Bend Like a Reed

Readers, when I started working to understand and improve my own movement a lot of work went into learning how to stabilize my spine. I had developed an interest in CrossFit at the time, and while I didn’t actually train in the sport it had a big influence on my training, particularly my choice of movements. Many of these typical strength and conditioning tools, like barbell squats and deadlifts, require you to develop a good understanding of how to brace your spine in a neutral alignment so you can optimally generate force and keep your spine safe under load. Although that was an important lesson to learn, being able to brace the spine in a certain shape only encompasses the static side of spine stability. It is equally as important to have dynamic control of your spine, to be able to express movement through this complex structure with grace and control.

This morning, I spent a couple hours as a volunteer model for a group of physiotherapists preparing for an advanced orthopedic exam on spinal manipulations. The depth of understanding of how the spine moves required at that level of practice is astounding to my novice mind. The spine is a complex structure with complex movement. That complexity, and its involvement in the vast majority of movements we make, is why it is so commonly injured by less than ideal or incomplete movement habits. I think that’s why we see such a focus placed on static stability of the spine – the ability to prevent unwanted spine movement is an important aspect of orthopedic safety that far too many individuals lack. Learning how to stabilize your spine in neutral when you’re doing something like picking your child up off of the floor should be an early priority in movement reeducation.

If we want to regain more of the movement expression of which our bodies are capable, however, we need to go beyond the static and learn how to move our spines again. The spine is a complex structure for a reason – it is capable of assuming an incredible variety of unique shapes to allow us to express an incredible variety of unique movements. How robotic would contemporary dance look if performers maintained a neutral spine throughout their entire routine? How hard would the parkour athlete land if they couldn’t flex their spine to roll after a drop? How stiff would a gymnast’s back handspring look without a graceful backbend?

It’s easy to see the importance of a moving spine in high level skills, but the implications towards everyday life are far greater. After all, back pain and injury are very common outside of athletic and performance pursuits. When we lack mindfulness and understanding around our spine we cannot recognize when we are putting it at risk, such as picking up a child over and over again for a year with a rounded back, or slumping to one side everyday in an office chair. The stress from these little offenses builds up and slowly wears away at the supporting tissues until something finally starts to hurt.

Failing to cultivate good spine movement also creates an ever worsening state of disuse. Joints become stiff, cartilage degrades, muscles become weak, and your motor patterns begin to rust over. Your ability to move safely into different spine shapes will slowly deteriorate, and those shapes eventually become potentially dangerous. You might not notice until you reach to pick up the bag of dog food and something finally gives. Couple this disuse with the misuse we talked about before, and you’ve made yourself very vulnerable indeed.

This is not meant to scare you off moving your spine, readers. Quite the contrary, in fact. I want to drive home how important it is to learn how to move your spine well, within whatever orthopedic constraints you may already have. For many of you, especially if you have an injury history, that may mean taking those first steps to learning how to prevent your spine from moving when it’s not supposed to (static stability). For others, it may be appropriate in your practice to begin exploring controlled, graceful movement of the spine (dynamic stability). You might already be a total boss, for all I know. Whatever the case, make sure you pursue spine movement with quality in mind and the intent to learn and grow. Take the time to research what you need to do, spend the money to work with a teacher or clinician (especially if you have been injured), and give your spine the attention it deserves.

Your future self will thank you.

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The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog

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