It is estimated that up to 80 percent of the population has experienced or will experience at least one bout of low back pain in their lives. So it would be wise to warm up the spine thoroughly prior to physical activity, but how? In this article, I will share with you several simple methods you can use with your clients to prepare their spines for exercise.
In the book, The Development of Muscular Bulk and Power, Anthony Ditillo recommends simply lying on a flat bench with your arms behind your head and eyes closed for 15 minutes prior to a workout. During this time, he advises utilizing visualization of the upcoming workout to encourage a positive state and enhance performance. Strength coach Charles Poliquin takes this a step further by having his athletes lie on a six inch foam roller also for 15 minutes before their workout to help decompress the spine by opening up the intervertebral spaces. Apparently, laying on the foam roller - referred to as a spine roller by physiotherapists - lengthwise along the spine will help restore normal spinal curvatures since gravity acts downwards, straightening the spine at the apex of excessive curvatures (generally reducing kyphosis). Since this method allows for optimal nerve conduction, Poliquin claims that it will increase strength by up to three percent.
I have found that a greater effect is achieved if the base of the skull (i.e., suboccipital area) is placed at the edge of the roll, causing slight cervical extension (see Figure 1). This seems to pull the spine, allowing a greater decompressive effect. Try it both ways, and see if you can feel the difference.
For small individuals, use a child’s swim noodle (see Figure 2), which can be purchased for a few dollars at any Wal-Mart store. Larger individuals should invest in a six inch foam roll. (To purchase one, click here.)
Another excellent method to restore the natural curvature of the spine and promote proper posture is with the use of an orthopedic device called a Health Bridge (see Figure 3).
The unique curved design of Health Bridges will rotate and lift the shoulders while stretching back muscles and ligaments. It features a slot up the middle to accommodate the spinal column and eliminate pressure on this area, distributing body weight evenly across the muscles of the back and providing beneficial pressure against critical areas along the spinal column. (Visit www.healthbridges.com for more information.)
The overall result is improved posture and flexibility, and much like the foam roll, it will allow optimal nerve conduction, thereby increasing strength. Lie on the Health Bridge for at least 10 minutes before your workout.
The camel (see Figure 4) and mad cat (see Figure 5) are two classic exercises that stretch the abdominals and back respectively and are prescribed in many rehabilitation programs. Dr. Stuart McGill, a spinal biomechanist and professor at the University of Waterloo, recommends this series of exercises to “floss” the nervous system and reduce viscosity. Perform five to six cycles and do not press the end range (make sure to involve the cervical spine.) McGill stresses that this method is not a stretch but rather gentle motion. By getting nerves to move, they can create their own space. It’s not enough to just stretch them! Also, it is a good idea to avoid these exercises first thing in the morning. Wait at least one hour after waking up. That is the critical period since your tissue is super hydrated at that point, resulting in an 18 percent loss of strength in the spine and an increased risk of injury.
Pelvic rocks are actually an extension of the camel/cat exercise described above; however, they are not limited to just one plane of movement. Rehabilitation specialist Paul Chek recommends this series of exercises as a method to pump fresh fluid through the spinal discs to nourish the tissues. Pelvic rocks involve sitting on a Swiss ball and rocking forward and backward (see Figures 6 and 7), side to side (see Figures 8 and 9) and in a circular motion (see Figures 10 and 11). The goal with this (and any other active warm up, for that matter) is to gradually increase speed and range of motion. Basically, think “further” and “faster” as you progress. If practiced enough, they may even improve your dancing skills!
Figures 6 and 7
Figures 8 and 9
Figures 10 and 11
Spine Warm Up Routine
Start by lying on a foam roll or the Health Bridges device for 15 to 20 minutes while visualizing your workout. Then perform the following series of movements:
- Camel/Cat - 5-6 cycles
- Dog Maneuver (aka Fire Hydrant) - 5-10 reps
- Birddog (aka, Dynamic Horse Stance) - 5-10 reps
- Ab Vacuum - 10-12 reps for 5-10 second contractions
- Pelvic Tilt - 10-12 reps for 5-10 second contractions
- Pelvic Rocks - 5-10 reps of forward and backward, side to side and circles
The first four drills are performed in the quadraped position (i.e., hands and knees) while the next two are in the supine (i.e., lying on your back) and seated position, respectively. This simple routine will take a few minutes, but it will result in a great workout. Remember, you can’t put a price tag on optimum health!
The bottom line is, if you are currently experiencing some form of low back pain, then you should practice all of these exercises on a regular basis. For preventative measures and to possibly increase strength, perform at least one of the methods before your workout. Really, how hard is it to lie on a foam roller for a few minutes? Your spine will thank you for it!
- Chek, P. Bigger Balls, Better Backs. New Zealand Fitness, Issue #22.
- Chek, P. Swiss Ball Training. Paul Chek Seminars. La Jolla, CA.1996. (pages 15-16)
- Ditillo, A. The Development of Muscular Bulk & Power. Ironman Magazine, 1971. Reprinted in 1999 by Wm F. Hinbern, Farmington, MI. Luoma, TC. TC Talks. Muscle Media 2000. Golden, CO. Dec., 1996, No. 55.
- McGill, S. Low Back Injury: Improving Prevention Strategies and Rehabilitation Approaches Seminar. Toronto, ON. May 12, 2001.
- Poliquin, C. Preparing for the Ultimate Workout. Testosterone, Issue #81. Dec. 3, 1999. http://testosterone.net/html/81ultim.html
- Shiple, BJ. Treating Low-Back Pain: Exercise Knowns and Unknowns. The Physician and Sportsmedicine. 25(8), Aug. 1997. http://www.physsportsmed.com/issues/1997/08aug/shiple.htm