“Flat back! straighten up! Chest out! Shoulders back!” If you’re a crossfitter or anyone who has a lifting coach chances are you’ve heard some or all of these at least once per session. As a coach, these words come out so frequent I’ve been known to mutter them in my sleep. Hell, even our parents told us when we were little “no slouching, sit up straight!” It’s true, we need to have a flat back with hips and shoulders rising at the same time WHEN LIFTING SUB/NEAR-MAXIMAL EXTERNAL RESISTANCE. Anytime were moving some heavy weights we need to put ourselves in a optimal position for bracing and flexion under load and a flat back is the best. But for optimal health and to remain right in the middle on our sickness-wellness continuum in crossfit we need to work ALL movements. While picking things up off the ground is one of the most functional movements we see in everyday life, there’s is also a big need for a rounding of the back as well. To start off lets explain the thoracic area aka: the upper back. The thoracic is the second section of the spinal column located below the cervical (neck area) and above the lumber (low back). The thoracic spine is located in the chest area and contains 12 vertebrae. The ribs connect to the thoracic spine and protect many vital organs. It is commonly the weakest link in a heavy lift such as squat and deadlift. Flexion of the thoracic area, or pulling shoulders back, gives us that flat back for optimal lifting. As a load becomes heavy this area begins to fail, usually breaking forward throwing off our chain of muscle recruitment and results in the weight falling forward of putting some uncomfortable forces on our spine and failed lifts. So we can see how important the “flat back” cue is for lifting.
Do you remember back in the globo gym days? Men did curls and bench press super sets religiously. Often it was a goal of chasing “the pump” as Arnold puts it in the classic movie PUMPING IRON. Partial range of motion in pecs and biceps to focus of flexion and get those babies to grow. It wasn’t un-common to hear about that guy whose
arms were so jacked that he couldn’t straighten them out all the way, this was perceived as a positive thing or almost a right of passage to man-hood. I can remember guys saying proudly that they couldn’t extend their arms. Not because they were sore but because that’s how their arms had “grown”. Now, I will save all the arguments and science of the importance of ROM (range of motion) for another post, But I think we can all agree that sacrificing the functionality of something simple like being able to hold a ceiling fan all the way over your head so you can install it in your house so that you can have an extra inch of muscle filling out your sleeve is kind of silly. Not that bicep training is bad, but we see these guys in the gym still trying to get healthy with functional exercise and things like pullups, pushups, or any style of weight being put over head is basically not possible and at some point dangerous due to the lack of mobility.
How did we get here? If spinal extension is so important, why is it less trained and were force fed flexion so much? Well somewhere in last 15-20 years personal training and strength/mobility coaching has become a profession. In this time the general population has also become very sedentary. (Irony at its best) Many people work desk or driving jobs where they are required to sit for extended periods over daily routines. Sitting is not a functional exercise, it essentially is taking all the benefits of a squat away and allowing us to stay in one spot for a long time to work or for even worse…………zone out watching tv, internet, games, or other various forms of non-muscular stimulating activities. The thoracic spine will curve due to lack of need for core stability and the hip muscles, particularly the psoas’ will tighten up in that hip flexion position and essentially becoming “glued together” and pulling your body into a forward inclined position. Do you sit in a chair with perfect posture, feel flat, and weight through your heels? Doubt it. Mix that with the fact that we only sit and never squat which makes flexion of our knees below a parallel or just below a seated position virtually never practiced which also leads to a “gluing” of the knees, ankles, etc.…..So you take these sedentary glued up individuals and try to make them squat and all you see is horrible glute engagement, thoracic flexion, and hip/ankle mobility. It seems the only thing that can fix these people is for them to start flexing that spine back and straighten their backs out. Over time this became a necessary coaching cue to fix the world’s problem of too much sitting. But now as functional exercise becomes more popular and we discover more and more benefits of this style of training we are seeing the need for balance of flexion and extension.
Back to that thoracic area. Just like the isolated poor ROM bicep curl, every time you pull those shoulders back and hit that heavy pull from the ground you are basically hitting only part of what the thoracic area needs………flexion. We need some extension! Now I’m NOT saying that a rounded back for lifting is ok and I’m definably not in the bodyweight only camp. But we need to have a supplement program of exercises we can use to add some extension in our spine.
Why do we need extension? Well first off we know that movement is one of the most important aspects of health. Movement promotes blood flow which stimulates healing and growth, basically move it or lose it. Ever seen a kid get his cast off after breaking his leg and having to be in-mobile for 3 months? The muscles have shrunk and the joints have become stiff, movement takes some time and reps to become easy again. Same idea, flexion and extension will promote mobility, blood flow, and a healthy back/shoulder complex and keep that area from stiffening up. “But don’t we want that area stiff so we can lift massive amounts of weight?” Sure if your goal is to squat 1000lbs and look like a juggernaut of a man with no-neck, then yes. But know that with that level of commitment comes sacrifice. And sacrificing spinal extension can lead to a host of other problems. One being that that loaded squat or pull position is all you’re going to be good at in life. Simple movements need that flexion in your spine occur in life every day. Movements as simple as walking, sitting for extended periods, or just driving a car can become severely painful or restricting without spinal extension. In CrossFit we see it most with pullups and overhead movements. At the bottom of a pullups we need that thoracic extension to get a full range of motion which allows us to not only have the shoulder working in a full range of motion but also makes it easier to engage
our anterior chain for the following pull, again with the functional movement we use our whole bodies to do a pullup not just arms/lats. If you’re not getting that extension at the bottom your pullups numbers will be limited a) because your depending on your arm strength to much which will fail faster and b) your lack of ROM will throw off your rhythm which will keep you from getting multiple reps smoothly and c) your lack of range of motion does not engage the shoulders in the correct recruitment pattern which can lead to injury. Anytime that we go overhead, especially with an explosive and dynamic movement such as jerk or snatch you’re going to need some movement in that thoracic spine. Transitioning from the flexed position in the initial lift off the ground, that extended position where the connection is lost in transition from ground to overhead, and the a re-engagement of thoracic stability once locked overhead all in one quick movement that takes less than 1-2 seconds needs extreme control and movement in the thoracic area. In the Olympic or any overhead lifts this stiff thoracic area leads to a numbness or tingling in the fingers. This tends to be looked at very negatively and I’ve seen many people omit this exercise of fail to push heavier weights in it due the fear that they are injuring themselves, essentially to ignore and continue can lead to more problems BUT use this as a sign of why it’s happening! Fix the problem not the indicator. In this case it would be adding some movement exercises pre and post Olympic lifting sessions.
So what can we do? Well adding a routine of some pre and post spinal flexion exercises can help to start getting movement in that upper back. Here are 3 of my favorite thoracic extension/flexion exercises.
- The back extension – We know the GHD is great for developing our glutes and hams (hence the name, GHD = glute ham developer) But another one of its awesome benefits is that kinesthetic awareness of our bodies. This exercise can be used in your dynamic warmup before heavy lifting or added as an accessory afterwards. It also serves as a great exercise in your core training missed with hip extensions and ghd situps. Or a great primer for any focused mobility sessions.
To perform the back extension:
- set the ghd support pad so the hips are trapped on top of it,
- Start with a neutral spine and arms crossed
- Chin tucks to flex the neck, starting with the neck
- Upper back rounds slowly at each vertebrae following into the low back
- To return, lower back extends, then upper back
- Neck extends last to finish with a neutral spine.
- The J-curl – The Jefferson curl or J-curl as it is often called is movement that breaks all the traditional rules of weightlifting. It is essentially a stiff-legged round back deadlift. I know, crazy right? But exposing the spine with extension to under load has proven to be a very beneficial exercise, and more load can be gradually added to build up thoracic stabilizers and strengthen your traditional lifts. The movement is very similar to the back extension but now were standing upright and added load. J curls can be done unweighted as a prehab exercise daily. Try adding some load and using as a accessory movement after heavy lifting 5 x 10 is a great starting point.
- Start standing on a box with toes at the edge and a light loaded kettlebell or barbell
- Start with a neutral spine and locked knees, hands our front with load pulling back with active lats
- Tuck chin to flex neck, round back slowly at each vertebrae following into lower back
- Reach beyond the toes reaching full ROM
- To return, lower back extends, then upper back
- Neck extends last to finish with neutral spine.
- Forward roll – The forward roll, while seems really simple. Is often very difficult for adults. We all did forward rolls as kids and assume that we still can. The thing is, if you spent the last 20 years with no thoracic movement and you haven’t been forward rolling then guess what?…………you probably can do a forward roll. The forward roll takes the same concept of the back extension and the j-curl, tucking the chin and rounding the back. But now we’ve made it a dynamic version of the exercise. Also a worthy side note benefit is that in CrossFit we like to walk on our hands quite a bit (more functional exercise?) if you’re walking on your hands you will inevitably need to get back OFF your hands. What’s the best way to do that without smashing into the ground like a sack of bricks? A smooth forward roll into a candlestick or pistol would be best! Throw a couple minutes or 10-15 forward rolls into your dynamic warmups a couple times a week, or make a fun gymnastic training day where you can focus on this movement as much as your vestibular system will allow.
- Stand tall with arms glued to your ears
- Squat down and reach in in front of you as far as you can
- Once hands touch the ground jump and send your hips over your head
- Allow yourself to roll in a TUCKED position until feet touch the ground
- Reach in front of you and stand up using the momentum as if you were doing a narrow stands squat
These 3 moves are just some examples of some exercises we can add into our program to work some uncommon positions and movements for better health and performance. Stay tuned for part 2 coming out soon covering supinated bicep flexion, can you say curls?!?