BACK TO BASICS: Part 3

Welcome back! 

In Part 1 this series, we’ve established the importance of spinal hygiene, and why everyone should make it a priority to look after their back. Then in Part 2 we learned the first step in spinal hygiene, how to establish a neutral lumbo-pelvic position. Next, we need to look at how to STABILISE  in neutral, in order to maintain that position as much as possible throughout the day. 
STABILISING IN NEUTRAL
Once you’ve established a neutral lumbo-pelvic position, I’m afraid that’s not the end of it; you now have to learn to keep it there. 
Unfortunately, pretty much everything you do in life will challenge that neutral posture; from the simplest most natural movements such as breathing or standing, to the obvious things like deadlifting your 1-rep max. It’s your job to hold it in place as much as possible when doing these things. After all that’s what stability is; your ability to maintain that neutral position when challenged. 
  • GET IN NEUTRAL
  • BREATHE  IN NEUTRAL
  • TRAIN IN NEUTRAL
  • LIVE & MOVE IN NEUTRAL
Let’s dive into each of these in a bit more detail…

BREATHING 

It may sound crazy, but the way that you breathe has a big impact on many aspects of your health and fitness, and is directly related to both posture and core control. 
For optimal breathing mechanics, we really want the pelvis in neutral (as we’ve already covered), and the ribs centred over the pelvis.
show optimal core position

Neutral pelvis & rib position

This position allows optimal movement of the diaphragm, for efficient, relaxed breathing. It also enables optimal activation of the various core muscles, helping you to stabilise in that position as required.
Now, depending on the position you’re in, just holding that neutral posture and breathing normally can be a real challenge. Because of this, breathing drills, can be used to develop core stability in a variety of different positions specific to the individual’s weaknesses.
This might be something as simple as lying on your back with knees bent focusing on diaphragmatic breathing. Or it could be made more difficult by extending one or both legs, or extending the arms arm overhead. You can then progress to more challenging positions such as quadruped, kneeling, 1/2 kneeling etc., and also add more challenging movements whilst in these positions.
These Positional Breathing Drills may sound very easy, but I promise you they can be WAY more challenging than they sound. If you incorporate a full exhale into the drill, they can be really quite intense, and can have some important long-term benefits. Let’s face it – it doesn’t get much more ‘functional’ than breathing. 

TRAINING 

Next, you need to make sure that you maintain that neutral position whilst training. This is particularly important, because the stakes are higher. 
During training we tend to perform dynamic movements, with a large range of motion, usually against resistance, and often in a state of fatigue. All this makes it much more likely that we lose that neutral position, and is the reason why good posture and technique is so important. 
It also means that we can use training to improve core stability and actually reduce the risk of back pain or injury. We just have to make sure that we are training the right way, which means using the core muscles to stabilise in neutral against the challenge provided by the exercise. 
For the best results, try to use fewer exercises where the body is supported by a bench or machine, and more ‘functional’ exercises where the core has to provide a stable foundation for the arms and legs to push off. 

1/2 kneeling overhead press

For example, a band-resisted push up is a much more functional exercise than a bench press (sorry guys!), and a kettlebell or barbell squat is much more functional than a leg press. 
Again, depending on the exercise, a variety of positions can be used to place more or less emphasis on the core as required; from kneeling, 1/2 kneeling (see left), standing, split stance and 1-leg. However, the most important movement to master, particularly to save your lower back, is the hip-hinge, or bending at the hip.

Hinging at the hip

The hip-hinge is the movement we use when picking something up; a deadlift (see right). It should be your strongest, most powerful movement, using the biggest muscles and joints in the body. That’s why your deadlift is usually stronger than your squat. If you do it properly, it will also light up your anterior core every time you do it, making it an awesome ab workout!
However, for many people it’s a big weakness. In fact it’s probably the most butchered movement out there. Now, obviously if you lose that neutral position whilst bending to pick up something heavy it can be dangerous for the lower back. That’s why some people say you should never bend at the hips, and should just use the knees instead. 
But, I’m afraid that’s just such a short-sighted argument to make, and if someone tells you that, you should stop listening to them right there. You see, the hip-hinge is not a movement you can choose to avoid. We use it pretty much all the time, from getting in and out of the car, to emptying the dishwasher, to brushing teeth. 
The best way to prevent injury, is to make sure you are proficient at performing all the movements that you need to perform. From that perspective, the deadlift is one of the most ‘functional’ exercises out there. 
Obviously, as well doing the right exercises, you also have to make sure that your technique is spot on, and you’re holding that neutral posture as you perform them. That may sound obvious, but once you actually start doing this properly, you realise that resistance training is not just about how much you can lift, it is more about the ability to maintain that neutral posture whilst performing the movement.
In fact, when you combine good exercise selection with good technique, almost all of your training becomes ‘core training’, since you are using the core muscles to maintain that stability whilst moving against resistance. 
For many people, this is a profound change in mindset and their approach to resistance training. It’s a shift from thinking externally (how much weight are you lifting and how many times), to thinking internally (how are you performing that movement and are you maintaining a good posture).
Stop thinking externally – How much weight you are lifting 
Start thinking internally – Are you maintaining a good posture
Training this way doesn’t actually doesn’t make your resistance training any less intense. It just means that you may feel it more in the core as you build that core strength and strength endurance to help you hold that neutral position. This is where the magic happens.
On that note, if you want a training program that will help you to focus on core positioning and functional core-based movements, why not sign up for my HOME-FIT program. Module 1 is out now, and it can be performed anywhere; all you need is a bit of space and some motivation. It’s even got coaching videos and tips to help you train right, as well as nutrition and habit transformation. If you’re interested, click HERE.

LIVING & MOVING

Whilst training the right way is a vital for good ‘Spinal Hygiene’, holding a good neutral posture for the rest of the day is equally important. Although daily activities are usually less intense than training, we perform them over a long period, so they also have big impact on back health.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to move like a robot all day, but it does mean that you should be aware of the positions and movements that are likely to challenge that neutral position.
The most obvious movement is one we’ve already mentioned; the HIP-HINGE. Like we said, this is a movement that we perform frequently throughout the day, and is often performed incorrectly. Cleaning up this movement, so that we always maintain a neutral lumbo-pelvic position when we bend, will be hugely beneficial for lots of people.
Now, I’m not saying that if you bend to pick up a pencil and you slip out of neutral, your lower back is going to explode! However, if you repeatedly bend using your lower back instead of your hips then the chances of you injuring yourself increase dramatically. Furthermore, if you have to hold that position for a long time, or if you decide to rotate whilst in that position, maybe to pick up another pencil, then you may well cause some problems.
Think of the hip-hinge as a skill that you need to keep practising. Every time you need to bend to do something, focus on that limbo-pelvic position and think of it as training. Just push the hips back and feel the abs light up. If you get used to bending correctly, then even when you come to lift something heavy, you’ll likely have no problems. But, if you keep training yourself to do it wrong then you are much more likely to injure yourself eventually.
As well as the movements in daily life, the positions that we adopt are also very important, especially those that we stay in for a long time. The main position that springs to mind, and which probably causes most problems, is sitting. Maintaining a neutral lumbar spine whilst sitting is a difficult challenge for many people, especially those who work at a desk and have to sit there for hours on end.
However, there are techniques which can be used to help. Firstly, when it comes to sitting, the best posture is one that’s frequently changing. Make sure you alter your position every 10 mins, and stand up about every 20 mins, ideally to perform some sort of mobility or core activation drill (more on that another time). 
Regarding your actual seated posture, try not to sit on the back of your ‘sit bones’ (ischial tuberosity), as this will lead to flexing of the lower back. To avoid this, when you sit down try to push your butt right to the back of the chair so you’re sitting on the front of your ‘sit’ bones, almost like you’re leaning on your hamstrings. This position will make it easier to sit up straight without having to strain to do it. 
Whilst some positions, like sitting, are obvious, others are less so. You may think that when you’re standing up you naturally hold a neutral posture. However, people who stand for long periods often tend to slip out of neutral by letting that pelvis tilt forwards, and putting extra strain on the lower back. If you have to stand at work, then this is probably what’s causing that lower back pain. Just tilting that pelvis back into neutral can help to provide some relief, but again, you’ve really got to try and train yourself to keep it there!
For some people, all of this may seem very obvious and easy. For others it may seem like a mountain to climb. As with all these things, you don’t have to strive for perfection, just aim for better, and soon things will start to feel easier. Once you start to focus on breathing and training in neutral, it becomes much easier to maintain it the rest of the time. You’ll start to feel when your core is working well, and when you’ve slipped out of position. 
So, we’ve covered quite a lot of ground there. Please make sure you give that a try and make sure you join me next time when we look at the final piece of the puzzle; mobilising the right places.
If you need help putting this into practise, or if you want a training program that will help you develop core stability, contact Spike, or click HERE to sign up for my HOME-FIT program which also has some awesome coaching videos and tips on how to maintain a good neutral posture when training. 
Keep working hard & training smart,
Spike!