Steph’s note: Please welcome my personal friend Trish DaCosta to the blog to introduce 3 ways to strengthen your back for better lifts.
Trish owns and operates Barbell Pilates, a resource dedicated to helping strength athletes elevate their performance, improve mobility and live a pain-free active lifestyle with the combination of strength training and the Pilates method.
What if I told you that strength training alone isn’t enough to unleash your full athletic potential?
What if you’re still leaving something on the table each time you hit that overhead squat or push press?
Better yet, what if I told you that one of the things holding you back isn’t strength, but length in your spine?
That’s right, I said “length”. The same marketing lingo you hear from fitness studios that promise (women in particular) that their magic formula will make our muscles long and lean.
Truth is, the marketing lingo has some truth to it, depending on the exercise modality. We know that anatomically, we can’t make our muscles longer, however, we can create the sensation of length in our bodies, especially in our spine.
And, you can strengthen your back for better, safer lifts.
Joseph Pilates, the founder of the Pilates method, once said “If your spine is inflexible and stiff at 30, you are old; if it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”
How about that for a reality check? At age 80, Joseph could move with the precision and control of a 20-year-old athlete, so clearly he was on to something, and here’s why.
A mobile spine is a healthy spine, which equates to better posture, better alignment and better movement overall. Consider the fact that lifters and general athletes rarely train outside the sagittal plane (think bicep curls, forward and back lunges).
This doesn’t leave a lot of room for spinal movement, which goes into four directions – flexion, extension, rotation and lateral flexion.
Now, add in prolonged sitting and “text neck” to the equation and you have yourself the modern-day computer guy/gal syndrome who also happens to lift weights. In other words, we’re loading heavy weight over a deviated posture and creating more dysfunction that leads us further into….
- Chronic low back and neck pain
- A compressed spine
- Decreased range of motion in the back, shoulders, ankles and hips
- Decreased core support during heavy lifting
- Less optimal breathing mechanics
And that’s just the short list. A deviated spine isn’t the end of the world, but it is partially responsible for the aches and pains we often feel, even as able-bodied individuals who love to exercise and lift.
Misalignment in the spine promotes imbalances throughout the kinetic chain. Over time, this prevents our athleticism from going as far as it can go, and don’t we train to look, feel and be at our best?
Spinal Articulation is For Every Body
When was the last time you took your spine through its full range of motion in a workout? Do you know what that even looks like?
I certainly didn’t!
In a methodology like Pilates, trainees learn to take their spine through full range of motion, feeling every vertebrae as they move while stretching and strengthening the muscles surrounding the spinal column.
Spinal articulation demands complete muscle control, creating a massage-like experience through the spine that helps open up the back. I call this “fluid spine” (I know, so clever), but it’s for good reason.
A fluid spine moves with grace and ease, like ocean waves that calmly reach the shore and draws itself back into the ocean. The more fluid our spines, the more load it can transfer up and down the body.
This translates into a greater transfer of power necessary for movements like the clean and jerk or box jumps. Sure we can still do these things with a compressed, wonky back, but why would you want to if it feels so much better and easier with a fluid spine?
Here’s another look at how an unhealthy spine or deviated posture affects performance.
The body is an organized system of muscles, tendons and joints, each with their own important role to play. The spinal column is built for movement. Just look at the way it’s curved in some areas and the shape of the vertebras in the lumber, thoracic and cervical regions.
Most importantly, notice what the spine is connected to: The ribcage, which connects to the shoulder girdle, the hip and pelvis region, which impact the knee and ankle, and the head which connects to our big brains.
On the muscular side of things, the spine has an army of muscles and ligaments that give it is strength and movement capabilities. Something as simple as an anterior tilted pelvis can create tight hips flexors, an excessive arch in the lumber spine/low back, stiffness along the mid-thoracic spine and so on.
It’s postural analysis 101 for the posture geeks out there and a seasoned Pilates instructor can spot those deviations quickly.
3 Ways to Strengthen Your Back for Better Lifts
Spinal articulation is really simple once you know what it should feel like. In the videos below, I’ll walk you through three basic Pilates exercises I use to teach clients how to properly move the spine.
Articulation: Hip Rolls
Extension: The Swan
Flexion: The Roll Up
Coach’s notes about how to strengthen your back for better lifts:
- Use one or two of these drills as part of your warm-up or any other time you feel the need to get the spine moving and flowing.
- If you’re using props like the foam roller or Bosu, be sure to feel the spine moving through each vertebrae as you articulate up or down.
- Take these slow. They’re meant to draw awareness to the spinal movement so don’t rush through it.
- Fluid spine happens with time so if you’re incredibly inflexible in that area, do these drills daily.
Trish DaCosta is the founder of BarbellPilates.com where she teaches strength athletes how to elevate their performance, improve mobility and live a pain-free active lifestyle with the combination of strength training and the Pilates method. You can follow her fitness shenanigans on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Download her free ebook, The Warm-Up Guide for Optimal Results by visiting BarbellPilates.com and joining her tribe of super cool, super strong, friends.