‘When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten’, says Chuang Tzu and anyone who has suffered acute or chronic back pain knows well the difference between an easy pain free back and debilitating pain. It may be useful to understand something of the structure of our back and spine. Our body is not really a compressional structure such as a braced and balanced stud frame wooden house. In fact our body is more like a big bag of gel-like soft tissues with an internal skeleton frame of strong but bendable bones held together by tough ligaments. Some people get the idea that our bones hold us up but without the matrix of soft tissues we would just be a pile of bones on the floor.
Our bones are not designed to touch each other, but to be separated by shock absorbing cartilage and ligaments and the tension of our myofascia. Each of the spinal vertebra is separated by a disc made up of tough connective tissue with a fluid centre. The sacrum is a triangular bone, the base of the spine, and it is seated between the two ilium or hip bones. Five low back vertebtra connect the sacrum to the ribcage spine. Each of the 12 ribs fits into the side of the thoracic spine. Then seven neck vertebra join the rib cage to the skull. The skull is really just the top link of the spinal chain.
Some spines are really flexible!
The Tensegrity Spine
Our body structure is somewhat like a tent in which there are tensional elements-the guy wires/ the muscles, fascia and tendons and stiffer components the tent pole- in this case the spinal column or the foot/leg. The tent will not be well balanced unless the guy wires that hold the tent up are also in balance. And we will not be stable in our spine unless the tension in our muscle and fascial system is balanced. A glance in an anatomy book will clarify the number of smaller, longer and wider muscles and fascial bands that work together to hold our spine upright and to allow it to move in such complex ways. Unlike a compressional building, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome is a structure of tensional integrity. The spine and the body may also be considered as a complex tensegrity structure.
Flexibility and aliveness in the spine and in our torso nourishes the spinal cord and the cerebrospinal fluid, keeping our brain and body healthy. The spine is a chain-like unit that needs the pumping action from the legs to lift it as well as mobility in all three planes – in flexing and extending, in rotating and in side-bending. It is not extreme stretches the spine needs; it is simply normal range of motion. Unfortunately our sedentary habits start to create a body stagnation, compression and limitations. Many of us over time feel an unconscious slump as our shoulders come round, our upper chest loses dimension, the head goes forward and the pelvis may be tipped forward or back. Extra weight in the belly drags the whole performance down. Add the attitude that ‘that’s just how it is’ and you will be right.
Building the Ultimate Back
Here are some suggestions to build your structural integrity: 1. Balance the foundation –the leg chain from feet to hip to lumbar spine 2.Balance the pelvis and learn the difference between hip and spinal flexion 3. Balance the soft tissues that support an aligned spine 4.Get good mobility and stability in pelvic and spinal movements in the field of gravity and on the floor 5. Build stability without compromising the joints 6. Increase endurance, build strength, develop power and agility To build the ultimate back strength and endurance we need to stabilize the spine with exercises with minimal spinal loading in all three planes of movement: 1. side bridge for the obliques, TVA , latissimus and Quadratus 2. curl-ups for rectus abdominus and 3. leg and arm extensions leading to ‘the bird dog’ for the back extensors.
Do the Bird Dog
Get down on the floor on your hands and knees. Let the spine be neutral and parallel to the floor and the neck neutral, not extended, eyes looking to the floor. Take most of your weight into your right hand and your left knee. Lightly brace the abdominal muscles and extend the left arm straight ahead parallel to the floor. Next lift and extend the right hip and leg so that it is also parallel to the floor. Hold the posture for eight seconds then do the other side. Strengthening the back extensors may be one of the most important exercises for low back discomfort.
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