Stability or Mobility? Some Spinal Considerations

For a couple decades now, everyone has come down with a case of “core training” tunnel vision. It’s partly justified — a lot of force travels through the core when producing any movement — but it did go off the rails for awhile. First, it was all about the abs. Recently, it’s become about weird gymnastic contortions and “natural” movement patterns that don’t appear too natural at all. While handstand oblique twists might still be all the rage, the fitness industry has quietly reined in some of this self-indulgent nonsense in the form of a return to targeted core training. However, like everything else these days you have people split right down the middle, voicing their opinions on how it’s all properly applied. It boils down to this question: is the spine supposed to flex, rotate, and extend or isn’t it?

Let’s simplify it for a second. Take a good look at the spine. The human spinal column is made up of 33 vertebral bones – 7 vertebrae in the cervical region, 12 in the thoracic region, 5 in the lumbar region, 5 in the sacral region and 4 in the coccygeal region.

spine

Between each vertebrae is very literally a joint and joints by definition allow movement. So right off the bat, we can easily recognize that the spine is not only capable of flexion and extension, but also rotation and lateral flexion and extension. It can move in every plane. Because it can move in all planes, one could surmise that it is wise to train in multiple planes at once.

On the flip side, a joint that allows for so much free movement needs a comparable or greater amount of stability to hold the pillar in place. Otherwise, you’d be a collapsible string doll.

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In light of this information, wouldn’t it be wiser to train the core for stability rather than for movement and mobility?

As with pretty much everything, the answer isn’t purely black and white.

From an athletic standpoint, the spine needs to be able to perform a variety of movements in order to support various athletic skills but it also needs the stability from the surrounding musculature to safely absorb impact in contact sports as well as prevent injury during high velocity moves.

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From an everyday perspective, think of all the twisting and turning you do in the real world. That requires mobility. However, you need some active spinal stabilizers to reduce the risk of freak injuries during some of these mundane tasks.

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It’s equally situation-dependent as it is individual-specific. For the most part, everyone should get an equal dose of each in order to maintain peak functionality and optimal athletic performance.

So what exactly are we talking about here?

In terms of training, you should be prepared to train targeted muscle groups with movement as well as global core stability training. A good contrast focusing on the anterior–specifically the abdominals– would be crunches vs. planks, or flexion vs. anti-extension. With the crunch you get the spine moving through flexion as you target the rectus abdominus. While the plank is considered more of a global core stability exercise, the abdominals are called upon in order to prevent spinal extension and excessive anterior pelvic tilt.

crunches
Standard Crunch
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Standard Plank

Another example is cable rotations vs. the Pallof Press, or rotation vs. anti-rotation. During a set of Russian Twists, the athlete is actively rotating through the torso and hips, concentrically accelerating and eccentrically decelerating. When executing the Pallof Press or any of it’s variations, the athlete has to resist the pull of the cable or band in order to maintain spinal alignment through the movement.

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Cable Rotations

 

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Kneeling Pallof Press

As you can see, even with these examples, it’s not purely black and white. There are some blurred lines between these exercises. Even a good crunch requires some level of requisite spinal stability to isolate the abdominal contraction. our anti-rotation example, the Pallof Press, requires sagittal movement even though the anti-rotational force is occurring in the transverse plane.

If you’re having a hard time keeping up, don’t worry. You’re in the majority.

The takeaway:

  • If your body allows a range of motion and you’re healthy, it’s usually supposed to do that.
  • Balanced your muscle groups. Exercises producing flexion in the spine only cause injury if you have zero extension exercises in your weekly plan. Muscle imbalances and poor execution put you at risk of injury, not the normally the exercise itself.
  • Balance your programming. A good blend of flexion, rotation, and extension mixed with anti-flexion, anti-rotation, and anti-extension does the trick and will help keep your body bulletproof and injury-free.
  • You should rarely say never or always, especially as a strength coach. One exercise that could be completely beneficially for one individual might be contraindicated in another due to health concerns. Instagram coaches that fall into the always or never camps usually wind up posting scare tactics like this:

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