Clement Golliet: “Spine Stability”

Spine stability is a widely misunderstood topic and its concept is often misused. Most of the time exercises are done on the assumption that they will help athletes reinforce their back, but in fact it is the opposite that happens. I will try here to define what spine stability means, review the mechanisms that lead to injuries and the importance of maintaining a tight torso.

Written by: Clement Golliet

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***Clement Golliet is the newly appointed Director of ACE Fitness and is overseeing the fitness component of all ACE Tennis High Performance programs, is the Head Trainer at Toronto Tennis City and ACE Burlington, and offers private and group fitness sessions for ACE and OTA players as required. Clement’s mandate is to help build the new ACE Fitness brand and to offer leading edge training for tennis players in Ontario.

Clement has a Bachelors of Kinesiology from the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) and possesses various certifications in the areas of private training, spinning, T-Rx, performance, and reconditioning. A former high level basketball player and bodybuilder, Clement also has his French Federation Level 3 in kayaking. Before coming to Toronto to work with ACE Fitness, Clement was a personal trainer, fitness, strength, and conditioning coach at Sporting Club Sanctuaire in Montreal for tennis, basketball, and track running. Clement also has professional training in Clinical rehabilitation and experience as a sports teacher in Switzerland.

If you have any questions for Clement, he can be reached here.***

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Spine stability is a widely misunderstood topic and its concept is often misused. Most of the time exercises are done on the assumption that they will help athletes reinforce their back, but in fact it is the opposite that happens. I will try here to define what spine stability means, review the mechanisms that lead to injuries and the importance of maintaining a tight torso.

What is spine stability?

In a major reference book on biomechanics, the spine is compared to a fishing rod standing at the vertical with the butt on the ground. If you put pressure of one or two lbs on the top of the fishing rod, the fishing rod will bend and buckle. Conversely, suppose that the rod has different cables (guy wires) attached in different directions at different levels and distances, with equal force (symmetry between the tensile force of the cable, that is equal magnitude). In this case, if you put pressure on the top of the rod even more than 2 lbs, the rod will not buckle and will stay very stable. In other words, the main goal role of the musculature is to ensure spine stability. It is very important that the tensile force be at equal magnitude otherwise the spine will buckle.

It is also very important to remember that the motor control system which is involved in maintaining the tension in the musculature be kept proportional to prevent instability in the spine. Some instability occurs by motor control error, that is when one and more muscles have reduced their activation. It all starts by learning how to BRACE the abdominal: when the contraction is performed properly there is no geometric change in the abdominal wall and it is the basic of good spine stability. It is essential to avoid HOLLOWING, that is drawing in the abdominal wall – which is the mistake that is frequently done. Hollowing does not create any spine stability because it does not activate the layers of the abdominal wall like a natural belt.

Injuries and motion

It has been proven that spine flexion posture and even more spine flexion exercises can be very inappropriate and exceed the tolerance of the tissue of most people. For example, the traditional sit up can impose approximately 730lbs spine compression and can cause back trouble if repeated often. Repeated flexion can result in herniation or ligaments tear (such as posterior supraspinatus, flavum ligament etc.) even with no load in a sustained posture or repeated motion.

Even other exercises such as extension or twisting can create pain for some persons with a bad back. The same can occur with motions combining flexion and extension. For example too much extension can lead to injuries such as spondylolisthesis (forward displacement of a vertebra over a lower segment and can lead to a fracture of the portion of the neural arch) during the teen years when the rate of bone growth outstrips the rate of muscle growth. Spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis are common diagnoses in adolescent athletes who perform repetitive compression in extension, repetitive hyperextension across the lumbar spine, experience repetitive trauma, and/or have a genetic predisposition. Athletes who require central control of body motion in extension hyperextension include gymnasts, football linemen, dancers, cricket bowlers and of course tennis players.

Some data on repeated twisting have shown to lead to injuries – for instance the annulus can slowly delaminate.

Mechanically, the joint position determines the forces on the tissue and also determines the mechanics of the muscle and ligament. For example when the lumbar spine is flexed, the longissimus (back extensor) loses the ability to support the back against anterior shear forces with the interspinous ligament taut, which is very bad for the spine. The strongest position of the spine is the natural curve of the back (the natural lordosis, the elastic equilibrium of the spine). If the spine is not kept in its natural lordosis, the spine can support approximately 40% less change.

In other words, this means that the spine position is a paramount component of risk of injuries or safety.

Even more spine position and a tight torso are paramount for performance.

To have an optimal transmission and development of force in the arms and legs, the athlete needs a stiff torso which allows the transmission of force from the ground to the upper body. If the torso is not tight enough, a leak of energy is created. Sprint with spine motion is the perfect example. A sprinter always keeps a stiff torso all the time during the sprint. Even more illustrative is the example of the boxer who, if not using the abdominal wall during a punch, cannot develop power because the leg driving force cannot be transmitted through a weak torso.

A tight torso during jumping is important because it helps obtaining a better rebound, a better action and reaction to the ground like a hammer on an anvil.

Anatomically, the spine architecture is not designed to be challenged in the full range of motion with full power. It does not mean that the spine does not have to move but not during heavy or explosive tasks. But on the contrary, the hips are made to support high force moment through all its range of motion.

The important principle to understand is a short formula: Power = Force x Velocity. Let’s take a few examples to illustrate this rather dry concept. When an athlete does a heavy squat, the spine remains neutral (no velocity on the spine so power stays low in the spine) while all the motion occurs at the hip. But that’s OK because the hips are designed to support high power. On the other hand, if there is motion (or velocity) on the spine, it would still be OK as there is no force on the spine which results in low power on the spine like someone who would be dancing and turning and moving the hips a lot. So you are less likely to have injuries if you have low spine power.

Don’t and do!

As said earlier, many traditional training approaches focus on the number of repetitions and use the spine in this full range of motion. If you follow the example of Rocky Balboa in his cult films and do 300 sit ups every day, this will create the wrong spine stability. By doing full spine flexion, the spine is crushed and strengthens only one wire of the rod, which will not enhance stability but on the contrary create instability and a bad posture. Too much exercising can be HARMFUL for the back.

Some examples of exercises to avoid:

  • The Russian twist which flexes and twists the spine is even worse if it is done with a med ball.
  • The superman lying prone while extending the arms and legs results in over 600 N of compression on the spine.
  • The famous stretching lying prone, pulling the knees to the chest with toe touches thus providing a false sense of relief due to the stretch receptors being stimulated – though this is a real cause of instability.
  • The prone leg swing when someone pushes the leg. There the spine always moves into flexion and extension.
  • Putting the pelvis in posterior tilt to flatten the back to the ground to do some crunch but by flexing the lumbar joints it means loading them.

The list could be continued further as examples of risky exercises for the back are done every day.

From my perspective, the best philosophy is to teach body awareness to the athlete. By this, I mean distinguishing hip flexion from lumbar flexion, the good pattern being to use the hips (hip hinge) and spare the back by keeping its natural curve. Teach the athlete to focus on motor control, make sure that all the muscles have a good activation which can lead to compensation if not activated when executing the exercise. Teach the athlete to brace the abdominal wall, to lock the pelvis and the rib cage together, to increase hip flexibility and in the end strengthen all the wires of the rod by building endurance to obtain a strong back.

To achieve this, I would recommended a range of exercises from the front plank to the side plank, the Bird Dog, the back bridge, squats after the difficulties which can be enhanced with stability ball, Bossu after some dead lift, heavier squats, hips rotation with cable and med ball, use of Kettle Bell and many others.

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