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Set Your Back! (But Whats My Back?)
by Christian Fox

Your spine has 24 vertebrae divided into 3 segments; 7 cervical (your neck), 12 thoracic (mid/upper-back), and 5 lumbar (low-back). Below this is your sacrum, which are actually 5 fused vertebrae, and below that is your coccyx (or tailbone). On the posterior side of your spine, there are facet joints that facilitate movement of the segments. In between the vertebrae you have discs housing a gel-like substance that act as shock absorbers between segments. Now importantly, just behind the discs and just in front of the facet joints lays your spinal canal. The spinal canal is where your spinal cord and all your nerves are housed. Every nerve in your body comes from some point in that spinal canal, ergo, it’s pretty freaking important. Wrapping around the spine are also ligaments, tendons, and muscles that work to both mobilize and protect your spine, and blood vessels that nourish all of this tissue.
 
            Hopefully having this info and picture in your mind can help to clarify a few things about both strengthening your back and preventing injury. Any insult to the tissue around the spine can be painful. Muscle strains are the most common. These guys are well suited to move your spine into a safe position and keep it there under load. However, once the position is compromised, those same muscles are not that good at getting back there. So if you set your back well on a dead lift but then lose it on the way up, your spinal erectors may very well be barking at you for a few days as a reminder. Similarly, if you lack the flexibility to even start in a good position for the dead lift, you are also at risk for strain. If you strain your back, ice can help for the first 24-48 hrs, and ice and heat after that. Most strains are not serious.
          
            The position your spinal cord wants you to maintain while under load follows the natural curve in your spine and provides the most room for the nerves inside. That position is: a strong arch at the lumbar, a slight arch at the thoracic, and a slight natural arch at the cervical. *(While the thoracic can be slightly rounded (or flexed) in standing posture, an arched (or extended) spine up top will have all the spinal erectors working together and result in a better arch down low). The discs of your spine are put at risk of bulging or tearing when the spine is flexed under load (a rounded back on a dead lift), or worse, flexed and rotated. If a disc bulges or ruptures, the gel from inside it can put pressure on the nerves and blood vessels in the spinal column, resulting in sometimes debilitating pain. Once a disc is ruptured it will NEVER be the same. Good posture, in the gym and out, are paramount to minimizing pain in this case.
 
            The flip side of rounding your back can also be problematic. Over arching, or hyper-extending, your back can cause the cartilage in your facet joints to wear away. This can cause or exacerbate spinal arthritis (spondylosis). Worst-case scenario here is that bones spurs occur and either press against the spinal cord or fuse with other vertebrae. Neither sounds good.
 
            Get into and maintain a good position for your lifts. If you can’t, then don’t load weight on the bar until you can. Perform exercises like static back extensions to strengthen your spinal muscles so you can keep that back set. Work on mobility consistently, and limit ROM as needed until you can maintain a set back throughout a full ROM. Remember to always practice good posture in and out of the gym.

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If you've gotten better at setting your back, what methods have helped?

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Robb Wolf Interview on T-Nation

Reader Comments (11)

Amen Mr. Fox!A little cautionary tale: I wanted to go for bigger weight, faster, harder, blah, blah, blah and did so with out paying attention to the signs my body was giving me. I have serious mobility issues and had trouble getting onto a proper dead lift position in the first place. On a high volume WOD I went with more weight than I should have. The result was loss of good dead lift form and serious back injury. Now my dead lift is somewhere in the 175 range--but with proper form. I am still recovering but have made flexibility and proper form my primary goal (day 24 today of daily yoga and stretching).So in other words, please listen to the wise words of Mr. Fox and all of our incredible coaches.
August 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Mak
Nice write up fox!

Can't sleep, thought I'd post.

Backsquatted light and focused on form.Did a scaled up version of the snatch sprint wide.

10 rounds of 5 snatches 75lbs and 100m runs. 7:50 thanks to Whitney for keeping time. No running shoes, went barefoot -- no problem, although I think I can go faster...
August 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDan Rx'd
Thanks for the write-up Chris! You know, I didn't know what a static back extension is. I've looked it up and I think I'll start doing some regularly.

To answer the question, I don't know if I've gotten better at setting my back. I've been avoiding barbell deadlifts and sticking to trap-bars and generally going a little lighter on high-rep WODs that involve deadlifts and kettlebells (I'm always stuck at one pood). I've also been doing some of Chris' prescribed movements for the hip region. I still feel like my hamstrings and lower back are quite tight in general.
August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSamir Chopra
These are some high quality posts, thanks!
August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim
daily mobility homework from kelly starrett...

http://mobilitywod.blogspot.com/

yesterday's post called for 10 min holding the bottom of a squat. yipes, but in a good way.
August 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkatie
wow, ten minutes!

photos from rob orlando/hybrid athletics' HYBRID CHALLENGE last weekend:

http://tinyurl.com/3ymr6bx
August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichele
Very important topic Fox, thanks!

On another topic, some of you may have heard about my awesome embroidery/knitting/sewing club? Well our August group meetup is this Sunday afternoon at The Gate and as always everyone is welcome. The details are here: http://www.bklynembroidery.com/blog/events/

All skill levels are welcome, all crafts (that are portable) are welcome, or if you're just curious come and watch. If you want to learn to embroider but don't know where to begin then let me know you're coming and I'll bring you a starter kit.

Happy hobbying!
August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSarah
As with Samir, back-setting has been one of my biggest challenges in Crossfit. There are two things that have seemed helpful:

-Hamstring mobility work, especially PNF stretching. When I actually do this, it makes a big difference.

-When actually setting up for a lift, concentrating on pulling my shoulder-blades back and down. It seems kind of weird to me that this works, since the issue tends to be with the lower part of my back, but it does help get everything set better.

I always use the trap bar when deadlifts are part of a timed WOD, and only use the normal bar when we're actually working deadlifts and I can take the time to get it right.
August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNick K
I have a crush on Kelly Starrett. Don't tell Nick.
August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCharlotte
nice piece Fox. I have been enjoying your essays.

I have been making progress with the "set back" concept lately by working it hard without weight during my sun salutations and mountain climbers etc. which gives me a good feel for it when the weighted work comes.

I've also been fighting for it at work. Which is making a difference in my pain level over the course of the day.

Did a 1000m row then cleans: 3x45 3x65 3x75 3x95 3x115 3x135 3x145 at home.

then 30 kb snatches per side 20# unbroken30 kb russian twists 20# in sets of 1030 kb overhead swings 45#

Did you notice that the Kelly Starrett video is one uncut take? I like it.
August 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercarlos


This is great. Good advice, and good to hear about other fellow back-pain people are doing.

The main thing I try to do for my back is focus on being "in my body" when lifting (or doing any CF movements, really). I need to undo years of long, slow cardio workouts while listening to the radio.

On that score, the pace and skill focus of on-ramp has been perfect for me. Last night:

WU: DU practice and plank,then mid-hang clean drills

5-5-5 65% back squat: 45 75 95 110 110 110

WOD: scaled down Cindy

AMRAP 10:005 push-ups7 squats9 ring rows

8+5PU...I was surprised that the ring rows slowed me down. Last few sets were 3+2+2+2. Blech.
August 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJZ

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