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.
Hi! I'm a dance science educator, Pilates instructor and Personal Trainer residing in Toronto. Here is what I have to say about all things health and movement related.