November 5th, 2009

Robertson Training Systems Newsletter 5.20

My Thoughts on the Lumbar Spine and Low Back, Part III

In case you missed the first two installments, you can find them linked below.

In Part I, we covered my basic thoughts and ideals when it comes to the low back.

In Part II, we covered my thoughts on low back training and programming.

In the final installment of our series, “My Thoughts on the Lumbar Spine and Low Back,” we’re going to cover some of my thoughts on coaching.  As I hope you’ll see, whether a client or athlete is in low back pain or trying to prevent it, the same basic principles will always apply.

1 – The Need for Neutral Spine

Neutral spine is an absolutely critical component of keeping low backs strong and healthy.

The key, in this case, is understanding that this isn’t just something we focus on initially; instead, it’s a critical component all the way from the rehab-based client to the elite level athlete.

This was reinforced even further this past July, when I spoke at the NSCA state clinic in Louisville, Kentucky.  I gave my low back presentation (which is linked above), and talked about how important neutral spine is for optimal health and performance.

Not three hours later, strength coach Joe Keen was talking about the power clean progression he uses with his athletes.  In this presentation, he talked about how important it is to maintain neutral spine throughout the power clean – not only to stay healthy, but to improve performance as well!

Needless to say, this was music to my ears.

So when we talk about neutral spine, it’s not just lip-service – neutral spine is not something we should strive for in low-level exercises like planks and birddogs, but in high-level lifts and activities as well.

2 – Learn to watch for the “subtle” destabilization

This is where time and coaching experience really comes in to play.

I think too often we get focused on the big, blowout injuries, versus the little cracks in our armor that build-up over time.

An example might be someone going for a maximal deadlift, getting into a high degree of lumbar flexion, and blowing a disc or straining a muscle.  This is how people envision their backs getting injured. Don’t get me wrong – this guy is definitely on his way to a back injury, but this probably isn’t how most people end up injured.

Instead, I think it’s often the small, subtle destabilizations that add up over time that really does us in.  So it’s not the one-time you went into slight lumbar flexion on a deadlift that got you injured, it’s the 1000x you went into slight-lumbar flexion on sub-maximal deadlifts that collectively did you in.

If you are coaching clients or athletes, take the time to really focus on what’s going on at their lumbar spine.  Ask yourself the following questions:

–  Are they starting in an optimal/neutral low back alignment?

–  Are they maintaining the same degree of lordosis throughout the lift?  Or is it increasing/decreasing?

–  Is there excessive movement/motion at specific spinal segments?

Don’t accept “good enough.”  I often tell clients I want them to imagine that their spine is welded/fused in that optimal alignment, and that it can’t move throughout the duration of the lift.  The only thing that can move is their hips.  This provides a very clear visualization, and it often cleans up their movement considerably.

3 – Militant Cuing

This point piggy-backs perfectly off the previous point.  If someone is in acute low back pain, you absolutely, positively must be militant with their cuing.

If you want three-points of contact to achieve neutral spine, don’t allow anything less.

If you want them to use hip motion vs. lumbar spine motion, don’t allow anything less.

If you want them to finish lifts with hip extension versus lumbar extension, don’t allow anything less.

Quite simply, you must be militant in your coaching and cuing of said client.  Anything less allows them to fall back into old, suboptimal motor patterns, and reinforces the movements that got them injured originally.

I always tell my clients, “If it feels too easy, you’re not doing it right.”  Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it applies to most.  Many people have no clue how to move properly – it’s our job as coaches and trainers to improve their movement efficiency, and thus, their health.

4 – Hip Motion vs. Lumbar Spine motion

The final point I want to make is discerning the difference between hip motion and lumbar spine motion.  Again, this is something that takes time and is only refined with countless hours coaching clients and athletes, but it’s something we need to look for and improve upon.

Whether it’s due to stiffness in the hips, instability in the lower back, or some combination of the two, many people have pre-conceived notions of how mobile or flexible they are.

I always tell clients not to have preconceived notions of how far they should be able to move.  Again, there’s often a significant difference between just performing an exercise, and actually performing it correctly.


I hope you enjoyed this series.  If you’d like more information on the lower back, I would highly recommend checking out the works of noted authorities such as Bogduk, Liebenson, and of course Stuart McGill, all of which are featured on my Resources page.

Stay strong



Leave Comment

Leave a Reply

Back to All Posts