In my previous blog, I briefly outlined the 4 categories of pain and injuries as laid out in the Starrett Movement and Mobility system: pathology, catastrophe, motor-control/stability, and mobility. If your problem is pathological or catastrophical, you need to see your physician for help. That will often-times be your best option. However, if your pain is related to either your motor-control in your day-to-day movements, or to your mobility, you can take control over that yourself. Understanding the distinction between these categories is important. Too many times, people will experience sore and achy knees or shoulders, for example, and if it does not go away on it’s own, they will see a medical doctor to help. But here is the thing: medical doctors are trained for pathological and catastrophical problems. They are NOT usually trained to help correct your posture while working out, or to help make your body be more mobile. Ice and pain meds do nothing but provide short-term relief, and can end up making things worse in the long run. So what can you do to fix bad posture and relieve your own chronic pain? Start with your spine.
We always start with solid movement patterns first for a very specific reason: You can do all the mobility work you want to, and have all the awesome and fancy tools on the market, but without actually moving in functional, full range-of-motion movements that match your physiology, you will lose that mobility in a heartbeat. Movement first. Learn how to move correctly, and you will begin to develop your own, real-time, blueprint for diagnosing and preventing chronic pain and dysfunction, and will have a much better idea about how to fix your own lack of mobility if that is an issue for you. All good movements always start by prioritizing the spine.
Your spine has 3 natural curves that can move around. These are present in your neck (cervical spine, which has an inward curve), ribcage (thoracic spine, which has an outward curve) and in the lower back (lumbar spine, which has an inward curve.) Preservation of these curves is normally what we are seeking in both your daily movements (getting out of a chair, standing in the shower, walking to work, etc.) and in movements at the gym. There are three major reasons why you want to prioritize your spine first:
- Roop Sihota, who taught my Movement and Mobility seminar, stated the first reason about as good as anyone can: Because central nervous system (CNS) injury SUCKS!!! So here’s the thing: Your spine is your brains tail. It is how your brain communicates with your body and gets you moving so you can survive in your environment. This makes your spine incredibly valuable, at least according to your brain. So when you injure, or even threaten to injure your spine, this is not something your brain takes lightly. If you have ever hurt your spine before, you know that it is not only physically painful, but also mentally and emotionally draining. You become self-conscious about every little movement, and your personality can become depressing because even mild spinal pains are so debilitating.
- The second reason is that having your spine in a bad position drastically lowers your potential for strength. If you create a hinge in a couple of spinal segments, you are basically putting a kink in the tube. Place a weight on that hinge, and you are at risk for disk herniation. When this happens, your brain will redirect your energy away from your extremities and towards your spine to brace your muscles and connective tissues immediately around your spine in order to help prevent the spine from moving poorly while under a load. [IF YOU HAVE LOW BACK PAIN, PROCEED WITH CAUTION] An easy way to understand this is to lay down on the ground on your back, completely relax your whole body, and suddenly jerk your feet up 6 inches. You’ll notice your belly will bulge upward and the position will be uncomfortable, taking a lot of work to maintain. Now completely relax your body again. This time I want you to squeeze your butt, squeeze your belly, and now lift your feet 6 inches. A little bit easier? Good. Now, with your feet still up in the air, relax your butt. You’ll notice that your belly will bulge back up, and your feet will drop on their own, suddenly feeling a lot heavier. What happened here is that the muscles attaching your hips to your spine (your psoas) were no longer stable when you relaxed your butt and they yanked on your spine. By doing this drill, your just jerked on your own CNS, and all the energy you were expending to simply hold your feet up was redirected inward to brace that musculature around your spine rather than just hold your hips and legs in place.
- The third reason for prioritizing your spine is that being disorganized drastically limits your flexibility. This happens for exactly the same reason as why your strength diminishes under the same circumstances. Your muscles tighten around your spine and cannot fully relax outward.[IF YOU HAVE LOW BACK PAIN, PROCEED WITH CAUTION] A simple way to exemplify how your nervous system can create tight muscles is to inflict some neural tension on yourself: Sit down in a chair and lift one leg so it is outstretched in front of you, parallel to the ground. Round your torso forward to give yourself as much of a hunchback as you can, and nod your head up and down. You’ll probably notice that when you tuck your chin to chest, your hamstrings start to get tighter. Well all that’s happening there is that your spine is becoming so disorganized that your nervous system has to create stability and stiffness on it’s own. This is also referred to as disrespecting your spine. And you can feel how these tissues, extending all the way down to your hips, get tight to create stability.
Your body will fight for stability, and it does not think about long-term health when doing so. You can create your own stability yourself with good movement mechanics, or your body will create it’s own stability, which we are seeing frequently results in chronic pain.
Prioritize your spine. Spinal position always comes first. It prevents injury, and it maximizes your potential for both strength and flexibility. So there is the why. Now the how. How do you get your spine into a neutral position and keep it there? You start off with what we call the Bracing Sequence. If you have kept up with the blog post thus far, you’ve already done it once.
Step #1: Squeeze your butt.
Step #2: Squeeze your belly.
Step #3: While keeping your belly tight, relax your butt.
You are now braced and ready for action. Turn this sequence into a habit before you sit down, stand up, bend over to pick something up, reach your arms overhead or do anything that involves moving weights around, and you will single-handedly prevent just about any kind of preventable (i.e. non-catastrophical and non-pathological) back pain and dysfunction.
This Bracing Sequence works in a couple of ways. First, it shifts your hips so that your lumbar vertebrae are in a neutral position. When you squeeze your butt, your hips will actually rotate posteriorly. This is why you have a butt. If you’ve never noticed before, humans are the only creatures on Earth that have a butt as we tend to think of it. All other mammals have a flat, callused booty that they can sit on. We have big butts because we stand upright.
Second part is to squeeze your belly. This is the actual bracing part. Your hips set the position, and your abs brace it so you can maintain that neutral spinal position. Squeezing your belly also pulls your ribcage down to help put your thoracic vertebrae into a neutral position. When your belly is braced, you can relax your butt so your legs can move a bit more easily. As long as your belly remains braced, your hips and ribcage will remain aligned. From here, look straight ahead to set your cervical spine in a good position, and keep your shoulders centered on top of your ribcage to help keep your thorax in check.
This Bracing Sequence is a lifesaver when it comes to both athleticism and general well-being. If you can get yourself to always think about your spinal position and start doing the Bracing Sequence all the time, the future pay-off will be huge. It doesn’t matter if you are reaching down to pick the newspaper up, or about to set a record for your deadlift. The setup is the same. And the best part is that you really only need to consciously focus on it all the time for a few weeks. After enough time has passed, it will be a habit and you will automatically begin bracing yourself in a good position without having to intentionally focus so much on it. Do this work now, and the long-term payout is massive.
The exception to the rule– Global flexion and extension
There is always an exception to any rule depending upon the circumstances. Try to reach around a refrigerator or boulder and pick them up with a perfectly straight spine. That just won’t happen unless your arms are strong enough to do the lifting by themselves. So for large and cumbersome objects, you need to create what we call GLOBAL flexion, where the whole spine is rounded as a whole (not creating a hinge between just a couple of vertebrae). Conversely, you may also need to create GLOBAL extension, as with handstands. Again, we are avoiding two things: LOCAL flexion and extension, where you are creating a kink in a small segment of your spine, and we are also avoiding creating movement in the spine while under a load. Yes, it is less than ideal, but our goal is optimal performance.