions and Recommendations

So, that’s a heck of a lot of information – much of it contradictory! So what do I actually recommend you DO if you want to develop better spine mobility, strength, and resilience? My recommendation is to start by adding stability exercises in all planes of motion. Any combination of the following will do great:

  • Paloff press
  • Bird dog
  • Dragon flag
  • Lalanne push up
  • Ab rollout
  • One armed standing cable row
  • Cable punches
  • Suitcase carry
  • One armed push up
  • Lizard crawls
  • Goblet/zercher/front carry

This is fairly uncontroversial and should provide performance benefits and prehab. Throw in some endurance tasks, like runs and skipping, being mindful to keep the back upright at all times. You should also strengthen the hamstrings and glutes, using movements like the glute bridge, to take pressure of the spine.

Training thoracic extension, rotation, and mobility with the table top, crab walks, cat-camel, windmill and the bridge reach-over is advisable. If you’re after next-level mobility and control, try the back bridge, Jefferson curl, or Hindu push up. But be aware of the cautions surrounding these exercises and use at your own risk.

And make sure you have a complete ab-training routine too.

Lifestyle Recommendations

Sitting correctly throughout the day can also reduce your chance of injury and improve performance. In particular, make sure you support the lower spine by looking for a desk chair with lumbar support. This way, you are not placing awkward strain on your lower back all day, so you can hit workouts with it feeling fresh. Consider investing in a lumbar cushion, and try to get up and move regularly. Make sure you activate and engage the spine prior to any intensive workouts if you have had a long day of sitting or driving.

Many advise sleeping on your side at night, which allows the spine to rest while maintaining a neutral position. This works well for me.

If you have any back complaints at all, then see a professional. There is no advice you can get from the internet that will be particularly tailored to your specific injury and biomechanics, and without being seen by an expert, any exercise regime may make matter worse.

Keep in mind that nothing is set in stone and we are still learning. As you can see here, the experts pretty much unanimously disagree with eachother. What I have found shocking when researching this topic is just how much disagreement there is on the subject. Even assumptions such as the importance of the S-curvature of the spine have been challenged, author Esther Gokhale is among those who believe the natural position of the spine should actually be more akin to a J. Observations of young children, indigenous tribes, and historic sculptures all seem to support this notion – compelling, though circumstantial evidence.

The danger – I believe – is to get too wed to the advice of any one expert to the point of ignoring contradictory information. Gently integrate ideas from every source and see what works for you.

The recommendations I’ve made above are nevertheless generally well-regarded by the majority and should offer improved stability, prehab, and even strength and performance benefits. This should be a good starting point for most people and whatever you do, it’s a million times better than doing nothing.

And while all this disagreement might be discouraging, there is a silver lining. It means that if you’ve been trying to fix a back complaint for years, there might still be someone out there with a different approach that works for you. If you have back pain, then it has a cause. Unless it’s a chronic degenerative disease like severe arthritis, there is almost always a solution. This probably involves movement. Your mission is to find the right person with the right option for you – don’t give up!

Order your copy of SuperFunctional Training - A complete training program for body and mind.





ORDER HERE



Support the Bioneer at Patreon for Exclusive Content: Click Here!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. Ahnav Bil Auvaq says:

    Hi, Adam. I saw your video and you revised “yogis and hindu wrestlers, … *Decades* …” but I guess you haven’t revised this article, just pointing this out.

  2. Keith Cervantes-Edwards says:

    I just tried out one-armed rows for the first time, with my light dumbell first and then my kettlebell, and they’re amazing! I felt so much more muscle/tissue in my back than with most back exercises, and could tell it helps a ton for developing those supporting muscles like the multifidus and others. Good stuff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *