So, which is better: keeping your movements fluid and staying flexible (think Yoga or a comprehensive stretching program)? Or, are you supposed to work on keeping your body safe, protecting your joints from going too far (as promoted by machines in the gym, or static exercises like the plank)?
In general, the deal is this: you need to protect your spine and joints from doing things that are beyond their range, expecting them to torque too much, or, especially in the case of your spine, putting a lot of compressive forces on it.
That’s because we have ligaments and tendons that surround our joints that do their best to protect them from injury. BUT when things go too far, too often, these ligaments and tendons can get loose, too tight, inflamed, and even torn. Then the cartilage in between your bones can end up getting worn down. With your spine, you can compress your vertebra by doing things like spending a lot of time sitting in bad posture, or doing certain exercises that put a lot of pressure on your precious discs (the cushioning feature between your vertebra).
For today, let’s just take a look at the spine.
First of all, lets do a short overview/reminder. Your spine is the conduit that carries ALL the signals from your brain to your body and vice versa. Think about it. ALL. There are some that go directly from your brain to your eyes, for instance, but I am talking about the rest of you. So, it behooves us to do the best we can to take care of it.
Back to the question above. Should we be moving the spine, or protecting it? If you are moving it with a time-honored method like Yoga, where the poses and directions are designed to keep you safe and flexible, then great! Movement like that can keep your spine healthy, lubricated, and teach you optimal alignment while you are moving.
But, there are ways we sometimes work out or move that can cause your ligaments, tendons, and muscles to pull on your vertebra in ways that are not healthy for them (a.k.a., bad alignment). Then you can end up with muscle pain (especially the low back), disc herniation, or nerve impingement. Yuk.
Sometimes, I see things going on in the gym and other places that make me cringe. Often all it takes is a little awareness and a few adjustments to change a disaster into a safe exercise!
Here are three examples:
- Lat pulldown ending up with the bar behind your neck. Not only does this put your shoulder joint in a bad position, but it can put undo stress on the vertebra at the back of your neck as you dip forward to accommodate the bar. NOTE: Your lats attach onto the underside and slightly to the front of your arm. Therefore the real line of pull for that muscle is actually on a diagonal starting up and slightly in front, not directly overhead, and moving down towards the FRONT of your chest.
- Straight leg sit-ups. Keeping your legs straight actually activates your hip flexor muscles at the front of your thighs and deep inside your pelvis. This hip flexor system will contract as you do the sit-up, pulling on your low back vertebra in bad ways. You can take the hip flexors out of the equation by doing your sit-up with bent legs, feet on the floor. NOTE: Another caution for your neck. As you curl forward, do not use your neck muscles. Avoid pulling on the back of your neck by cradling your neck with your hands behind your head, and remembering to use your abs to get the curl. Head and neck should be relaxed.
- Russian Twist. For those of you who are not sure what this is, there is a graphic below. Take a moment to contemplate how much stress there is on the vertebra at the bottom of your spine as you hang out in this position. Then you add a twist/torque to it, which is another whammy. You may get away with this for awhile (true confession…I did these for a long time until I started hearing certain cracks and grinding noises and ended up with a herniated disc). Eventually, the stage is set. Your ligaments may start to get loose, too much movement of vertebra happens, or the compression bulges a disc.
As an alternative to the Russian Twist, try the lateral cable press, shown below. Grabbing a cable or tubing from the side forces our body to resist the twisting motion, which is excellent for creating stability for this movement. You will feel the muscles of your torso all pitching in as you pull the cable or tubing slightly to one side (and then do the other by switching your position). To top it off, you are doing this in a standing position, not perched on the edge of your pelvis. Much better!
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