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Written by us, the Personal Training Team at ESPA Life at Corinthia London. We wanted to create a blog to write for fitness advocates and beginners alike, a place to share everything from tips & truths, effective workouts, dietary advice, words of encouragement , our thoughts on the what works (and what doesn’t) and what music is on our playlist. We will also run competitions, encourage you to join us for a morning run and provoke discussion.
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Wednesday 5 September 2012
If we were to analyse the health of peoples’ backs in the western world we would find that over 80% of the population would present with some form of back issue. Whether this is spinal disk, nerves, muscular or genetically created problems, over 80% of people would not be functioning as we are naturally designed to. Most of these problems are created because of our un-natural lifestyle. We, as home sapiens, are not genetically evolved to sit down (whether at a desk, on a tube, in the car or on the sofa) for extended periods of time. Neither are we designed to play sports, train in the gym and run long distances! Now I’m not saying don’t do any of the later examples (I whole heartedly would encourage you to get off the sofa and move any way you possibly can), what I am saying is that you have to be aware of the affect that it will have on your body.
Any form or training or sport will cause a muscular reaction, and generally damages the body. Your body is prepared for this and it is a natural reaction, this is how muscles increase strength and power. However the damage creates tension in the body, what is normally referred to as tightness. This tightness is the body trying to protect itself so that is can repair and get stronger. Typically the myofascia (a dense tough tissue that surrounds and covers all of your muscles and bones. Barry Jennings, 2009) will contract and shorten as a result of training muscle damage. As myofascia runs all over your body and connects muscle and bones (think of a web that covers your whole body under your skin) tightness in one area will have a knock on affect to the rest of the body.
This is one of the main causes of back pain. Imagine you have been in the gym and completed a hard leg session, your legs feel heavy and sore, and you know that the next day you are going to be stiff (sitting down is going to be accompanied by lots of groaning). All of this tightness in your glutes and hamstrings is going to be having an effect on the myofascial system. The next link up the web is the sacrum, followed by the lumbar and thoracic regions of your back. The tightness from your legs is going to put pressure, through the myofascial web, onto these regions. It’s going to affect the biomechanical way you move and the forces that the muscles use to stabilise the spine. This is what causes back pain, when you suddenly change the natural spinal alignment (acute injury) or the same process but over a long period of time (chronic injury).
For this reason, mobilisation and muscle preparation should be the most important part of your gym program. Foam rolling, mobility drill and a proper warm up are essential if you are to remain injury free. Foam rolling ensures that tension in the fascia is reduced, that the muscle quality improves and also begins lymphatic movement so the muscles begin to prepare for exercise. Mobility drills re-enforce our desire for a maximal range of movement at each joint. If we can drill our bodies to move properly and to their full range, and have strength at that full range, we will significantly reduce the likelihood of injury. Finally to the warm up, this needs to be muscle specific to your program. Jumping on the treadmill for 10 minutes is not going to prepare you for exercise. Yes it will get you warm but we are not looking to raise your body temperature, we need heat in the muscles and for them to move through the whole range of movement. Exercise complexes that mimic your program are perfect, so for heavy
squats use bodyweight squats, split squats and lunges, for bench pressing use band flys’ and inclined press ups.
Now that your body is prepared for exercise we need to address the problems that are causing your back pain. Now of course this is going to be different for individual situations, however I would like to share a few main ideas that will generally help everyone.
1. Increase Glute Strength – So many of the muscle groups that are attached and associated with the back, and its movement and stability, also attach to the pelvis. If you have weak glutes, the forces that go through the other muscles are going to create imbalances. This is where you get issues like anterior pelvic tilts and pelvic rotation. Having strong glutes not only looks good, but will help you resist the forces created from the rest of the body and maintain the natural posture that we naturally desire.
2. Increase Core Strength (not Abdominal Strength) – Unfortunately to most people the definition of core strength has become a direct heading to sit ups and crunches. Whilst the research still argues about whether flexion and extension of the spine should be included in strengthening programs, in my experience I have found that flexion and extension cause more problems than they solve. Admittedly this is generally down to poor technique and form but I take this out of the equation by avoiding the exercises. I prefer to strengthen the entire lower area of the torso or the trunk as it is more often called. Using rotation and anti-rotation exercises force us to strengthen not only the abdominals but the spinal stabilising muscles, the oblique’s and the intercostals muscle groups. This will provide much better total strength and is much more beneficial for back health.
Finally, get some manual therapy work done, it will be the best investment you can make! In reality you are probably going to start off in such a state that you will need some accurate and professional work done to release the target muscle groups. Whether is massage, acupuncture, cupping or reflexology, get yourself booked in with a practitioner. The whole of your posterial chain (from your neck, down through the shoulders, lower back, glutes, hamstrings and calfs, to the bottoms of your feet) get it all released. You might suffer for a few days but the gains will be worth it!
This has worked for me. Just over a year ago I had chronic back pain, I was unable to play my sport, getting out of bed was hard work and any kind of lifting left me in pieces for days. An MRI scan revealed that I had a perforated L3/L4 disk with a bulge onto my spinal cords. In addition to this I had several dehydrated disks, which lead my doctor to proclaim that I had the back of a 50 year old man, I’m 26!! A wake up call if ever there was one! Through hard work and following the principles above I am now well on my way to being able to function without any pain. I can go back to my sport and have no problems performing my favourite lifts in the gym. Don’t get me wrong, this is now a lifelong rehab program for me, but at least it doesn’t affect me in my day to day any more.
By Ross Gillanders