In my previous article on improving grip strength, I briefly talked about back decompression in a small section. After giving it much thought, however, I decided that back decompression deserves a post of its own.
After being a trainer and strength coach for nearly 7 years now, I have seen people from all walks of life. Young and old, rich and poor. One thing many of them sadly have in common is back pain.
Back pain can result from many things, but one not so common cause of back pain is spinal compression. This isn’t recognized early and the effects take years to notice. This makes it very hard to spot.
The good news is….
THIS IS ALL COMPLETELY REVERSIBLE! Provided that you properly decompress the back.
In this post, we are going to explain how back decompression works and how to properly decompress the spine.
How The Spine Works
The spine is one unbelievable feat of engineering. It consists of about 33 small bones called vertebrae, which stack on top of each-other, separated by organic shock absorbers called discs(for the sake of simplicity, I’m leaving out a lot of details).
The spine is further divided into four sections.
- Cervical (C1-C7)
- Thoracic (T1-T12)
- Lumbar (L1-L5)
- Sacrum (S1) + Coccyx (S2-S5)
Together all four of these sections work together to help the body perform movement.
No matter what anybody else tells you, ALL MOVEMENT ORIGINATES FROM THE SPINE!
The bones may turn and twist, but their main function is to serve as a conduit for movement transduction from upper and lower extremities.
This means the spine serves as a bridge between upper body and lower body movement.
Hence the Joseph Pilates quote, “you are only as old or young as your spine.”
The Most Vulnerable Area Of The Back
With the spine designed the way it is, there are certain areas that have poor mechanical leverage vs. others. This makes them more susceptible to injury.
In our case, that area is the lumbar region, which is the low back.
Whenever, we pick up an object off the ground, the low back is going to have more force placed on it than any area of the body. Therefore, we have to literally brace ourselves in order to protect it.
The classic exercise to demonstrate this is the deadlift. In an earlier post of mine Check Your Deadlift Form, I mentioned how important it is to brace your spine by proper breathing, squeezing the glutes, engaging the lats and arching the low back. This is all done to prevent injury to the lower back.
However, even with all of this you will still be putting your spine under large amounts of spinal loading.
No matter how good of a lifter you are, you will still need to include back decompression in your training program.
What Back Decompression Actually Is
Muscles surrounding the vertebrae get very short and stiff after any lift that loads the spine (deadlifts, farmer carries, squats, etc.). These muscles then put more pressure on the discs which cause them to degenerate quicker over time. Hence, spinal degeneration disease.
But this increased pressure on the spine can cause many other spinal problems and deformities as well. Spinal compression can also cause arthritis, fracture, bone spurs, bulging disc, etc. Not pleasing in any way shape or form.
What back decompression does is to alleviate this pressure placed on the spine to restore it back to “normal”. This is often done through some form of manual therapy.
Luckily, you can do a lot of these procedures yourself.
How To Decompress The Back
If you are a lifter, or have a profession which requires you to lift heavy objects all day (mechanic, construction, etc.), then you are going to need to make spinal decompression a regular part of your workout routine.
Below I have listed some of the most valuable exercises to get you the most bang for your buck.
The goal here is not to reinvent the wheel, or make a career out of back decompression. The goal is to try to educate the reader to be more aware of their spinal health.
It is one thing to lift heavy things, it is another to do it for a lifetime.
A crowd favorite in the yoga community. Cat/camels have been a go to exercise for personal trainers for the past few decades to alleviate back pain in clients. The good news is it obviously works.
Most problems with this exercise involve bending the elbows while down on the ground. If the elbows bend, it means that you are not initiating the movement through the spine and are using the arms instead.
The cat/camel is great because you can do it anywhere and it’s not a scary looking exercise. However, for the more serious minded athlete/lifter, we need something that is going to pack more of a punch.
Hang Like You Mean It (Dead Hangs)
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to read Pavel Tsatsouline’s awesome book Relax Into Stretch. In this book, Pavel talked about hanging from a pull-up bar with some weight around your waist. He said this would help to decompress your spine.
Letting gravity do the work and literally pulling your spine apart.
But he also used a little trick from the nervous system that I really liked. While hanging, squeeze the bar as hard as you can for 5 seconds and squeeze your back and abs as well. Then relax “as hard as you can” for 5 seconds.
What you’ll find is the muscles that need stretching will just relax themselves and surrender to gravity. It is like magic.
If there is one exercise on this list that I would pick above all others, it would definitely be the reverse hyper machine. If your gym does not have one, then get rid of your membership and find a new gym.
The reverse hyper machine was designed by the godfather of strength Louie Simmons. When lifting in his younger years, Louie fractured one of his lumbar vertebrae. His doctors told him he would never lift again. Determined to get back into lifting, Louie discovered the reverse hyper machine to help rehab his back.
The machine works the entire posterior chain in a pendulum fashion. This helps to create traction in the spine. Traction is essential for back decompression. It literally pulls the vertebrae apart while strengthening the surrounding musculature.
Another added benefit is it also rotates the sacrum, which helps to circulate cerebra-spinal fluid. It is like a cat/camel on steroids.
Workout Routines And Exercises
Ask yourself, “am I writing healthy workout programs?” I don’t mean to get all new age on you but seriously are you guys doing strength exercises that make you both healthy and strong? Or are you just a human peacock? All show and no go.
Just doing 50 sets of bicep curls and 30 sets of bench presses would be all it takes in a perfect world. But as we all know, this world is not perfect.
Do what is hard and you will already be 20 steps ahead of 98% of the competition.
The Real Secret Behind Most Back Problems
With all techniques aside, there is one underlying problem with most spinal compression issues and back problems in general. The psoas muscle.
The psoas literally attaches to the lumbar vertebrae all the way down to the top of the femur. Its primary function is hip flexion. For more info, check out my psoas muscle and lower back pain post.
When the psoas becomes too tight, it wreaks havoc on the lumbar spine. In fact, you could say the psoas is the little devil in the piano when it comes to back pain.
Everyday Activities To Help Back Decompression
How you start your morning is critical to your health. Not just for your spine, but for your entire well being.
It should be of no surprise that the most successful people on the planet take their morning routines very seriously. If you can win the morning you can win the day.
Let me give you an awesome example from fellow blogger and fitness guru Denzel Cadet, not only is he jacked but he is also a corporate attorney. He has an awesome morning routine in his article called Win The Morning. Be sure to check it out.
The first, and simplest, way to decompress your spine is to sit down less. Sitting down is the new smoking. According to Kelly Starrett, you should get up and move around every 20-30 minutes.
This will help to loosen up the muscles in your hip, which will then improve your back health. Hip mobility and lower back stability are correlated. If you loose one you loose the other.
Hang From Your “Teeth”
Another useful activity is one I learned from trapeze artists. Now don’t get scared, you are not going to actually hang from your teeth. Trapeze artists do but we don’t have to.
Trapeze artists need to have perfect posture to perform the crazy stunts they do. Otherwise, they will most likely fall and die. So to train themselves to have perfect posture, they hang a leather belt strap from a ceiling. Before an event they jump up and bite the leather strap and hang on it to elongate their spine.
We don’t have to go that crazy. But we can still mimic the benefits. Just pretend you are hanging from the belt strap. You’ll be surprised how well this works.
I typically perform this drill every-time I pass through a doorframe. It actually does make me feel taller.
Good Ol Stretching
If you are sedentary for most of the day, there are three major areas you need to work on, the hip flexors (psoas), piriformis and thoracic spine.
All three of these areas need constant work if you are sitting too much. I keep a lacrosse ball with me in my office for my hips and I also keep a foam roller for my upper back.
Stretching the hamstrings does not really do much for my back. Usually once I mobilize my hips everything seems to turn back on.
The same applies to the shoulders.
There are numerous medical procedures you can go through to help with back decompression. However, with all of the information I have just given you, doesn’t it just make sense to devote a little time each day to your health.
In this lifetime we are responsible for our own lives, no savior or hero is going to magically eliminate all of your problems. The closest thing to this magician is YOU!
If you want to improve the quality of your life, then just do it. Don’t think, ACT! It really is that simple. There are 24 hours in a day, and you are going to spend at least one of those hours in the gym, so don’t tell me 5-10 minutes of back decompression can’t be done. MAKE IT HAPPEN!
Until next time my friends, have a great day and happy lifting!