A concern that I’ve seen lately over the last few months is people taking study findings involving lifting low-level loads (ie 30-70 lbs) and trying to apply them to high level strength athletics (powerlifting, strongman etc).
From an external validity standpoint it’s tough to compare a 30 lb crate lift to a 6+ wheel per side deadlift. If you follow Stuart McGill’s research many of the weights that top strength athletes lift are at or near the spine’s load tolerance.
I’ll confess – since being a student in Stu McGill’s class 5 years ago I’m not the spine flexion Nazi I used to be. Assuming the individual has no back conditions that would contradict spine flexion (i.e. symptomatic disc herniation, moderate-severe osteoporosis) I have no problem with low load/unloaded spine flexion … and yes I think we can tolerate some loaded flexion as long as they’re all programmed & progressed appropriately.
That said – I am still leary of excessive spine flexion (there’s always some no matter how hard we try to prevent it) when lifting heavy shit as the loads are much higher and as such the potential for injury is higher. Again read Stu McGill’s research if you don’t believe me. Chris Duffin made this point (paraphrased) on a podcast with Craig Liebenson recently ….
“ People post pictures on social media of an athlete lifting with a rounded back to say “it’s ok to lift that way” or “it’s fine to flex your spine” yet the (well meaning) people posting these pics know how much back pain those athletes suffer with and sometimes get during/immediately after those lifts.”
Now anyone who understands pain science & the biopsychosocial model should know that pain (which doesn’t always indicate injury) can be influenced by a variety of factors such as
- Overall training workload & training load errors
- Psychosocial factors: eg stress, anxiety, poor social support
- Movement & exercise technique
- Tissue tolerance & strength
- General health factors such as poor sleep, smoking, and being overweight
… so I would be out of line to say that all strength athletes have pain due to their technique but I find it tough to say “how you lift doesn’t matter” when it comes to loads close to the body’s tolerance.
This doesn’t mean that we have to say “if you lift with a rounded back once your back will explode.” Some lifters, such as the great Konstantin Konstaninovs, pull with a rounded back all the time.
But we have to acknowledge the fact that during high load situations the potential for injury is much greater as the loads are much closer to the body’s tolerance … and the way we move can move the loads closer to (or over) the body’s tolerance or further down and away from it. We are starting to get some research on how disc tissue can adapt to load & exercise (free access here https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316262547_Running_exercise_strengthens_the_intervertebral_disc) and I hope that with further research we can figure out how to better build spinal tolerance to flexion exercise and other activities.
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