Photo credit: Bryan Fass
Photo credit: Bryan Fass
Photo credit: Bryan Fass
Hopefully, if you read my last article I got you thinking; thinking about different ways to train - not necessarily using machines, but using your entire body to do each exercise. We talked about the changes exercise science has brought about and the risks of continuing to train the way many people currently do. Our bodies, as I alluded to, were not designed to be cramped into a one size fits all machine and forced to move in a specific pattern. That pattern unfortunately is single jointed, and those of us in the know understand that even putting food in your mouth requires 3 major and around 24 smaller muscles. We need to train the same way that our body was designed to operate.
Back exercises are one of most misunderstood and frankly ill performed group of movements. To fully understand the complexities of the back requires far more information and training than can be fit into a single article. I encourage you to research the topic further.
The back is considered the Cervical, Thoracic and Lumbar Spine along with all the supporting muscles. Some of these muscles are global, meaning they assist with movement of the trunk / torso. Some are stabilizers, meaning they aid in keeping the spinal joints in the proper alignment. Many of the muscles act as synergists; they help other muscles do their job. Many of the back muscles have numerous tasks. The Latissimus Dorsi or lat, for example is the only muscle in the body that has a direct attachment on the shoulder and pelvis. Many of the thoracic or middle back muscles cross the thoracic and lumbar spines and attach into the pelvis and sacrum.
The eminent researcher Professor Stuart McGiIl states, "Evidence from tissue-specific injury generally supports the notion of a neutral spine (neutral lordosis) when performing loading tasks to minimize the risk of low back injury."
The spinal column, devoid of its musculature, has been found to buckle at a load of only 90 newtons (about 20 pounds) at LS 3, 4. However, during routine activities, loads 20 times greater are encountered on a regular basis. Panjabi says, "This large load-carrying capacity is achieved by the participation of well coordinated muscles surrounding the spinal column." Spine stability is greatly enhanced by co-contraction of antagonistic trunk muscles (e.g., abdominal and extensor muscles). Co-contractions increase spinal compressive load, as much as 12% to 18%, or 44ON, but they increase spinal stability even more by 36% to 64%, or 2,925N. But when load is at a minimum, such as when the body is relaxed or a task is trivial, the motor control system is often caught off guard and injuries are precipitated.
Low back injury has been shown to result from repetitive motion at end range: According to McGiIl, it is usually a result of "a history of excessive loading which gradually, but progressively, reduces the tissue failure tolerance."
What the research shows is actually simple, we continually load our body, in faulty posture, to the end range of movement. This increases the forces on the spinal joints by hundreds of pounds. Over time the joints become so repetitively overstrained and damaged that injury from a trivial task is inevitable.
So what exercises help or hurt the back? The first thing to understand is that the paraspinal muscles are dominated by slow twitch muscle fibers which means there is no need to work extensor muscles for strength, but instead focus on endurance or time under tension. This equates to stabilization type exercises for back strength, not thousands of repetitions of back extensions on various types of equipment.
Try performing quadraped opposite arm and leg extension exercises; vary your hold times to target the paraspinal muscles. Add planks and side planks into your routine, but remember to always fire the glutes and maintain neutral spine. To strengthen the back, focus on always maintaining proper abdominal bracing and a lordotic lifting posture. This means that the best way to strengthen your back, and abs for that matter, is to change how you think. Every exercise you do is now a back and abdominal exercise.
Perform your rows standing or sitting on a ball, keep your abs braced, head up, knees bent and shoulders back. Always keep the abs braced and the back flat; never round or hunch your shoulders. Do not lean back with the exercise. Proper abdominal contraction will counter any extension moment and protect the back while strengthening the abs.
Unfortunately the commercially made machines designed to strengthen the back actually place repetitive stresses on the spine and disks while encouraging hyperextension. The best way to achieve a strong back is to build strong abs and lumbar muscles with high endurance and coordination. The back was never designed to be strong; it was designed to have high muscular endurance and lots of help from the abdominal wall and hips.