Given the fact that every nerve in your body exits some level of the spine, it naturally follows that this intricate miracle of engineering deserves your attention as a fitness professional, coach, or athlete. In my travels to numerous gyms in North America, I commonly see exercises performed in a manner that are potentially hazardous to the spine, so let's make sure that it's NOT you, OK? OK.
One of the prevailing paradigms about the spine is that it is best able to safely attenuate forces and support loads when it is in a "neutral" position. If you observe the spine of a healthy person with good posture, you'll notice that there are several distinctive curvatures— the cervical and lumbar curves are the ones we'll be most concerned with here. Now of course, some people have a lot of curvature in their spines, and others have less. The exact amount of curvature which is optimum is a subject of heated debate, however, everyone has their own unique neutral curvature.
"Neutral" is the position where the spine can most efficiently and safely support load (such as when you have a bar on your back when squatting) and absorb forces (such as the impact that occurs during running). Even though everyone's "neutral" is slightly different, we can say that neutral never involves any rotation or side bending.
Very often I see people looking over their shoulder in the mirror as they perform curls or triceps pushdowns. WRONG. Always, always look straight ahead not matter what.
Another common practice is to flex-rotate while stopping over to grab a plate from a low rack. WRONG. Flexion-rotation is one of the most hazardous positions for the spine. Instead, approach the rack, face it squarely, and bend the hips and knees to lower yourself.
Also avoid stopping over from a seated position to pick up your dumbbells for the next set of presses. Every chiropractor and physical therapist is familiar with compressive load comparison charts that show this very position to be the most precarious possible position to put your lumbar spine into. So instead, stand up, bend your knees, deadlift the dumbbells, sit back down, and resume your workout.
Yet another error is the practice of looking upward during stiff-leg deadlifts. WRONG. During any form of squat or deadlift, imagine that you're wearing a cervical collar (which, in fact, you might be wearing for REAL if you don't follow my advice here!) during the movement. The head follows the body. On these exercises, looking downward (relative to the trunk) can cause a reflexive shut-down of the lumbar muscles, and looking upward can strain the cervical vertebrae.
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