Prevent low back injuries with this simple dynamic joint mobility drill.
June 2, 2017
History of Low Back Injuries / Pain
For those who don’t already know, I suffered from severe – and I mean severe! – low back pain for about a decade.
An MRI scan showed that I had 2 severely herniated discs in my lumbar spine between S1-L5 and L5-L4.
This caused shooting pain down my back, leg, into my foot and toes (sciatica).
At times it was a moderate annoyance and other times it was so bad it would drop me to my hands and knees for up to 20 minutes at a time. Imagine being at work or pumping gas and suddenly feeling like you were being electrocuted and falling down unable to get up… Yes that happened to me on several occasions.
Thankfully I learned how to eliminate my low back pain and today I have ZERO low back pain. I also have no fear of injury to it while playing soccer, doing martial arts, lifting kettlebells, etc.
I have helped dozens if not hundreds of people eliminate mild to severe low back pain and who really can guess at how many low back injuries I have helped to prevent?
Suffice to say I’ve got a little experience on the subject, so sit down buckle up and here we go.
Low Back Anatomy
Your low back or lumbar spine has 5 vertebrae.
Each one of these vertebra have a small degree of movement potential. When you use your body in the real world such as during sports or picking up a bag of dog food you make large twisting and bending movements. During these large motions each one of those vertebra need to move fluidly.
What happens if some of your vertebrae do not move well?
Look at the image above. Lets say for a moment that none of your 5 lumbar vertebrae move, they are all stiff. The area at L1 / T12 (where it turns from pink to green in the image) is going to have to absorb all of the movement that should be shared with the area below it, the lumbar area in this case.
That will likely cause the disc at L1 / T12 to accrue overuse trauma and at some point a disc herniation is likely.
A disc herniation is where the outer fibrous part of the disc tears and the inner spongy material leaks or pushes out. Often this will cause it to apply excessive pressure to the sciatic nerve (in the lumbar spine) and pain ensues.
You Can Prevent AND Heal Low Back Injuries
So if you know that any stiff area of the spine will put the discs above and below at risk of overuse trauma which can result in a disc herniation, then you know what your job is… To make sure that the entire spine is mobile, supple, and strong.
By doing specific dynamic joint mobility drills you can accomplish the following things:
- Prevent Injuries – by making sure that the whole spine moves well thus each vertebra shares the load during movement.
- Recover from Injuries – once again by making sure the whole spine moves well we can shift the load from the area of injury and spread it out over the entire spine allowing the outer fibrous layer of the disc to heal.
- Improve athletic performance – a more supple, mobile, and strong spine can support the demands of sports, exercise, and life easier and more fluidly. Thus force can be transferred through the body more effectively. So a martial artist who generates force behind a punch with his legs can now transfer more of that force through their core and out their arms and fists.
Drill – Low Back Flexion & Twist
This is a modification of a more sophisticated set of low back dynamic joint mobility drills from the R-Phase DVD set by Z-Health Performance Solutions.
The video will provide the steps to the drill but here is a quick bullet point summary of the video:
- Stand tall with feet at a width where you have good balance
- Stick your index finger just under the waistband of your pants to feel the lowest lumbar vertebra L5
- Now stack your middle, ring, and pinky fingers vertically above so you can feel the other lumbar vertebrae
- Rub your fingers up and down to feel for your spinous processes
- Put your other hand like you are giving yourself Karate chop at your belly button
- Now round forward over your Karate chop hand, rounding from your low back
- You should be able to feel the spinous processes in your low back spread apart as you bend forward, then as you come back up you should feel them come back together (this is important)
Corrections & Pointers
Since most people have very poor awareness of their lumbar spine do not expect it to move very well without some practice.
A common problem you will likely experience when you first start this drill is that you will move from your hips instead of your low back. The way you can tell is if your butt moves backwards.
To fix this simply stand with your butt about 1 – 2″ away from a wall, table, etc. that way if you move back from your hips you will know because your butt will hit the object.
Now your butt will need to move back a little since you are displacing your weight forward but try to minimize it.
The other tip to help make sure you move from your lumbar spine is to really pay attention to the sensation of your spinous processes under your fingers spreading open and closing as you do the movement.
Since each lumbar vertebra can only move a little bit you can only flex forward about 30 degrees. If you are able to reach your kneecaps with your finger tips you are moving from more than just your lumbar spine, likely your hips.
At first really pay attention to getting the feel of moving from the lumbar area. You should feel a mild stretch between your vertebrae.
Once you have that down you can add some twisting into the mix. While in forward flexion simply rotate or twist to your right and left, slowly and mindfully.
Now pay attention to your pelvis (hips). They should not be rotating. If they are then that means your spine is not. Keep your pelvis fixed and move only from the spine.
How Much, How Often?
A good rule of thumb is to do this drill daily up to 3 – 5 times per day as desired. Do 3 – 5 forward flexions and 3 – 5 rotations.
During your warm up before exercise or sports is ideal. But anytime your back is stiff you can do this to loosen up. Before bed and first thing in the morning are also good times. I have my clients do it in-between sets of kettlebell exercises.
You can prevent low back injuries if you are willing to do some dynamic mobility work for your spine.
Your body will heal and repair disc herniations but in order to do so you must fix the way your spine moves so it stops putting excessive pressure at the site of injury. Thus your entire spine can learn to share the load.
In this drill we are focusing on your lumbar spine in the low back but ideally you would do dynamic joint mobility drills for your entire spine… heck your entire body. That will lead to a more supple, coordinated, and injury resilient body.
Treat your body like a high performance car and do your maintenance. In the case of your body regular dynamic joint mobility drills for your entire body is the ticket to health, athletic performance, and avoiding injuries.
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