Workout Tips

Two Spine Mistakes Revealed

These 2 mistakes could be putting you at risk of injury and compromising your gains.

Get Your Back Straight on World Spine Day

We all know that the spine is the part of the body that basically needs the most attention to avoid injury, and it usually hubs the most common areas of safety concern and general TLC.  There’s no question that pulling or pushing weight with horrible spinal posture will be a first class flight to chiropractor heaven.  Of course, since you’re not a cement head and have been doing this training thing for a while, you’re in the clear.

There are, however, two subtle mistakes that can serve to be “carbon monoxide” for back health – that’s right, silent killers, as it were, that can lead to strength deficiency, and increased potential for injury, if proper measures aren’t taken to fix them. Intermediate and advanced lifters may be more prone to this than normal since their typical M.O. involves heavier weights than those of the average Joe. 

Mistake #1: Cervical Flexion During Exercises

Neutral spines are important, which usually involves a sturdy, natural back arch and high chest and ribcage position. For some reason, however, the cervical spine gets no love when it comes to ideal positioning.  Now, the talk about cervical spine extension has been touched on in many an article. The cues of not to look up to the ceiling when deadlifting, doing push ups, or other movements isn’t that anomalous to come across in fitness training literature, due to the compression that can be placed on the discs. But going the other way – into spinal flexion – is worth a mention.

Many lifters will “get in their groove” and grind a solid set of standing biceps curls by looking down to the floor, or even at the biceps themselves while lifting. Another example (which I’m a huge culprit of myself) would be lifting the head up off the flat bench when pressing, so that only the upper back and butt are in contact with the bench. It’s an easy habit to slip into without fearing any negative repercussions, due to the otherwise technically sound mechanics and setup.

Vanity aside, posture and form may be indeed sound, but the true weak link comes from the flexed neck position. To demonstrate, try doing a set of standing, single arm lateral raises with a moderate weight for a set of 10. Then turn your head completely opposite the arm you’re lifting with, and try again. You’ll notice a significant decrease in strength.

The take-home point is this: It’s important to remember that the vertebrae are treated with such special care when weight training because it encases the spinal cord which receives stimuli from the brain and sends it to nerves, which fire your muscles. These vital processes can be inhibited when the cervical spine is held in a compromised or awkward position (like flexion) that can act to dull that electrical current. In other words, keeping the cervical spine neutral matters just as much as it does for the rest of the spine, in order to get the most out of your lifts – especially when it pertains to the upper body.

As an aside, practicing these poor positions can have translations into your everyday posture. Lying on the back and lifting the head while bench pressing or looking down while curling is the equivalent of standing with a large cranial tilt. Making the body get used to this position is troublesome and can lead to chronic muscle pain (I’ve worked with many a client with chronic neck pain due to nothing more than taut neck muscles from poor head posture) and worsen over time.