The incidence of low back pain is on the rise in both the active and sedentary population. About 8 to 10 people have anywhere from one to many episodes of low back pain in their lifetime. A big issue I see in most gyms and athletic clubs are people doing exercises that may predispose them to problems. In these cases, treatment and rehabilitation for low back pain aren’t as necessary as removing the damaging stimulus. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health quantify that exceeding 3,300N of lumbar spine compressive force is linked with higher injury rates amongst workers. In the following text you will learn various exercises and there load of compressive force to see where they fall in spinal compression. If low back pain is your goal, continue to do the following 3 exercises. If it’s not, be weary and find suitable alternatives, because there are plenty out there.
1. Repetitive flexion and extension to the end-range of motion at the lumbar spine has been proven to be detrimental in the long run. The occasional crunch (2,000N) or sit-up (3,300N) may not cause you any problems right now, but when you continuously do these on a daily/weekly basis, it can be disastrous. So why is an exercise that we have loved for so long for sculpting abs and getting that beach body so bad for us? Stuart McGill, the low back guru, describes the crunch/sit-up motion at the lumbar spine like continuously bending a wire hanger back and forth. Each repetition causes the bend in the wire hanger to weaken with each subsequent movement. While you continuously crunch, the lumbar vertebral disc increases it’s hydraulic pressure in a posterior direction. Eventually, this repetitive increase in pressure causes a rupture in the disc fibers and a bulge or herniation of the nucleus. So, if that’s not bad enough with the crunch or sit-up, try doing the abdominal crunch machine or decline sit-ups while adding external resistance
2. Similar to crunches/sit-ups, the opposite motion of lumbar hyperextension can increase the chance of low back pain. While taking the spine through extension to the end-range of motion, compressive forces are significantly increased. So this means exercises like back extensions (4,000N), reverse hyperextensions, supermans (6000N), and alternating supermans can have a disastrous effect on back health. If you take an anatomic look at the spine, connecting each spinous process and providing passive stability is the interspinous ligament. By repetitively hyperextending the spine, we continuously compress this ligament between each spinous process, which leads to instability. So, at an attempt to strengthen the low back muscles, we in turn increased the pressure on the intervertebral discs, and made the lumbar spine more unstable.
3. The last one is not in fact an exercise, but a prolonged posture that is common amongst office workers, sitting. Sitting in a forward shoulder, rounded spine posture is very damaging to the entire spine, shoulders, and hips. Above we discussed how repetitive movements can be detrimental through the full range of motion, but prolonged, unchanging postures can be just as damaging. Several studies showed that lack of spine motion can increase disc degeneration, as well as decrease spine and disc nutrition. It isn’t healthy to repetitively place the spine through it’s end-range in exercises like crunches, supermans, and sit-ups, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to have full spine range of motion. So, get up once in a while and move! Stretch out your chest and shoulders, touch your toes, extend your spine and look up at the ceiling, your joints will thank you.
I hope these few things stay fresh in your mind while designing your resistance training program and sitting for extended periods of time. Each training program should really be designed to 1. Reduce the chance of injury, 2. Restore the body’s natural capabilities, and 3. Achieve your desired fitness goals. So instead of placing fitness before function, switch the equation around to improve how you move, stay pain-free, and then move more.
Garrett McLaughlin is an athletic trainer, personal trainer, and certified active release techniques provider. He is passionate about creating safe, and effective fitness and rehabilitation programs for the general population and athletes. ‘Like‘ Garrett’s Facebook page to stay up-to-date on related health, fitness, and nutrition information.