09 Apr A Case for Spinal Flexion pt 2
Last article, we talked about the concept of neutral spine and its importance and its place in our training regimens. This article will deal more with spinal flexion exercises, and it’s a beast, so stay with me please.
There are a ton of muscles in what we commonly refer to as our abs. Rather than dive into all of them on this one, I am going to narrow in on the rectus abdominis.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Certainly, maintenance of a neutral spine is of the utmost importance on our big lifts (squats, deadlifts, and presses) but that is not the only way the “core” functions. In both the athletic world and our everyday lives, we find that some degree of spinal flexion and rotation are not only necessary, but vital to the tasks we have to perform. It can even improve your quality of life.
That’s a bold claim. Let’s start with the number one cause of missed work in America. Lower back pain. Extension based pain, usually what you get when you try to pick up something too heavy with improper alignment, is pain that is worse when you are standing than sitting. This is a broad spectrum including everything from disk issues (bulges or ruptures) to facet joint issues (bones on the spine). Americans spend $50 billion each year on lower back pain, and is the second most common neurological disorder behind headaches. Big issue here in our country.
Many of us here in the gym, we suffer from an anatomical position called Anterior Pelvic Tilt (APT). APT has been linked to lower back pain and even pain in the knees and ankles. Correcting that anatomical position is vital not only to correcting and improving our movement quality, but also to decreasing pain and increasing quality of life. Using some flexion, we can help correct that structural imbalance.
Let’s dive into the anatomy and causes of APT.
As you can see, the forward tilt of the pelvis is our focus. In this position, the posterior (backside) of the hips are elevated, stressing the hamstrings (the main reason most of us think we have tight hamstrings) increasing lumbar lordosis, arching of the lower back. Simultaneously, the rectus abdominis, our six-pack, is elongated and loses tension and can enhance the appearance of our belly looking fat.
Let’s dive a bit deeper. Strengthening the rectus abdominis with spinal flexion exercise (i.e. crunches) increases muscular tension pulling the anterior (front) portion of the pelvis up towards neutral. Restoring that tension and position, coupled with re-educating the hip flexors, will cause the posterior portion of the pelvis to lower in turn (kind of like a scale) decreasing protective tension and stress in the hamstrings. Crazy how that works, huh.
How else can this help me? You mean reducing back pain and fixing those tight hammies isn’t enough for you? Ok. I’ll tell you more. Here are some awesome arguments laid out by Brett Contreras on T-nation.com.
- Increased fluid flow and nutrition to posterior discs. Lumbar flexion enhances nutrient delivery to discs by increasing nutrient-carrying fluids to the discs.
- Increased remodeling of tissue. A proper dose of spinal flexion likely strengthens the disc tissues, which would therefore increase tolerance to lumbar flexion exercise and prevent future injury.
- Sagittal plane mobility. Some studies have linked lack of spinal mobility to low back pain; however the literature is somewhat contradictory. At the very least crunches can prevent losses in spinal mobility, which might be important in low back pain prevention.
- Rectus abdominis hypertrophy. When taking into account the entire body of knowledge on hypertrophy research, it’s abundantly clear that dynamic exercise is superior to isometric exercise in increasing muscle mass. Much of this has to do with the increased muscular damage incurred from eccentric activity as well as the increased metabolic stress. Bottom line, if you want to optimize your “six-pack” appearance, spinal flexion exercises will certainly help to achieve this goal.
- Performance enhancement. Contrary to what some have claimed, lumbar flexion is prevalent in many sport activities. Thus, concentrically/eccentrically strengthening the abdominal muscles may very well lead to increased athletic performance.
We certainly want to feel good, but if we are being honest, most of us train because we want to look better. Few things on a body are sexier than a flat, tight stomach. ( just being honest) But before we go too much further, let’s pose a question: Is spinal flexion functional? Keying off of the previous article, let’s look at some fundamental human movements requiring some degree of spinal flexion.
There are two very fundamental things (well actually a ton but I want to focus on these two) humans have done for the duration of our existence on this planet that require varying degrees of spinal motion: Reproduction and self-defense. (try and stow the grade school snickers here as we talk a bit about sex…let’s all be adults here and I will try to avoid being crude)
In reproduction, the very act requires spinal flexion and extension at the hip. I can’t imagine a person performing a perfect hip hinge in order to have sex; not very fun and not very efficient. If we are thinking about what is a truly functional movement, I would have to classify reproduction near the top of the list for us to survive as a species.
Self-defense; not as common a need in today’s society, but in our past it was truly a daily requirement. In the sessions, I will often mention tightening your abs as if you are about to be punched (think finishing KB swings and deadlifts/RDLs). You can’t brace your abs for impact completely without a degree of spinal flexion.
Spinal rotation is another range of motion that gets a bad rap. Seeing as Opening Day was this week, baseball provides the perfect example to talk about spinal rotation as a necessary component of athletic movement. You can’t throw a ball efficiently or swing a bat with any force without some spinal rotation. In our not too distant past, in order to defend yourself, your family, or possessions you had to be able to swing a sword, axe, or some sort of weapon. Not many of us here are Major League Baseball Players or Knights of the Round Table so I will skip over spinal rotation a bit, but I think you get where I am going.
Alright Brad sounds good, but what’s the catch.
It’s not for everyone. Just like our band system red-lighting squats and overhead movements, there is a time and place for flexion. If you have pre-existing disk issues, spinal flexion is probably not for you. Likewise if you have nerve problems in the hip/stomach area, it may not be something you’re ready for. However, if you are good to go, some degree of spinal flexion can help you get where you want to go both aesthetically and athletically.
Well, this was long, but I believe I have made my point. Spinal flexion does have a place in properly assessed and progressed training programs. It even fits the functional movement category; at least if you are buying what I am selling. As always, I love to hear your feedback. If you agree or disagree I would love to know what you think.
THE DEFENSE RESTS!