Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lower Back Issues

A typical karate class commences with jumbi undo (warm up exercises) to prevent injuries sustained during heavy sparring, drills or other complex movements. Still, being able to crank out a hundred knuckle pushups or run around the deck for ten laps may seem tedious if not downright unnecessary. A warm up routine is designed to prevent injuries, not to gauge stamina or waste class time.

Karateka are used to performing dozens of crunches, leg-outs and leg raises at the beginning of class. There's a good reason for this as having a strong abdominal wall is a prerequisite for core strength and stability. The antagonistic muscle region to the abdomen is the lower back. And a fairly common injury that visits martial-art practitioners - really, just about everybody at some time - seems to be lower back pain.

Weak back muscles will lead to injury, but even the exercises that promote this area can be problematic, especially when care isn't taken. Years ago while performing heavy barbell squats I felt excruciating pain in my lower back that resulted in sciatica. I was able to go to work, but for several weeks I had mild paralysis in my left glute, hamstring and calf. In 1970 Bruce Lee famously blew out his back performing 'good-mornings' -- a lower back exercise that involves holding a barbell on the shoulders behind the neck and lowering the torso parallel to the floor. Lee was reportedly using 125 lbs. for his good-morning routine -- 90 percent of his bodyweight! He was bedridden for six months, took time off to write, but eventually rehabilitated himself and resumed his training and movie career.

I've never even attempted good-mornings. Back in the day I'd perform heavy deadlifts, but after my squatting episode I became leery of hurting myself again. So for the past several years I've been using a hyperextension apparatus for my lower back. What I use is very similar to the one in the image below.

Some pointers:

  1. Lie face down on a hyperextension bench, tucking your ankles securely under the footpads.
  2. Adjust the upper pad if possible so your upper thighs lie flat across the wide pad, leaving enough room for you to bend at the waist without any restriction.
  3. With your body straight, cross your arms in front of you (my preference) or behind your head. This will be your starting position. Tip: You can also hold a weight plate for extra resistance in front of you under your crossed arms.
  4. Start bending forward slowly at the waist as far as you can while keeping your back flat. Inhale as you perform this movement. Keep moving forward until you feel a nice stretch on the hamstrings and you can no longer keep going without a rounding of the back. Tip: Never round the back as you perform this exercise. Also, some people can go farther than others. The key thing is that you go as far as your body allows you to without rounding the back.
  5. Slowly raise your torso back to the initial position as you inhale. Tip: Avoid the temptation to arch your back past a straight line. Also, do not swing the torso at any time in order to protect the back from injury.
  6. Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions.

I do hyperextensions with some added resistance. I'll hold a weight plate to my chest with my arms crossed. I'll do thirty reps, place the weight down, clasp my hands behind my head and immediately pump out twenty more reps. And that's it. That's my lower back routine. Hyperextensions primarily work the quadratus lumborum muscles in the lower back and the spinal erector muscles that extend the length of the vertebral column. To a lesser extent the trapezius muscles that extend from the base of the neck to the upper back are activated and also the hamstrings. (Hamstrings in particular need to be stretched out after this routine as they will be very tight.) I perform this routine in conjunction with abs; sometimes before ab exercises, sometimes after. My rep range is high to promote endurance, modest strength and plenty of blood flow to an area of the body that is more bone, cartilage and sacral nerves than muscle.

For lower back exercise some martial-art routines employ use of the 'butterfly' or 'superman' where you lie on your stomach then lift your head and limbs a few inches off the mat. They're challenging but they're static. For this reason I prefer and recommend the full-range hyperextension for lower back. In my opinion they're safe and very effective. Core stability that includes developing a strong lower back is imperative to performing any physical activity, whether you play golf, work for a living, or practice martial arts.

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