Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Illusion of Rounded Back

When you speak to other personal trainers for a living, there are certain key phrases, words, and points that they make that can speak volumes.These certain key phrases, points and words usually identify their level of competency or their level of experience---and typically rather quickly. These "red flags" include three very popular fallacies including:

#1.) The knees should never go over the toes in a squat

#2.) Heart rates should stay in the "fat loss zone"

#3.) Rounded backs are caused by certain exercises

Contrary to what they believe, fallacies #1 and #2 have been proven wrong. However, I am going to concentrate on the third fallacy: Rounded backs are caused by certain exercises.

The fallacy that rounded backs are caused by the exercise itself is false. The fact is that poor technique is the reason for a rounded back sounds more accurate. Let's take a look at some exercises that may "lead" to the illusion of a rounded lower back:

Good Mornings
Bent Over Rows
Cable Row

I would include squats, but I want to concentrate on trunk flexion exercises. Trunk flexion exercises mimic picking up things off the floor...the best scenario to elicit a rounded back.

In one study, 3 exercises were chosen to evaluate the lumbar spine's action during loading. They were:

Standing bent over row
Inverted row
1-arm cable row

It was shown that the bent over row put the greatest stress on the lower back muscles (erector spinae).The erector spinae muscles are the two rod-like muscles that run parallel with your spinal column. In some athletes, bodybuilders, and power-lifters,  these muscles can be very well-developed creating an illusion of a rounded back [from the side] even while standing. 

To use the bent-over row from the aforementioned study, two common mistakes I see are:

#1.) Too much weight

#2) Locked knees or no stable hip hinge

Correcting #1 is easy. Decreasing the load is easy, however, many lifters will let their egos interfere, and they'll refuse to lighten the weight. Bad for the lower back.

Number #2, is a technical flaw and one that can be corrected through proper coaching using a lighter load and continuous cuing. Remember, an exerciser can't see their lower back as they are performing a bent over row. A second set of eyes is always the best mirror.

If you watch my hip hinge video--that typically looks like a Good Morning exercise--you will notice when my torso is parallel to the floor, it gives the illusion that my lower back is rounded.

When the erector spinea is well-developed, they tend to protrude along the spine and low back giving the illusion that the lower back is rounded.

In some cases, if the erectors are well-developed--as in experienced lifters that deadlift often--chances are they are strong. They [erectors] will also protrude when the trunk flexes forward because, naturally, the skin tightens when it is lengthened. Another thing to consider is, if they erectors are strong, some rounding may not be entirely that bad for the lower back. Some strongman train with exercises that promote rounded backs to mimic their activity (Atlas stone lifting).


Notice, I said "strongman" and not regular joe-schmoe's? That's important to note, because I don't want you to misconstrue my message. Rounded backs do put stress on the spine. Stuart McGill has done tons of research on this and he actually used weightlifters and desk-lovers in his studies. Ultimately, it falls on technique. If an exerciser receives proper coaching and instruction, technique should prevail. Once the technique is mastered and "memorized" by the nervous/muscular system--loads can be added and progressed. If the technique is poor and loads are added, you have a recipe for lower back disaster. Watch the lower back in this deadlift form and you will know what I mean:

However, the point to drive home is this: strengthen the erectors of the lower back. Include some rows and good mornings into your workout and perform with flawless form (lumbar flat with natural arch). In time, you will notice your lower back get stronger and "look" stronger. Still not convinced? Check out Shatterproof Spine for some real back strengthening ideas.


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