Healthy Spine = Healthy Body; Healthy Body = Happy Mind!
I'll start this post by quoting my good friend and brilliant Pilates instructor Ellie Kusner who says 'Your spine is your first priority' Always.
I've recently begun working as a Pilates instructor in addition to working as a personal trainer and dance science lecturer. As a result, I am constantly on a quest to see how I can integrate these various hats I wear to best help my clients. For some clients I now do almost entirely Pilates based sessions, whereas with other clients, I use more high intensity cardiovascular or strength work. Either way, I am constantly looking for commonalities and ways to integrate everything I know about the body. A time when all bodywork philosophies cross paths no doubt, is when we look at the spine.
In any balanced exercise programme, I believe it is important to move the spine through all planes of movement. It's important to understand however that the potential for movement in these various directions will differ depending on the region of the spine involved. This chart is a brilliant visual on how the spine moves and how to optimise good spinal health through movement.
How to read this chart:
The left column shows the spine from both a side view and straight on. The vertebrae C1-C7 cover the cervical spine which is the neck region, T1- T12 are the thoracic vertebrae covering the upper back / ribs, L1- L5 are the lumbar vertebrae which is the lower back followed by the sacrum at the bottom.
The next three columns show the four movements of the spine and how much movement potential each individual vertebrae has in each direction. Source.
Before attempting a movement it is important to understand the different individual vertebrae's potential for movement in different directions. For example, if you look at the large size of the lumbar vertebrae it becomes clear why their capacity for rotation is so small and thus why rotation coming from the lower back isn't ideal. The slightly smaller size of the thoracic vertebrae however mean that they have a greater potential for rotation. This movement is however limited in many people due to immobility of the thoracic spine. That is why exercises that promote thoracic rotation are so beneficial.
For flexion/extension however, the lumbar vertebrae have a great capacity for movement! The thoracic vertebrae don't however due to the rib cage getting in the way. That is why when you look at those bendy contortionists you can see most of the bend comes from the lower back and the upper back stays relatively flat. The cervical spine has overall, the greatest potential for movement.
Bodies are unique
Of course there will always be exceptions as each particular body can move through a unique range of movement. Some of this will be structural (as we are all built slightly differently) and some will be environmental due to movement patterns we have picked up throughout life. As a result, as a movement coach what I do with each client will vary. For example, with someone who has major disk injuries or an older women with osteoporosis or osteopenia I will avoid excessive flexion of the spine to reduce compression of the anterior vertebrae. Also during strength training when the spine is loaded with weight having the spine in a flexed position can be very dangerous. On the other hand, anyone who suffers from spondylitis will want to limit any hyper extension in the lumbar spine. Special populations aside though, movement programmes should aim to incorporate all 4 directions of movement to promote healthy and balanced spines and bodies.
Lastly it's important to understand good training programmes are longitudinal and will likely span over multiple weeks months or even years. Throughout, periodised cycles will likely occur with an emphasis on different movements. If a strength session is working the back muscles on a particular day, the majority of the spinal movements will be in extension. However I believe a good session should, at least once, move the spine through ALL 4 spinal movements, even if it's just a cat and cow stretch or some thoracic rotation.
Take a look at your exercise routines and see which movements you might be lacking. If you find you are doing a LOT of flexion in your core work (crunches crunches and more crunches) see if you can incorporate some abdominal work in other planes, like plank (look Here for some ways to make your plank more dynamic!) or weighted side bends, knee hovers from quadruped position, or superman's! And remember, Your spine is your first priority. Always.
Last month I represented King's College London at the BASES (British Association of Sports and Exercise Science) student conference in Portsmouth, England... home to the navy! It was lovely to see the south coast of this wonderful country, the Spinnaker tower (which we didn't go up), and the Isle of White in the distance. It was nice to be by the sea and see all the boats coming and going. I was very tempted to hop on a ferry to France!
The BASES conference itself was an interesting experience. For so long I have been immersed in the dance community but it was nice to step out of my comfort zone and experience a sports science event and some of the current research that students are participating in within this field. Some of the student presentations were very impressive!
Highlights of the conference included...
Talk from Katherine Grainger, British rower, 6 time world champion and 4 time Olympic Medalist!
Wow! What an amazing speaker! She was absolutely hilarious and engaging, while so down to earth. She spoke from her heart about her experiences as an Olympic athlete; from the thrill of winning her first Olympic medal in Sydney to the crushing disappointment losing to China in 2008, and then to her ultimate victory and gold medal at London 2012. Even though we all knew the end of the story, (she won!) I swear everyone was on the tip of their seats as she dramatically recapped the final minutes before the race.
As someone who is involved in the training of athletes, it was interesting to hear her speak of her team extending far beyond the members that sat in the boat on race day. From her coach to her physiologist, nutritionist, and her strength and conditioning coach, they were all with her on race day, and all played a roll in her finally winning that gold medal (which she whipped out of her back pocket at the end!!).
A tour and demonstration of Portsmouth University's environmental lab.
The facilities at Portsmouth University in their Sports Science department are AMAZING! Including, 3 climatic chambers that can range from -40 to + 40 degrees Celsius, change humidity, wind chill, and mimic environments of high altitude.
They also have a full submersion pool and we watched a demonstration of a student volunteer submersed into freezing cold water. We witnessed how her core temperature, heart rate, strength, coordination and energy expenditure changed as her body adapted over the 25 minutes they kept her in there for. The things people do for science!
They also have a swimming flume to train athletes swimming against resistance and loads of visual 3D software. It was so cool to see the space, and all the cool research that can be done using these facilities.
Some innovative presentations of current research from students in the exercise and health session. Some of these included:
I specifically found interesting a study that investigated into a new term that is on the rise called 'metabolically healthy obesity'. BMI (body mass index) is a common measurement used by health professionals to measure obesity.
BMI = weight (kg)/ Height (m)2.
Generally the following classifications are used to determine a healthy BMI:
As a measurement of weight in relation to height, BMI does not take into account other factors that can determine health other than weight. As muscle and fat have different densities, someone with lots of muscle mass will have a high BMI and thus athletes often fall prey to having very high BMIs. A small subset of 'obese' people are now being classified as metabolically healthy. This research study looked at the prevalence of metabolically healthy obesity in male rugby players - meaning by BMI terms these people are obese, however in terms of other health factors including body fat percentage, physical fitness and insulin resistance they are considered healthy. This study, along with some other emerging studies on the topic reaffirmed the idea that there may be better ways to measure health in athletes (and other populations) than BMI.
Attending the BASES conference reminded how it is so SO great to get out there and see what other professionals are doing in the same field. For me, staying up to date with current research is so important in staying active in this field and being able to apply best practice to the people I work with. This conference reinstated my motivation to continue with more research in the coming years! Stay tuned for some future research projects I've got up my sleeve.
Hi, I'm Hannah. I'm a dance science consultant, Movement specialist and Registered Massage Therapist residing in Toronto. I am a Registered Provider for Safe in Dance International and teach workshops and courses related to Safe Dance Practice. Here is what I have to say about all things health and movement related.