Friday, November 5, 2010

Low Back Pain (Part 1): Injury Limits to Fat Loss

If you have been following this blog for a while, you have undoubtedly read the anterior pelvic tilt post, my most popular page to this date. Anterior pelvic tilt is a prevalent posture that is a common cause of low back pain in anybody that sits for long periods of time throughout the day. Today, I am sharing with you my knowledge about low back pain in general.

Having a strong, healthy lower back is essential for just about every aspect of life. Unfortunately, an estimated 80% of all Americans have suffered, at one time or another, from lower back pain. Sometimes it is as simple as a an acute episode that lasts only a couple of hours. Other times, low back pain can be chronic and debilitating. Either way, low back pain will be a major hindrance to your fat loss exercise program. If you can't train, you can't optimally burn fat! Even more importantly is that low back pain might leave you out of commission for a long period of time. Any positive exercise adaptations you may have gained from exercise might be lost when you aren't training, AND inactivity is probably going to cause you to put on fat... which is probably the opposite of what you want to do!

So, what you might want to know is if there is anything you can do about preventing or self-treating low back pain without having to spend thousands of dollars on a doctor, physical therapist, or chiropractor.

Before I continue, I would like to point out that nothing in this entry is meant as a substitute for medical advice. It is for educational purposes only. Anything you might apply from this post is of your own free will and at your own discretion. Alright, now that that is out of the way...

Let's talk about the role of your lower back (the lumbar spine). The lumbar spine is composed of 5 large vertebrae and has a secondary, lordotic curvature (forward curve) when in a neutral position. According to the joint by joint theory of training, the lumbar spine was built for stability, not for mobility or movement.

This belief  is supported by our very own anatomy. Everybody knows about the abdominals. The abdominal muscles include the rectus abdominis (the six pack muscle), the external abdominal obliques, the internal abdominal obliques, and the transverse abdominis. The fibers of the rectus abdominis are segmented, and the external and internal obliques and transverse abdominis have fibers that are oriented in different directions.

If the rectus was designed primarily to produce movement, it would likely not be segmented and would look more like one long hamstring muscle. Likewise, if the other abdominals were not meant for stability, what reason would there be to have so many layers with fibers oriented in different directions like a well woven cloth? The logical conclusion is that the abdominal muscles are meant to RESIST movements such as lumbar extension, lumbar side flexion, and lumbar rotation, not produce these movements. 

In Dr. Stuart McGill's book, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, a study was presented that demonstrated that repeated cycles of lumbar flexion and extension cause the intervertebral discs to spontaneously herniate. What does that suggest about all those abdominal and back exercises you commonly see being performed in gyms? Exercises such as sit-ups, bicycles, side bends, supermans, back extensions, etc. all may be CAUSING back pain and dysfunction!

So, if you want to know what NOT to do when training your abs... there you have it. Stop performing abdominal exercises that emphasize movement at the lumbar spine! There are plenty of other options (which you will be given in Part 2) that are not known to destroy your back and that are far more functional anyway.

Okay, so now you know that a lot of movement at the lumbar spine is not a good idea. Neutral alignment is always the goal. It is a pretty simple concept. The question now becomes, "How do you prevent that movement and stay in neutral?" Well that, unfortunately, is not so simple. Movement typically follows the path of least resistance. Because of the way most of us spend our days (slumped over and sitting), we tend to lose mobility in our hips and thoracic spine (upper back).

Our hips are thoracic spine get locked into a position of flexion whenever we sit for long periods of time, and the ability to adequately extend and rotate them decreases as our tissues negatively adapt to this posture. This is not good, as these joints are meant for mobility. The lumbar spine, as a result, becomes more mobile to compensate for the lack of movement at these other joints (a recipe for low back pain!). 

Even those that do not spend a lot of time sitting lose their mobility in the hips and thoracic spine if they do not train to keep it! This is important to keep in mind, as sitting all day is not the only way to lose mobility and get low back pain!

Take away point: Aside from changing the way we train our abdominals, we also need to train to maintain thoracic spine and hip mobility. Techniques for this will be covered in Part 2.

The last thing you need to get out of this entry is that people who are fit, coordinated, and focus on proper movement and athletic skills are the most likely to lead lives free of low back pain (and any other injury). So, get out there and train!

Click here for Part 2

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