The Importance of Lumbar Spine Stability

As someone who has had her fair share of spinal injuries, I have become passionate about maintaining healthy functioning of the spine in all of my clients and dancers. Often, people complain of lower back pain and I find that by educating them about how the spine should be used, improving a few simple movements, and restoring mobility in certain areas, we can alleviate much of the discomfort. Hopefully I can help you do the same!

The Role of the Lumbar Spine

Used by Permission. © (a Vertical Health, LLC company)

Used by Permission. © (a Vertical Health, LLC company)

Our spine consists of three distinct sections which are characterized by their shape and function. These sections are the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar regions. For our purposes we will concentrate on the thoracic and lumbar regions. The lumbar spine consists of the lowest 5 vertebral bodies and is often referred to as the lower back. The bones here are large and meant to carry lots of weight, stabilize our trunk, and support the body. Our abdominals attach in and around this region to create a large canister of support. The thoracic spine consists of the middle 12 vertebrae to which our ribs are attached. This area helps to form our ribcage. It is meant to produce the majority of the movement in our spine.

Loss of T-Spine Mobility

The body is smart and adaptive; if you’ve seen improvements in your strength and stamina from your workouts, you’ve witnessed it first hand. The body’s ability to adapt can also be detrimental to spine health. When you spend hours bent over, your muscles, tendons, and ligaments will adapt to this configuration. If your posture persists, even your intervertebral discs and vertebrae might change shape to accommodate this habit. Because the spine and its surrounding muscles are no longer properly aligned, our thoracic or t-spine can quickly begin to lose mobility from this postural habit.

I see a lot of people who have compromised mobility of the thoracic spine. I mostly like to blame the advent of the smartphone (and other smart devices) and long working hours. In short: people spend a lot of time hunched over devices and desks. This act of hunching imparts quite a stress on your spine and the surrounding structures.

When you no longer have enough mobility to adequately twist or extend your T-spine, other structures – namely the lumbar spine – will compensate and take over. This is no good. With decreased mobility our body makes movement compromises. For example, when you turn to look out the back of your car while backing the car up, you’ll twist from your lumbar instead of your T-spine. Such repeated wear and tear from daily activities will cause irrevocable damage much more quickly than in the thoracic spine. In dancers, it is particularly pertinent that they maintain good thoracic spine mobility due to the degree of flexibility of the spine that is required.

What can we do?

There are several things that we can do in our daily lives and in the gym to preserve mobility and to ensure proper use of the spine.

  • Maintain good posture! This is easier said than done especially if we spend a great deal of time sitting. When you are looking at a device or a book, bring it up to eye level. If you are sitting at a desk, adjust your chair and computer so that you do not have to hunch over. You can even go so far as to prop up books on stands to read.
  • When you are in the gym, avoid twisting or crunching the lumbar spine in exercises like the Russian twist. Often, this exercise is performed incorrectly by allowing all of the twisting motion to come from the lumbar spine when it should come from your rib-cage area. To avoid potentially damaging movement, keep the chest wide and the core very tight when twisting. The moment you round your thoracic spine, most of the movement comes from the wrong place.

There are many ways in which we can work to maintain lumbar stability in the gym. Lumbar stability is important for your health whether you sit at a desk or have the physical demands of a dancer.

Below I’ve included three effective mobility training exercises that work to achieve this goal:

1. Side Lying Windmills: This exercise is fabulous at promoting T-spine mobility. Lie on one side with both legs straight and both arms out in front of you. Bend your top knee to the height of your hip and place it on the top of a foam roller or yoga block (For the duration for the exercise, keep the knee firmly planted here. It will ensure lumbar stability). Gently sweep the top arm in an arc over your head and allow your ribcage to twist open. When your arms make a straight line, retrace your path. Repeat this multiple times on each side.

2.Planks: The plank – and all its variations – is a wonderful exercise! It promotes the use and strengthening of all abdominal and spine stabilizing muscles.

3. Anti-rotation drills: Anti-rotation drills can be performed in a variety of ways. The goal of these exercises is to stabilize your core while performing unilateral movement. Examples of this would be a unilateral bench or over-head press. I also like having my clients perform anti-rotation exercises with a super band. To perform this exercise start by fixing a superband (or elastic band) to something stable at chest height. The athlete will hold the free end of the band at chest level with both hands and walk away until it is taught. With the feet firmly planted hip-width apart, the athlete will extend her arms and hold this position. Alternatively, the athlete can continue to press the band out and in.

As always, good luck! If you have questions, always consult a health or movement professional. Stay healthy, stay strong and stay mobile!

About the Author: Marissa Joseph is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) in Manhattan. Marissa graduated from SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance manga cum laude and shortly thereafter entered into the professional dance and fitness world. She has worked as a top tier trainer at Equinox and independently at various gyms to restore full function and health to clients who have had hip and knee replacements, herniated or slipped discs, shoulder impingement issues and other post trauma cases. In 2012, Marissa started Working Lines: a strength training program for professional dancers. Her training theories work to combat injury and provide a safe, practical and accessible way to stay strong and healthy. She has worked with dancers from Doug Varone and Dancers, Mark Morris Dance Group, Lydia Johnson Dance and more!

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