Set Your Back! (But Whats My Back?)
by Christian Fox
Your spine has 24 vertebrae divided into 3 segments; 7 cervical (your neck), 12 thoracic (mid/upper-back), and 5 lumbar (low-back). Below this is your sacrum, which are actually 5 fused vertebrae, and below that is your coccyx (or tailbone). On the posterior side of your spine, there are facet joints that facilitate movement of the segments. In between the vertebrae you have discs housing a gel-like substance that act as shock absorbers between segments. Now importantly, just behind the discs and just in front of the facet joints lays your spinal canal. The spinal canal is where your spinal cord and all your nerves are housed. Every nerve in your body comes from some point in that spinal canal, ergo, it’s pretty freaking important. Wrapping around the spine are also ligaments, tendons, and muscles that work to both mobilize and protect your spine, and blood vessels that nourish all of this tissue.
Hopefully having this info and picture in your mind can help to clarify a few things about both strengthening your back and preventing injury. Any insult to the tissue around the spine can be painful. Muscle strains are the most common. These guys are well suited to move your spine into a safe position and keep it there under load. However, once the position is compromised, those same muscles are not that good at getting back there. So if you set your back well on a dead lift but then lose it on the way up, your spinal erectors may very well be barking at you for a few days as a reminder. Similarly, if you lack the flexibility to even start in a good position for the dead lift, you are also at risk for strain. If you strain your back, ice can help for the first 24-48 hrs, and ice and heat after that. Most strains are not serious.
The position your spinal cord wants you to maintain while under load follows the natural curve in your spine and provides the most room for the nerves inside. That position is: a strong arch at the lumbar, a slight arch at the thoracic, and a slight natural arch at the cervical. *(While the thoracic can be slightly rounded (or flexed) in standing posture, an arched (or extended) spine up top will have all the spinal erectors working together and result in a better arch down low). The discs of your spine are put at risk of bulging or tearing when the spine is flexed under load (a rounded back on a dead lift), or worse, flexed and rotated. If a disc bulges or ruptures, the gel from inside it can put pressure on the nerves and blood vessels in the spinal column, resulting in sometimes debilitating pain. Once a disc is ruptured it will NEVER be the same. Good posture, in the gym and out, are paramount to minimizing pain in this case.
The flip side of rounding your back can also be problematic. Over arching, or hyper-extending, your back can cause the cartilage in your facet joints to wear away. This can cause or exacerbate spinal arthritis (spondylosis). Worst-case scenario here is that bones spurs occur and either press against the spinal cord or fuse with other vertebrae. Neither sounds good.
Get into and maintain a good position for your lifts. If you can’t, then don’t load weight on the bar until you can. Perform exercises like static back extensions to strengthen your spinal muscles so you can keep that back set. Work on mobility consistently, and limit ROM as needed until you can maintain a set back throughout a full ROM. Remember to always practice good posture in and out of the gym.
If you've gotten better at setting your back, what methods have helped?
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