Reading time: [10-12 minutes]
- The counter intuitive movement that is causing most back injuries
- Set up and clean up are where the most glaring lifting faults happen
- Can light weight with broken form cause injury?
- How we lift heavy things is how we should lift everything
Despite my general dislike for the lift in the title graphic, this post isn’t going to attack the sumo deadlift high pull. In fact, it’s not going to address the deadlift, snatch, clean, squat, or any of primary movements in Crossfit.
I am a firm believer that almost every exercise has an appropriate time and place when it is performed well and programmed appropriately. Despite the bad rap that Crossfit has gotten for poor instruction, most Crossfit coaches and long time Crossfit enthusiasts actually understand the general mechanics and teaching of the primary movements.
My beef in this post has to do with what happens BEFORE and AFTER workouts.
Set-Up and Clean-Up: Where Good Form Becomes Trash
So let’s talk about what happens for the average Crossfitter when they’re about to perform a heavy lift off the ground. Imagine the times in your life where you are lifting something for 90%+ of your 1-rep max:
- You approach the weight straight-on to optimize the direction of force.
- You hinge from the hips to grab the weight.
- You create a straight lumbar and thoracic spine making sure you reduce your back curvatures as much as possible.
- You breathe in and brace your abdominals.
- You lift and generate a powerful upward force through your hips
Whether you nailed the lift or missed it, you complete the attempt satisfied that you at least had decent form and that you’ll be back to lift another day.
Time for clean-up:
- You reach down to the bar lumbar and thoracic spine fully curved
- You pick up the bar slightly with at an odd angle with no abdominal brace whatsoever
- You pull the 45 lb plate off the bar with a relaxed hunch back and load all of the lumbar soft tissue
- You reach down and grab the 45 lb plate flat off the ground again with a curved back, lifting almost entirely from the lumbar spine.
- Repeat until all of your weight is gone
“Dr. Chung, those weights are light. They can’t hurt me.”
For the coaches and experienced lifters who are reading this: you know you would never let someone get away with a slouched posture when you are teaching them to deadlift. It doesn’t matter what fitness level that person is in, you know that lifting with a rounded spine is mechanically flawed, so you will always give them cues to change their pattern, even if it was an unloaded barbell.
There’s an interesting thing that happens to a trained lifter as you add more weight to a barbell. Instinctively, you know that if you don’t brace your abdomen and bring your spine close to neutral, you will be unable to get the weight off the ground. Plus, you know your back will become more exposed to danger.
There are couple of things that happen when you lift with an unbraced spine:
1. You exponentially increase the amount of shear force going into the lumbar spine.
Shear is when you have part of your back moving one way, and another part moving in the opposite direction. In of itself it’s not bad, but when you add compression by picking up a weight or applying load, it’s like rubbing sand paper against each other….except the sand paper will be your discs and ligaments.
Just as an example, the deadlift on the image on the above left may place about 2000 N of shear force into the lifter’s back, while a braced spine can reduce that force down to 200 N. When you keep your back close to neutral, you activate your extensor muscles which help to reduce that shearing force to the disc and ligaments. Rule of thumb: muscles like to be loaded, but ligaments and discs are sort of like a “break in case of emergency” system, you want to load them lightly, and not terribly often.
2. Repeated rounding of the back (flexion) peels away layers of your spinal discs.
This is why sit ups are generally an exercise that is associated with back pain because the repeated flexion has the ability to peel away layers from the discs like an onion. This creates a weakening of the disc tissue which can increase the liklihood of herniation.
The muscles of your trunk are designed to prevent the veretebrae from moving too much. The muscles of the trunk are best utilized to create stiffness and to resist bending under load. Approaching weights with a braced, neutral spine is the body’s defense to load. Doing static trunk holds like a plank instead of repeated bending motions (sit ups, toes to bar) can save these layers in your discs.
When you are lifting heavy objects, you are doing it for less repetitions, and your’e also more likely to lift with a braced spine. When are lifting light objects, or just going through the motions of clean up, you are lifting for a higher number of reps with a spine that’s less likely to be protected.
In a way, you may be placing MORE shear forces into your spine lifting a 45 lb plate off the ground unprotected, than lifting a 135 lb bar off the ground with a braced spine. You’re also picking up that 45 lb plate off the ground with broken mechanics day after day.
Remember that it’s USUALLY the slow and gradual wear and tear that ends up hurting people. You may not hurt yourself while cleaning up equipment, but you are creating an environment that can make a back injury increasingly likely.
I have patients that tell me all the time:
“I went down to pick up a pillow, and then my back just seized on me”
It’s really unlikely that the pillow itself caused the back to go out. The truth is that the discs and tissues of the back were degenerating for a long time before that incident.
How you lift anything is how you lift everything
Whether you have a current episode of back pain, never had pain before, have a history of pain, lifting something light, or lifting something heavy, the process of picking something off the ground should be the same.
After working with thousands of patients and numerous organizations, I’ve seen that you can dramatically improve the life of a patient with back pain by simply teaching them how to move differently.
One of the concepts that I teach is to approach ANY type of lifting with that of a weight lifter. Why like a weight lifter? Because they are literally capable of moving weight far beyond the average human without becoming a victim of catastrophic injury. They are also lifting heavy loads daily without aggressive deterioration like we would normally see in occupational lifting. In other words, they have a great model to follow.
If you’ve read this far and are still interested, that means you have to be a Crossfitter, so let’s compare and contrast where these common movement faults happen during clean up.
Stripping the Bar
Lifting Weight off the Ground
Take a look around the gym next time and observe how people set up and clean up their weights. Does the image on the left look pretty familiar? Compare and contrast to how the image looks on the right. No matter what the load is, you can apply weight lifting principles to execute the task at hand.
My Own Personal Experience
When I was getting ready to open my practice in Wellington, I spent an entire week painting baseboards in a broken and slouched position. It was the first time in my life that I ever had back pain. Not from 10+ years of weight lifting and 3+ years of taking care of patients. Nope, just 1 week of painting baseboards.
It blew my mind that people can do this every day of their lives.
Of course I didn’t want to stop training, and I couldn’t stop working to get the office ready for our grand opening. I had to figure out how to move without worsening the mechanical stresses on my spine.
On top of getting my spine corrected by my chiropractor, I applied the same principles in today’s post to doing all of my tasks. I was hip hinging to pick up every object, whether it was a paint brush or a heavy desk. I braced my trunk while painting to limit any further shear. I was also paying way more attention to how I set up and cleaned my weights.
Sure enough, I didn’t have any back pain when I started implementing these strategies.
While these steps are useful for people who don’t want to have their backs wear out as a preventative measure, they are critical for the patient with back pain to preserve their spine and still maintain the ability to work and play.
Start playing around with this the next time you’re at the gym or at work and see how it feels. If you want a more comprehensive assessment of your movement and your structure, then feel free to comment or message me below.