Back pain & workouts: how to exercise for a healthier spine

In last week's blog post, I spoke about the four leading causes of back pain. Many times stress through your body can be difficult to control. Maybe you have to sit for work or lift your kids all day. Maybe you're having trouble controlling your emotional stress. Maybe you were in a car accident, and your back is injured. 

 

Today, I want to dive a little deeper into one of those causes of back pain, which CAN be controlled - mechanical stress on the spine with exercise. 

 

Exercise should always build you up, not slowly wear down your joints. We should create strong, resilient bodies to tolerate the less controllable events in our lives. 

 

There's a lot of information in the fitness and physical therapy world about what type of exercise will achieve this. And of course, I have my own opinions that I will share in this article. 

 

I want to say that I've tried and loved just about every type of exercise. I'm not attaching value or meaning behind any movement. I intend to question exercises that have been deemed "gold standards" and determine if they lead us towards healthy bodies. 

 

I never want anyone to feel attacked because trust me, I had to learn all of this the hard way (after a disc herniation, hip labral tear, and tons of chronic pain). After a PT degree, dozens of fitness certifications, and a TON of continuing education, I feel like I've finally gathered this knowledge and am able to speak on it from a different perspective that I wish I would have known years and years ago. 

 

My career goal is to spread this knowledge because understanding exercise mechanics and the forces we are putting through our bodies can lead us to a more intentional routine that preserves our bodies. 

 

Now that disclaimer is out of the way, let's dive in. 

 

How and why to modulate mechanical stress through your spine 

 

Mechanical stress is when a force is placed on the spine and stresses muscles and tissues like discs and ligaments. This isn't always a bad thing - mechanical stress is needed to build a stronger body. However, mechanical stress becomes a problem when it is one of two things: 

 

  1. Too frequent without enough recovery

  2. Too much for the structures like discs, muscles, and ligaments to handle

 

Our spine is constantly under a state of compression in our everyday lives. We spend most of our waking lives upright, meaning gravity is pulling the spine down, compressing it. We also spend a lot of our lives sitting, which places even more force/compression through the spine. 

 

The last thing we want to do in our workouts is excessively load a spine that is already under constant compressed in our everyday lives. 

 

Our workouts should be intentional, so they build muscles/tendons to tolerate forces in our lives like spinal compression. This means workouts should limit spinal compression and excessive load through the spine while still strengthening muscles around the trunk. 

 

So how do we do this? 

 

I'll use the analogy that was inspired by my husband. He's much cleaner than I am, and when we were discussing cleaning our apartment, he said, "it's less about cleaning UP the mess, and more about not making the mess in the first place." Of course, my brain went right to you all and how that's the perfect analogy for my philosophy on exercise.

 

It's not about what you can do to offset the forces from your exercise program; it's about not creating excessive forces in the first place. It's better not to make the mess than to attempt to clean it up.



Two things that could be cleaned up in an exercise routine to keep a healthy spine (many times, cleaning up these things will help remove inflammation, improve tissue resilience, and decrease pain):

 

  1. Limit spinal compression 

  2. Limit excessive force through the spine

 

Spinal compression 

 

Spinal compression is any downward force on the spine when we are in an upright position. As I said above, our spine is compressed all day, every day. And if we are exclusively doing standing, loaded barbell, and dumbbell exercises, we continue to compress the spine. I'm not implying that barbell and dumbbell exercises need to be eliminated. But we should consider how often we are loading the spine in this way.

 

My recommendation is to (more often than not) perform exercises that stabilize the spine and put less compression through the spine. In other words, find ways to support your back with a wall, holding onto something, or laying on the floor. 

 

Examples are wall sits with the weights on your thighs and machines like the leg press machine, lat-pull down, and hamstring curl machine. (Gym workouts coming soon to Levo! So excited!)

 

Spinal force 

 

Excessive spinal force is prevalent in the fitness industry. Deadlifts and squats are a standard exercise. Although these movements are not "bad," the force they place on the spine is significant. 

 

Many people think that having a more upright spine means you aren't putting force through your spine. Although it is less force than it would be if you were bent further forward (like doing a straight leg deadlift), the force can still accumulate to create vulnerabilities in your spine. 

 

I broke it down with the picture below. 

In this picture, let's assume I'm not using bodyweight, but rather a barbell with 125lb. We can draw a moment arm to the lower back, which might be about 6 inches (I measured it, and it's more like 11inches, so the force is probably even higher than this calculation). If we take the distance of the moment arm times the weight I'm holding, that's 750lb of force through my spine at that moment. You can see how even if my trunk is more upright, I'm still getting significant force through my spine. This may or may not be something you'd want to do every week. My recommendation is to limit heavy squats and work your leg and trunk muscles in other ways where your spine is less at risk. 

 

This study (1) showed that flexion/extension exercises in high doses or with heavy weight (squats, deadlifts, biking, running, crunches, etc.) could have serious implications on the health of your spine. This study showed that repetitive and/or high-velocity flexion activities caused micro-damages to the spine's ligaments and discs. This causes acute inflammation, which results in tightness and soreness. This acute inflammation becomes chronic with repeated exposure, resulting in chronic pain, decreased muscle mass (muscle wasting), and motor changes (less ability to complete functional, daily life activities). This is the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve with our workouts. 

 

My recommendation is to limit the amount of flexion you are putting through your spine. In Levo workouts, we do this by challenging the muscles of the body while minimizing stress through your spine. You can still strengthen your legs and trunk without doing squats or deadlifts (Again, these aren't "wrong" or "bad," but should be done in moderation. In Levo we do weighted squats or deadlifts about 2x/month). Examples to substitute are weighted clamshells, side-lying rows, and kneeling side planks. 

 

Remember that force through your body is a good thing. It has to be enough to stimulate change, but not so much to cause chronic inflammation. 

 

If you want to join a program that reduces stress through your joints, giving your body time to heal and decrease inflammation, WHILE seeing amazing fitness results, get in the Levo membership! There's a 5-day free trial, so if it's not for you, you can cancel before you're charged. We are focusing on the spine this month, so you can learn how to APPLY this information! See you there!

 

Reference

 

  1. Solomonow M. Neuromuscular manifestations of viscoelastic tissue degradation following high and low risk repetitive lumbar flexion. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2012 Apr;22(2):155-75. doi: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2011.11.008. Epub 2011 Dec 6. PMID: 22154465.
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