Increasing you back flexibility will not increase your performance; in fact, it will probably cause you pain.
Bold statement? Let’s look into it.
The spine has natural curves (if you want to get fancy and impress someone, you could call it lordosis and kyphosis) to act as a spring that helps absorb various movements done in any given day. Chiropractors or other health and fitness professionals will often give back stretches with a goal to increase spinal flexibility. This is faulty. Generally spinal stretches should be given to help ease some pain, but this is NOT an adequate way to prevent pain, or even worse, injury. As a matter of fact, Solomonow’s study (2003, 2008) showed that static stretching of the spinal ligaments can cause muscle spasm! We stretch for temporary pain relief and exercise/rehab for prevention of pain and injury. So here’s the rule:
Mobilize your shoulders and hips, not your spine.
On the surface, there may be some sports where it seems that developing spinal mobility is warranted. If we look a little deeper into the actual movements involved, we will see that it actually is not the case.
Seems like it is a big twisting motion of the spine, but is it really the spine that’s twisting?
Again, we are seeing aggressive HIPS, not big movements in the spine. Trunk flexion in the golf swing allows for variance in your stroke, variance in your stroke means inconsistent play and how frustrating is that to a golfer?
This is an Olympic snatch, where one must move a load from ground to overhead without stopping at the shoulders. Notice how the hips are low and the spine is straight. The only mobility in the spine is actually in the 7th picture where there is SLIGHT extension of the mid back. The hips are actually fully open at this point and the spine is straight, even in the catching position (seen in the 8th picture) – great technical lift here.
Again, we see significant flexibility of the shoulder and hips, internal and external rotation along with power of the hip extensors.
Here we have great flexibility of the hips and hamstrings.Look how the spine is maintained.
This shows flexible hips with a straight low back. She then goes into thoracic and cervical (neck) extension.
Gymnasts are notorious for having laxity in the lower spinal ligaments which are associated with a condition called spondylosis or pars defect. I can honestly only think of the gymnast where it is beneficial FOR THE SPORT AS A PROFESSIONAL to have more mobility of the spine. Let me reiterate, this is NOT beneficial for the average person.
I could go on with more sports, but I think you get the picture. While we are on the topic of mobility, I want to address this whole hamstring tightness concept. To date, there is very little evidence that hamstring tightness cause low back pain. There is, however, some evidence suggesting asymmetry of hamstring flexibility is linked to back pain. Stuart McGill, PhD makes a great point in his book, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance:
“… performance is not a stretching contest. Mobility is a requirement, but loose joints without precisely controlled strength are unstable. This decreases performance and increases the risk of subsequent injury.”
So the next time you think you have to work on your back flexibility, think about what you are actually trying to do. Think of your activity and the functional involved. In most cases you will find your back should be neutral (maintaining the natural curves of the spine) while your hips and shoulders have to move.
Questions? Criticisms? Need to learn how to stabilize? Contact me today!
Andrew Yaun, D.C.