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Next month I get to toddle along to the bright lights of Cardiff for a two day seminar all about backs.
Basically, trying to understand why a back may feel ouchie and ideas for getting from ouchie and onto beast performance.
Which means two mornings without being dragged out of bed by an excited kidthere’ll be plenty of content for this site after that.
But before then I figured I’d do a run down as to why your back may have the hump with you and things you can start doing to cheer it up.
All I did was……..
Nearly everyone I’ve ever spoken to with a bad back used these four words.
Cos it’s hardly ever a big event that starts the pain cycle.
It’s moving a T.V, leaning over to the back seat of the car, a small slip….etc.
If this sounds like your experience too then it’s important to realise this.
What you consider as “the thing that caused the pain” was likely just one part in a long line of events. It was the one thing that took your back across the symptom threshold.
Here’s a quick story that may make that a little simpler to understand.
When I was at school my mate Karl owned Street Fighter 2 on his Nintendo. I loved that game, but I wasn’t very good at it.
Karl on the other hand could play it whenever he wanted to, so was pretty decent.
So when we played each other he’d pull out all these fancy moves, upper cuts and hadookens all over the shop.
He’d always try to make a fancy finish when he smashed my player, but it didn’t always work.
Often it would be a little feeble tap from his player as he fumbled his buttons.
That little tap would send my character flying.
Just the tap was enough to empty the life bar….I had no capacity left.
This is what happens to backs.
Hours of moving, lifting and resting in sub optimal positions reduce the capacity of the back, until that last little movement empties the life bar.
Big hadookens on the back could be training with poor form.
As we get older we get less wiggle room for making mistakes with our back. In your 20’s you may have got away with lifting with a rounded back, before spending the evening being a sofa bear…..slouched all over the couch.
But when you get to 35 plus you need to be smart and be aware of how you’re treating your body.
The other factors…
We now know that back pain is caused by excessive movement through the wrong areas of the spine at the wrong time.
But it’s not just poor technique in the gym and lounging around that causes problems.
The body is essentially a problem solver.
You decide you want to get a limb from point A to point B and the body will find the most efficient way of doing that.
Unfortunately, efficient doesn’t mean ideal.
Take running as an example.
The hip is designed to be a very mobile joint, it can move in a multitude of directions.
It’s like the Queen on a chess board.
When you run the hip will flex (as the knee moves forward), it will rotate internally as it strikes the floor, then rotate externally and extend as you drive of the floor and power forwards.
But what if the muscles around the hip were excessively stiff/tight for some reason?
No longer can the hip move around enough but the brain is telling the body it wants to move.
So what happens?
The body “borrows” movement through the lower back.
The lower (lumbar) spine starts to excessively flex and extend to create enough movement for the limb.
The spines capacity starts to reduce.
A similar thing can also happen but caused by the upper spine (thoracic).
Most of the movement that the spine is capable of comes from the thoracic spine (this is the 12 vertebra that the ribcage connects to).
But this area can also become tight….this often due to chest dominant breathing patterns (perhaps caused by stress), hours constantly hunched over a keyboard, being tall and constantly having to look downwards amongst many possible causes.
The principle remains the same though.
Lack of movement through a mobile part of the body causes excessive movement through an area that’s designed to be stable.
Essentially the lumbar spine is a victim of something not going quite right elsewhere in the body.
What does all this mean….?
Firstly, it means it really pays to respect how the body moves.
One of the things that is often missing in programmes is teaching people how to develop quality movement.
When I started to really take coaching seriously and develop my skills, one of the first things I came across was this pyramid in a book by Gray Cook.
Most workout programmes sell us straight into the performance and skill part of the pyramid.
It's all about doing more, lifting more..."c'mon everyone...push hard".
Which is great.
It's fun and feels good.
But if you're hitting squats, deadlifts, kettlebell work etc without the ability to move through the right places and create spinal stability, then you're likely setting yourself up for some expensive Physio time.
Build a good movement foundation before building strength.
Next, you’ll likely need to develop your capacity for work.
This requires a bit of a balancing act.
Not only do you need the right selection of exercises, but the right prescription for how to create a positive adaptation.
Not enough stress placed on the tissues then there’s not enough stimulus to warrant the muscles to adapt.
Too much stress and you’ll tip the tissues over the edge and leave them feeling grumbly and ouchie all over again.
Every bad back is going to need it’s own prescription, but these exercise may be a good shout.
Dr Stuart McGill is regarded as the Mr Myagi of spines (my words not his) and it’s his material I’m going to Cardiff to study.
But he has named these exercises as his Big 3.
Essentially between them they cover the front, side and back of the core.
In theory, if one of these feels much harder than the others then you may have found a weak point that needs balancing.
Start with just 4-6 sets of 10 second holds for each exercise.
If there is pain the stop immediately. Be ridiculously anal about technique.
Even if you feel fine, do not add more sets or work straight away. See how everything feels the next day.
If you’re cool you can start to gradually increase how long you perform each exercise for.
A final point.
Building capacity isn’t just for your workouts.
It’s part of your entire day.
How you move needs to be carefully calculated. Unnecessary daily stress on your back is going to detract from what you’re able to do.
You want to keep your capacity for the things you enjoy.
For example, I have a client who is a BJJ black belt and loves being on the mats. However he has a disc bulge that can bring on sciatic symptoms if not managed well.
He will literally spend 4 hours a day on the mats.
But he has to earn those four hours with how he moves.
He’ll use a step to put his foot on when tying his shoe laces instead of bending down. Getting to the floor is a careful choreography of kneeling and going to all fours first.
Even how he brushes his teeth (not leaning over the sink) has to be considered.
Final, final point.
If you have pain of any sort there’s a huge temptation to go hunting for it.
You know when you can’t feel the usual ouchie, it’s tempting to start bending and wriggling, wondering where it’s gone…..until…..
Ow, there it is.
The painful tissues need a chance to repair.
When you go hunting for it, it’s like picking a scab on a cut.
It never gets the chance to heal.
If it doesn’t hurt, enjoy the peace and let things settle.
If you’d like to know more about how to build a Robust body.
To go from ouchies to building real strength then I have a free e-book that you can download.
It's called The Robust Body
It has the key mistakes I see people over 35 making over and over again, how to assess yourself to choose the right exercises for you and even four months of mobility warm ups.
You can claim yours by clicking this link below
The Robust Body - Training Guide for the over 35's