Monday, July 06, 2009

Minimize Spinal Movement Under Load

Hi Kelly,
I have a client who is 25 years old and started crossfitting about 8 weeks ago. He has come along way and lost about 25 lbs over that course of time. I follow catalyst athletics and have set up a program of strength wods and met con wods through my workouts. I myself follow crossfit football, as I concentrate on my weakness, which is strength. About a week ago, this client particpated in a strength wod where we did Push Press for 5 x 3 @ 75 of 1 rep max. However, he tweaked his back and has been sore around his middle back down to his lower back. I told him to ice and we did some mobility stretches for his back. What is your recommendation if you have any to ease this soreness.

At issue here, is that this athlete likely ended up in an over-extended thoracic position while under load. It is likely that as the client ultimately moved toward the end range of his push-press (and ostensibly began to experience decreased bar speed toward the end of the press), he probably leaned back a little to bias his pressing from less straight up and down to more of an "incline-style" standing press.
There are several problems with this of course, the most conspicuous is that it likely lead to some overextended thoracic spinal facet joints (the facets are serious weight bearing joints in the spine on either side of the disc--the spinal nerves pass right by this two joint complex) that are now a little sensitized. There are other important pieces of information to be gleaned here as well.

First, as we approach peak working loads or muscle fatigue, it is important that at the moment we reach close to no velocity or bar movement, that our spinal position remain the same. That is, as we begin to move toward what is ultimately a near isometric contraction (mid-way through a press you get stuck) there should be no deviation what-so-ever in your set up positioning. The set up and pull is the same for deadlifting a hundred pounds or two-thousand pounds. Post-maximal loads can be safely handled in an iso-metric position if there is no deviation from an ideal or best-fit set up. We get into problems when there is movement in the spine under load.

Movements like the kipping pull up have a great deal of thoracic extension true, but the spine is significantly less loaded and in a better distracted position. But people here too will experience "spinal closing pain" as well with wild kipping. The kids that are best at pull ups will demonstrate very little spinal movement through-out the movement range. These athletes tend to adopt a spinal set up and then keep in through-out the movement (think Spealer and his 100 pull-ups).

And this leads us to our main point. The mid-line stabilization concept about which we know so much, is really a fancy way of describing the capacity to maintain a neutral spine under load, task, or intensity. Clearly over extending your upper-back in the middle of a pressing movement is a violation of this principle. So too is reversing or changing your lumbar curve in the bottom of a squat. Get your spine set up, and keep it that way. The best Olympic style weight-lifters know this and are able to receive enormous loads dynamically AND still not experience inter-spinal segment movement (power-lifters too).

The main reason to refrain from loaded spinal movement of course is not because you risk an over-extension injury, or that you may shear one of your "precious" little lumbar discs into an exploding jelly-doughnut, no it's because changing your good spinal position in the middle of a load will lead to decreased force production and power out put! It is difficult enough already to get into a good position un-loaded during the set-up. Do yourself a favor and don't then try to buffer a worse position when is matters most. Pretend instead that your spine is frozen in titanium when you are lifting. Trust me.

As for this kind of extension injury. Ice, rest, gentle mobilization, and let those poor joints cool off. And most importantly, under-stand what went wrong and don't be that guy ever again.

Coach K-star


John said...

Kstar - I know what this guy is going through as I was doing some presses on thursday nite on a friend's back porch. The ground was a bit uneven and I found my self really firing from my erectors. They were pretty fired up for a few days, but as with most injuries if you ignore them they tend to go away. Add in some timed rep floor presses off a concrete floor, sleeping on a couch, 2 plane flights and cruising around in a VW Bug and my erectors were on fire. And San Dimas High School Football Rocks!

Hollis said...

Amazing Pic of Angel!

Ross Naughton said...

Angel, I know crossfitters shouldn't be too concerned with mass-building, but you really might want to consider some extra work to bulk up your lower legs. I mean, do you even *have* calf muscles? They're essentially invisible in this picture; it's disgusting. Please get on a semi-vigorous toe-raise regimen ASAP.


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eric said...

Angel, I think you need to submit that picture to Marvel so they know how to draw calves.

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