Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Unjack your back

"The best lightning rod for your protection is your own spine."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’ve thought of probably about a million different ways to start this article (well, at least half a million), but some conversations I had over the past few days spurred me to write something, ANYTHING, about a topic I think is really important.

What are you doing to protect your spine?

 *crickets chirping* 


I mean, if you injure your arm, your leg, an eye, an ear or whatever else, that sucks, but you’ve got a spare to get by with.  Injure your spine and you’re closed for business.

I got to thinking about this because as much as I hate to admit I’m scared of anything, I’m terrified of back problems.  Both of my parents have had surgery on their spines – my dad had surgery on his back about 10 years ago due to a damaged disc, and my mom has had not one, but TWO surgeries on her neck, which have severely limited her range of motion and made life much harder for her.  One of the reasons I grew up unathletic and shying away from physical expression is that both of my parents had bad backs/necks, and could never be all that physical.  I never got to see my parents be especially physically active – no backyard sports games with their friends, no weightlifting, no nothing.  To this day, it surprises me when I see my friends parents in their 40s, 50s, and beyond being physically active and enjoying physical culture.  I just can’t fathom it because I don’t see my own parents doing it.

So when I talk to people about taking care of themselves and training smart, it surprises me that a lot of people either a) had never thought of it and don’t know how to take care of their joints, or b) don’t give a $h!t.  One 19 year old I talked to a few days ago told me about how much he loves wakeboarding, but how much it hurts his spine because of all the thrashing around that he goes through.  The concerned trainer in me said “You’d better be careful, man; you jack your spine up and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” He kinda laughed and told me “yeah, I know.”  Another dude I once talked to (a 20-something skateboarder and BMX biker, so go figure) told me “I figure now’s the time to screw all my joints up, while I’m young and can have fun, rather than when I’m old and can’t do as much.”  No, I didn’t make that quote up for this article.  And no, I couldn’t even begin to think of a way to respond to him.  

 Welcome to Snap City.  Population: That Guy

So, back to my original question: What are you doing to protect your spine?

Tightening your abs and butt while you practice your strength training is a good start but just like tightening your belt won’t make you thinner, you need to go above and beyond if you want to truly protect the thing that allows you to move, breathe, stand upright, etc.  In my experience, the there are two things you have to do to make your spine less injury-prone: Improve your mobility and improve your strength.

Fortunately, it’s not that complicated.  Your spine has 24 articulating vertebrae – so just move them!  They’re meant to move!  Forward, backward, twist, bend, repeat.  Do it carefully and slowly as the video below describes.


One problem with a sedentary lifestyle (apart from the fact that it’s boring as hell) is that all that lack of movement makes movement tougher as the nervous system picks a much shorter range of motion for the muscles we use the least.  This can also happen if you’re big into strength training but not big on flexibility practice (shame on you).  The Trifecta from Convict Conditioning 2 has worked wonders on my spine’s flexibility and mobility.

Now that you can move your spine like a stud, it’s time to strengthen it. There is a ton of ways to strengthen your back, but for the ultimate in flexible strength and overall resilience, nothing, but NOTHING, beats the back bridge.

There are many ways to do it, but I like the ConvictConditioning method.  Rather than use it as a static hold, treat it like a dynamic (moving) exercise.  You start from the floor, arch your back and raise your hips to the ceiling, return to the floor, and repeat.  This has a myriad of benefits:

1)      It greases a solid groove for the exercise, making bridge holds much easier if you decide to do them.
2)      In my experience, it builds strength faster than a bridge hold would, since you can rest as long as you’d like between reps, minimizing fatigue and maximizing the flexible strength benefits from the exercise. 
3)      It stretches EVERYTHING in front of your body.  I often feel it especially in my quads, which can get tight from a lot of squatting, and in my abs, which get tight from a lot of heavy ab work.
4)      It will encourage better shoulder flexibility, as one of the hallmarks of a good bridge is straight arms.  Pair this with some serious back extension and your shoulders will be as flexible as they’ll ever need to be. 
5)      Women love a sexy set of beefy spinal erectors.

All right, so I made that last one up.  But everything else and more is absolutely true.  When you’re ready to bulletproof your spine and say no to weakness and injury in the most important part of your body, you’re ready for some bridges!

 Like a bridge over troubled spinal columns

Unlike a lot of exercises that you can just launch into and make fast progress on, like the kettlebell swing or the clean and press, you’ll want to take your time and milk each bridging progression for everything you can.  We in America are not a culture of bridging, so the learning curve is longer for most than it would be for an exercise we’re more familiar with, like the bench press.  Check out the video below and start working on these progressions one by one.  Couple the mobility exercises in the videos above with the bridgework in the video below, and before you know it you will have unjacked your back, strengthened your spine, and improved your back health. 

 Feel free to high-five me from across the Internet.  Putting back problems in the grave deserves a little celebration.

 Don't leave me hangin', man, I can't hold this position much longer!

Until next time, life heavy and eat hearty!