Stop doing that, do this instead: Thoracic Spine Edition

I do my best on here to be honest with you all, and my post tonight is probably going to go a few places that will make some people out there mad.  Yes, we’re going to talk about an exercise I hate but for some reason a lot of trainers in the golf world still have a love affair with!  Actually hate is not a strong enough word for this one because it is so incredibly dangerous and pointless that I can’t for the life of me figure out why it keeps ending up in golfers programs.

The easy answer is because it looks like something a golfer needs to do.

The real answer is that there is a misconception out there about what it’s really doing and a misunderstanding about any benefits it could provide.  Watch the first few seconds of my video to see what I’m talking about!

Yes, these are known as spinal twists, back killers, something that looks hard core but actually sucks…..there are a lot of names for it.  I just call it NOOOOOO!!!!!!

Here’s the deal:  Your lumbar vertebrae (low back) are not built for rotation, they actually only have 1-2 degrees per segment.  That adds up to a whopping 10 degrees if you’re lucky (note my sarcasm here)!  This part of your spine is in desperate need of stabilization not rotation.  Your thoracic vertebrae (upper back) on the other hand are built for rotation although all those hours you are sitting at your desk are probably making it a little difficult to make that happen.  The first exercise, the one I’m telling you to take a hard pass on, is asking you to stabilize your thoracic spine while rotating from the lumbar, the exact opposite of the pattern you are born to have!

I deferred to my husband on this subject and asked: “is there a reason that someone would ever need to do this exercise?”  His response: “There are far more exercises out there that provide the benefit you are looking for without the risk this one provides.”

The area where these two parts of your spine meet we call the thoraco-lumbar junction. When your thoracic spine is struggling with movement due to tight muscles, lack of mobility in the joint, an injury, or perhaps you never learned how to actually rotate it, you will start asking the lower back to give up some of it’s stability to help out.  That junction is where the pressure ends up.  And if I take off my trainer hat for a second and put on my injured golfer hat, I have dealt with this issue before and it sucks.  A few years ago I made a quick move to stop my dog from running away and strained all the muscles through my mid back.  Upon trying to play golf again, due to the decrease in mobility I started putting so much pressure in this area that I actually hard to withdraw mid round from a tournament because of the pain.  An exercise such as the spinal twist could potentially do this to you!  Let me tell you, it’s not worth the risk.

What’s the solution instead?  If you check out the second part of the video, I demo a version of Open Books which I have talked about on here often.  It’s an exercise that can be really great when performed correctly and helps reinforce the correct movement patterns in the spine.

Here are a few keys to getting the most out of it:

  • Lay on your side with the neck propped up to keep the spine straight.  I used my dog’s stuffed shark in this case!
  • Straighten out the bottom leg and rest the top leg on something at a 90 degree angle.  A foam roller makes a great option for this.
  • Remember to let your eyes and head follow the motion.
  • When you initiate the rotation, begin by moving the chest first and feeling your shoulder blade glide along the rib cage.
  • When you chest stops, your arm stops.
  • Once you hit the max range, check in on the lower back and make sure you are maintaining neutral spine.
  • The lower body needs to stay completely still throughout this as well.

The beauty of this exercise is that you are in fact reinforcing stability in the lumbar spine and rotation in the thoracic spine.  My back feels happy just thinking about this awesome combo of function!

The moral of today’s post:  just because someone posted an exercise online doesn’t mean it’s good for you.  Consider all variables before adding anything into your workout plan especially if you have a history of injury.  And if you ever have pain while doing an exercise, stop and consult someone who can help.  Also, remember that when it comes to rotation, it is really easy for the body to cheat and give the illusion of rotation.  This is something I talk with my clients about a lot because so many people are looking for more movement.  Quality over quantity folks…….quality over quantity.

Happy Tuesday!

-S

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