IS TWISTING & ROTATIONAL EXERCISE BAD FOR YOUR BACK?
This is an interesting question for the answer is both yes and no! Twisting of the lumbar spine is very dangerous and is linked to many painful back injuries with the most common being a disc tear, but rotation of the thoracic spine and the hips is not and is actually what the body needs. Twisting of the spine is another form of a herniated disc which is usually caused from bending poorly, whereas this is caused from repetitive poor rotation movements. If you think of the disc like an onion with several layers protecting a core in the middle. The outer disc is made of small rings of collagen, and these layers can separate from repetitively twisting the spine allowing the nucleus gel from the middle of the disc to find it’s way into the opening between the two layers causing extreme pain and a very lengthy rehabilitation plan. But does this mean we should stop all twisting for fear of this injury? Many experts will tell you yes. But if this were true you would see no tennis players, golfers, baseball, hockey and we would never be able to vacuum our floor! What this really means is you need to stop twisting the lumbar spine and learn how to use the thoracic spine and hips to do the work. Trying to stop yourself using any rotational movement is pure stupidity and to be honest almost impossible, even walking uses rotation. You will have to stiffen up like a robot to stop any type of twisting. What you need to learn is how to rotate correctly and what movements and exercises to avoid.
FOUR KEY THINGS YOU MUST KNOW BEFORE USING ROTATIONAL EXERCISES
There are several things you must understand about rotation to ensure you get this right.
First the thoracic spine, or the middle of the spine, is where the greatest amount of rotation occurs in the trunk, not in the lumbar, or lower, spine. This means you should be focusing your attention on moving mostly at the chest-level area, not the lower back. People with neck pain will almost always have a problem here and they will find ways to use their lumbar spine to rotate do to the tightness in their upper back.
Secondly you must address tight hips, for if they are excessively tight and unable to rotate you will risk trying to force the lumbar spine into twisting. It is interesting that the two joints on either side of the lumbar spine need great mobility to provide enormous rotational movement. And both of these joints are what we find to be two tightest areas in most people. The main cause of this is sitting too much and poor training technique. Thirdly the timing is very important. If you move too slow you disrupt the workload of the muscles and the sequence they are meant to fire in. Almost every rotational movement we make is quite fast, and in particular the sporting movements such as a golf swing, a tennis forehand or throwing a ball. The timing is everything for executing perfect timing. I often see people using a great exercise but with too much weight making the movement too slow, or people trying to “feel the burn” in their abs and doing the movement slowly. In both cases the movement pattern is being corrupted with bad information that will eventually lead to poor performance and pain.
Last but not least you should perform rotation exercises in a standing position. There is two important parts to know here. First the legs are our most powerful group of muscles and how we generate force. Just like bending over we need to use our legs to save our back the same is true for rotation. Think of trying to throw a ball without your legs, you would have no power. If you have a leg weakness you will always find these exercises risky until you address the weak legs. Apart from the fact that this has a much great functional carryover to everyday life and sports than the practice of lying on the ground. The more important point is that by standing up there is a small degree of compressive preloading locks the facet assembly of the spine and makes it more resistant to torsion. This is the reason why trunk rotation without vertical compression may cause disc injury, whereas the same movement performed with compression is significantly safer. This is one of those times that the standing exercise is actually easier and a better choice than the lying down exercise!
IF YOU HAVE BACK PAIN
If you currently have back pain I suggest seeking some help from a respected therapist or trainer. You might need to spend some time with simple exercises to ensure you can activate your inner unit stabilizer muscles. Often these muscles are very lazy or respond too slowly for people with back pain exposing their spine to loads.
ROTATION EXERCISES USED IN REHABILITATION
Before getting straight into the more fun and sports like movements I would like to share some unique exercises that we use in our rehabilitation programs to reprogram someone with stiffness and robot like rotation movements. The first series of exercises are known as infant development exercise, and as the name suggests these are learning to wiggle and roll around on your back and your stomach on a mat. Just like a toddler who does not yet have strength in the arms and legs to stand or even crawl they develop the ability to rotate and create movement from rotation. People with back pain and even people who do too many exercises like planks and bench press these exercises can be very difficult. Executing them early on reprograms the body to move the way it first learned many years ago.
Now assuming you have optimal stability of the trunk and lumbar spine, you understand the weight shift and can do the cable woodchop perfectly and lastly you are applying mobility drills for the hips and thoracic spine you are now ready to try some more advanced movements. To be honest these advanced movements are very much everyday movements if you play sports so if you cannot do them well in the gym, then you really should not be playing sports!
Last but not least the timing and coordination must be perfect, otherwise compensation will kick in and you will find yourself in pain. Start with the simple exercises like the single cable press or pull, try some cable woodchops before finishing with tornado ball slams! Your body will love you for it.