How to Keep a Healthy Back

59 0

I can only think of a few things more heart wrenching than hearing my doctor tell me I’d probably never ride a bike again.  But those are the words I heard when I blew my back out after one lap of a 12 hour race in May of 2010.  I had only been racing just over a year!

Here is a picture of my MRI

If you’ve never seen one, that’s a good thing….but you probably don’t know what to look at. This is a slice right down my spine as if someone chopped me in half between the eyes. The white line from top to bottom is the spinal canal, the squares are the vertebrae, and the little black spaces between them are the discs. They should not be black, by the way—that means they are unhealthy. You can see that one of them is pretty much popping out into the spinal cord. Not a good thing—it was pressing up on a nerve and made my left leg pretty much useless and numb in addition to causing excruciating pain that pharmaceuticals could not alleviate.  So, here I am studying to be a Chiropractor. And now I’m faced with a bad back.

Long story short, I was told I’d need surgery, but I opted for conservative care instead. Chiropractic, massage, myofascial release, Graston, Rolfing, acupuncture, acupressure, spinal decompression, physical therapy, cold laser, nutrition, a lot of patience, never-ending ice packs and ice baths, and help from friends got me back on the bike. It’s been 8 months and I am 90% better and even racing cyclocross….just because I can. I sent pictures to that doctor who said I’d never ride again. Loser.

If you do have back issues, always try the conservative road first! I see a lot of patients for low back issues, especially around this time of year. It’s great for me….but not so good for them. Here are a few tips to avoid injuring your back while working on your New Year’s Resolutions in the gym:

NUMBER 1:

Yep. You read correctly. It’s cold and snowy outside, and it’s easy to hop on a treadmill and get some cross training in. Using a treadmill makes you (A) bend your knee to pick up your foot via your hamstrings and (B) swing your leg forward to let your foot touch down on the belt. It’s the treadmill that brings your foot from in front of you to behind you. You may think you’re working your gluts but you’re really causing them to become inactive, your hip flexors to become too-tight (and cyclists already have tight hip flexors), and that leads to low back pain. Running or walking outside (preferably on trails) is much better for you, but if you can’t deal with the weather, consider a spin class, stair machine, or elliptical.

NUMBER 2:

Turn your back to lumbar extension machines such as the Roman Chair. It is very common to hyper-extend the low back, as seen in this picture, which over time can do irreparable damage to the ligaments and discs in the low back due to high levels of spinal compression and shearing forces. When in real life do you actually move weight in this manner?

If you feel that you must exercise your low back, do it on an exercise ball with your feet stabilized against a wall or bench, do not hyperextend (aka, do not elevate your back above the level of your hips as seen below), and do not hold the position for more than 2 breaths.

NUMBER 3:

Everyone wants sexy, ripped, washboard, rock solid six-pack abs, right? I had them at one point, and I did these exercises a lot—and now you know what happened! Avoid this machine, or any sort of abdominal machine! First of all, they are one-size-fits-all. Even if they have adjustable pieces; it still forces you to sit in an odd upright position. As you repeatedly force your lumbar spine into flexion with extra weight that nobody should be moving, there is increased load shearing on the spinal column causing microtrauma. Using the ab machine (or even doing a million crunches) will not magically turn your muffin-top into muscle—cardio and diet will help melt fat. There are better options for abdominal strengthening, and I will post more of them in the future. In the meantime, try modified side planks as seen below. Hold for 1 or 2 breaths and put your hip back down on the floor. Repeat 12 times or more as long as you have good form, then repeat on other side.

These tips will keep you on track to maintaining a healthy back while piling up the training hours!