Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Open Joint vs Closed Joint Lifting – Part 3

In part 1, I talked about the concept of the open joint lift and how it can be used to move big weights. Part 2 was about taking that concept and using it to prevent injuries to the knees. This post will further that concept and explain how to apply it to prevent and manage back injuries. If you haven’t read the previous 2 posts, please do so. It’ll make this post a lot easier to read.

The back is one of the most commonly injured areas, whether a person lifts or not. A back injury is also a lot more debilitating than most other kind of injuries – everything you do in life uses your back. Unfortunately, because we live in a sitting society, back problems are all too common these days.

Let me introduce you to the lower back first. The primary region we are concerned about, for this discussion, is the lumbar area (lower back). The spine connects to the hips and as such any movement in the hips will involve a loading of the spine. The spine is also strongest when it is straight or “arched”. Any issue in the spine is usually magnified when the spine is rounded. Therefore, we will remain in an arched position for all the lifts mentioned here. Because when arched, the spine is now a rigid structure that is more or less one big joint, the hips are where the movement occurs. Strong and mobile hips = strong spine = less chance of injuring the back. Usually the reason that people experience so much back pain is because the hips are so locked up and immobile that now movement has to take place through the spine.

Taking the ‘open vs closed joint angle’ from before, the most obvious solution to work around back pain is to use a more open joint angle at the hips. Why? When the hips are closed, the back is close to parallel to the floor. This puts the lower back under a whole lot of shear stress. However, when the hips are open, the back is more perpendicular to the floor, which results in more compressive than shear forces on the spine. As we have already seen, our joints can handle compressive forces a lot better than shear forces. So how do we use this information to train around back pain?

1) Strengthen the abs. This may seem counter-intuitive but it’s very rare that the lower back is actually weak enough to be the problem. Usually the problem is that a person’s abs are too weak to take the stress off the spine. Training the abs through stabilization (planks, ab wheel rollouts) is the best way to solve this issue.

2) Use the open hip angle to your advantage. Front squatting, the high bar back squat, clean deadlifts and trap bar deadlifts are great for people with lower back problems because they force you to remain more straight up than leaning forward.

Trap bar deadlift

3) Get off the leg press machines. These machines do not let the hips travel and more often than not a person will curl up the lower back when using these machines. Stay on your feet when lifting and you will reap the benefits.

4) Use single leg work for your posterior chain needs. The great thing about single leg work is that you cannot lift as much weight as with two legs. This greatly reduces the stress on the spine, while still giving your muscles a training effect because you can use a closed hip angle now. Single leg deadlifts, long step reverse lunges and long step Bulgarian split squats are great in this regard. You’ll probably feel soreness you’ve never felt before too.

Single leg deadlift

5) Train stabilization of the hips. If the hips are not properly strengthened, the onus falls on the lower back and various other muscles to keep the hips in check. Great way to train stabilization while still lifting heavy weights is to add farmer walks and its variations to your program. Grab a heavy weight and go for long walks with them. Michael Boyle has stated that the strongest hips he ever tested were strongman competitors  - where farmer walks is a big competition. Because you will be in a standing (ie open) hip position, the stress on the lower back is very low.

6) Use Olympic lifting variations of pulling. The snatch deadlift and the clean deadlift force you to sink your hips lower which would keep your torso more upright. It will still tax your muscles, but the pressure on the spine will be less. If the convention deadlift with its closed hips kills your lower back, try snatch deadlifting. You’ll probably find that it’s way easier on the spine, and you can still lift very heavy weights and get stronger.

Clean Deadlift

You’ll find that this list is directly opposite to the list in part 2. The less the knees travel, the more stress that’s put on the back. And the more the knees travel, the less stress is put on the back. Pick your poison and get to lifting.

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