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Bob Sanders

Pike Stretches and Lower Back?

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Bob Sanders

My trainer told me and even showed me and explain to me a power point presentation that anything with the forward bend stretching is bad for the lower back over time and he prefers lying down and stretching the hamstring with a rope. Now this was some months ago.

Is that true or it is just people are doing stretches wrong that inures their lower back over time? I'm still young and I do not want lower back problem. Ever since I haven't done any pike stretching and I have gotten really stiff.

Here an article I read more about it: http://fitnessblackbook.com/injuries/th ... -weakling/

But the thing is we have seen all contortionists, gymnasts and even dancers that are really flexible and do forwards bends and pikes and especially the contortionists. That is what I don't understand. I don't hear them with bad lower back, at least not that I have heard of.

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Neal Winkler
My trainer told me and even showed me and explain to me a power point presentation that anything with the forward bend stretching is bad for the lower back over time and he prefers lying down and stretching the hamstring with a rope. Now this was some months ago.

Is that true or it is just people are doing stretches wrong that inures their lower back over time? I'm still young and I do not want lower back problem. Ever since I haven't done any pike stretching and I have gotten really stiff.

Here an article I read more about it: http://fitnessblackbook.com/injuries/th ... -weakling/

But the thing is we have seen all contortionists, gymnasts and even dancers that are really flexible and do forwards bends and pikes and especially the contortionists. That is what I don't understand. I don't hear them with bad lower back, at least not that I have heard of.

Most studies (but not all) show that gymnasts have one of the highest rates of low back injury among all athletes. The most popular position among experts today (lead by Dr. Stuart McGills work) is that flexing (which is done when bending forward, among other things) the lumbar spine (the bottom 5 vertebrae) is bad for the back, especially when done under load.

The issue to me, is still unresolved.

The most convincing evidence thus far for McGill's position, in my mind, is that the back experiences the least forces when in a neutral position. This will spare your back.

Another piece of evidence is that McGill's studies have shown that the spine can only flex and extend so many times before it breaks. Therefore, the argument goes, you should avoid flexing the spine. However, these studies were done on dead spine (known as an in vitro study) not on living spines (in vivo). Too me, extrapolating from dead spines to living spines is not legitimate.

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Cole Dano

I think you also have to take into account the fact that McGill is working with folks who have some serious pain issues. In that case he's right on target.

I teach yoga and do feel at this point i have allot of practical experience with forward bends, so i'll throw in my two cents on this one.

First off i think its impossible to generalize this without understanding how to do a 'proper forward bend'.

The vast majority of people who do forward bending are bending and straining the lower back. This is usually due to tight hamstrings, but can also be due to poor hip flexion patterns etc.

If you can't flex your hips past 90 deg you don't have any business doing weighted forward bends.

I have two tests i use on my students

1) Can they sit on the floor with straight legs, hips flexed to 90 degrees and still keep a neutral lumbar spine. Yes this is possible!

Until this can be done, bending forward any further will strongly flex the lumbar spine and over time will cause any number of problems. So if this is you, better to keep a straight back, use a strap around your feet to gain leverage and try to pull the hips into flexion.

2)When they can bend past 90 then the back is allowed to evenly flex. Now the key is keeping the arc the spinal curve long. Take a look at someone doing a forward bend in this position and you will more than likely see somewhere along the lumbar spine the bones are sticking out. The test is to feel your back and find the places where the bones are sticking out and learn to get them back in, this creates an even noon-stressfull curve.

The key to keeping forward bends healthy is to find how you can keep the bones from sticking out. It takes an immense amount of spinal control but it is possible and the flexion becomes self limiting and strengthening. If you see someone doing this well, you will see a very clear arc in the spine.

On the flip side, lets say you thought you had to have a neutral spine in a forward bend, what will happen. Well keeping the lumbar so deeply dug in will start to stress the SI joint and it will eventually loosen and cause its own set of problems. You can see some very flexible types when they go into a forward bend that the sacrum actually dips into the body, that a space appears between their waistband and sacrum. This is also a sign of trouble to come.

This was a big issue for a lot of senior yogis and i also have the problem. Its because i was taught to try to bring my belly button to my legs before my chest. Again that is only true for a certain range of the forward bend but not the final answer.

I hope this helps in some way, i've really spent allot of time on this, both in study and practically plus having seen hundreds of bodies over long periods of time, so if i can help clear this up please ask more questions.

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Tarun Suri

I think hip mobility is also into play here, even with good flexible hamstrings. When bending past 90 degrees, if you're hip capsule isn't properly in position, then you can expect some compensation to occur.

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Blairbob

As well, many retired contortionists and gymnasts (especially rhythmic gymnasts) suffer from back problems as they get away from the sport. A lot of them merely can do what they can do regarding contortion due to genetics. Basically either they can do it (for example the mongolian contortionists) or they don't get picked and move on any farther.

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Aaron Griffin
The most popular position among experts today (lead by Dr. Stuart McGills work) is that flexing (which is done when bending forward, among other things) the lumbar spine (the bottom 5 vertebrae) is bad for the back, especially when done under load.

I've always heard that bending the lumbar spine is like bending a credit card in half. It won't snap, but it gets weaker. And after 5000 or so bends, it snaps. The way I understand the anatomy is that mobility should come from the hips and thoracic spine, while the lumbar stays rigid. /shrug

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Bob Sanders

Thanks for everyones replies.

Mr. Brady I have a question. What do you mean by keeping the arc the spinal curve long is the key and the bones sticking out and then prevent it from sticking out? I don't know how to do that though.

But how can I get more flexible in the forward bend or pike position with any lower back injury in the the long run since I will need that flexibility because a lot of gymnastic elements requires me or anyone to be flexible in the pike.

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Neal Winkler
The most popular position among experts today (lead by Dr. Stuart McGills work) is that flexing (which is done when bending forward, among other things) the lumbar spine (the bottom 5 vertebrae) is bad for the back, especially when done under load.

I've always heard that bending the lumbar spine is like bending a credit card in half. It won't snap, but it gets weaker. And after 5000 or so bends, it snaps. The way I understand the anatomy is that mobility should come from the hips and thoracic spine, while the lumbar stays rigid. /shrug

The credit card analogy comes from the in vitro studies I discussed above. It's way more than 5000. Like I said, I don't know how they can say their observations in vitro apply in vivo.

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Tarun Suri
Thanks for everyones replies.

Mr. Brady I have a question. What do you mean by keeping the arc the spinal curve long is the key and the bones sticking out and then prevent it from sticking out? I don't know how to do that though.

But how can I get more flexible in the forward bend or pike position with any lower back injury in the the long run since I will need that flexibility because a lot of gymnastic elements requires me or anyone to be flexible in the pike.

I don't understand your first paragraph, but as for your second, I would something similar to what was posted above. Sit with legs straight, heals together. Simply focus on maintaining a neutral lower back. Based on where you stand (which is probably similar to where I am), you won't come anywhere close. I am to flex my lower back hard, because I know that I'm so far away from even being neutral (forget overextending). That alone is enough to feel a strong pull on the hamstrings.

Think about it. If your lower back rounds, your hamstrings pull your pelvis posteriorly in order to gain slack. By resisting this slack and trying to maintain this L position which sitting, your hamstrings will be in a stretched position. Once you can get to a proper 90 degrees in this position, slowly start piking.

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Cole Dano

Random got the idea. It all starts with being able to sit with neutral hips, and any attempt to bend forward before this will go straight to the lumbar.

Once the hips get past 90 deg the lumbar is no longer being bent like a credit card, there is some 'traction' as the spine is now coming straight out of the hips rather than back and around.

The 'traction' is the long arc. When the arc is being compressed, stressing the lumbar it shows itself by allowing the bones to be pressed back out of the skin. You will see or feel a series of round bumps.

The first step in getting them in is to back out of the forward bend and from there gain control of the spine and only go to your limit.

Of course there are a number of supporting stretches you can use to help get the hamstrings to open. The absolute safest for the lumbar is lying on your back, take a belt around one foot and lift it straight up. With your foot directly on top of your hip, both legs very firm, suck your heel into your hip joint and turn the tail bone down.

This is the perfect 90 deg position with one leg. Once you have that mastered on both sides, we can go on.

When the problem is in the hamstrings, one leg stretches are king as its much easier to stretch one at a time rather than both. However the requirement i add on is that it must be done with straight legs. At first it may not even be possible to get the foot over your hip, that's ok, and why we use a belt for this. Don't loose good form - it only goes to the lumbar however hard you might wish it otherwise.

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Aaron Griffin

How does all this relate to the hollow position? When I hold (or, rather, try to hold) a hollow position on the floor, it irritates my lower back. The hollow position specifically calls for rounding of the lower back, which McGill isn't a fan of.

Aside, Mr Brady: do you recommend seated or lying leg stretches over standing ones, then?

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Cole Dano
How does all this relate to the hollow position? When I hold (or, rather, try to hold) a hollow position on the floor, it irritates my lower back. The hollow position specifically calls for rounding of the lower back, which McGill isn't a fan of.

Aside, Mr Brady: do you recommend seated or lying leg stretches over standing ones, then?

Phrak i'm answering your hollow question in the FSP thread, sorry it got missed earlier-

Ultimately i recommend all of the above, plus passive and active, no one thing does it all.

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Bob Sanders
The first step in getting them in is to back out of the forward bend and from there gain control of the spine and only go to your limit.

How do you gain control of your spine exactly?

1.Well let's say I want to work on the press handstand and in order to do it correctly I will need to be flexibly in the pike position. So in order to reach that level is it a matter making the hamstring flexible? Or do I need to get the lower back more flexible.

2.And now I want to keep my lower back happy and healthy. Does that mean every time I do any kind of forward bend or pike stretches whether it be lying down, seated or standing do I always keep the lower back tensed up and neutral? Which goes back to my first question in terms of making the hamstring really flexible.

3.So that means no work on the lower back and making it flexible? Because doing so by bending the lower back can cause injury in the long term? So what I am asking is would it be recommend to always keep the lower back neutral during the stretches and never work on the lower back to make it flexible because making it flexible can damage it right?

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Aaron Griffin
So that means no work on the lower back and making it flexible?

According to most of what I've read, various parts of the bodies are built for either stability or mobility. For instance, the knees - they bend one way, and are stable in the lateral directions. Training for lateral mobility on the knees is just asking for problems.

The lower back is like this - it is make for stability. The upper back and hips should be mobile, but the lumbar spine should be stable. Training it for mobility is like training the knees for lateral mobility - a bad idea.

This is just the distilled opinions of other people though, so I'm not 100% sure how factual it is. It seems good to me, though.

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Neal Winkler

I hate to say it, but anyone who is convinced of McGill's work, specifically the idea that the lumbar spine should always remain stable, should not partake in gymnastics if they care about the health of their back. There are plenty of ways to become strong and powerful without putting your back in as much danger as doing gymnastics.

But to me, I am not yet convinced that you should avoid motion in the lumbar at all costs.

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Aaron Griffin
I hate to say it, but anyone who is convinced of McGill's work, specifically the idea that the lumbar spine should always remain stable, should not partake in gymnastics if they care about the health of their back. There are plenty of ways to become strong and powerful without putting your back in as much danger as doing gymnastics.

But to me, I am not yet convinced that you should avoid motion in the lumbar at all costs.

I'm not convinced of it either. I believe it's totally fine to move in certain ways that McGill claims people should never do, but I also see people specifically *training* for lower back mobility, which is typically a compensatory movement pattern for immobile hips.

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Neal Winkler

Of course, if I took McGill's advice, I'd have to quit BJJ too. Ain't gonna happen!!!!!!!!!!

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Tarun Suri
I hate to say it, but anyone who is convinced of McGill's work, specifically the idea that the lumbar spine should always remain stable, should not partake in gymnastics if they care about the health of their back. There are plenty of ways to become strong and powerful without putting your back in as much danger as doing gymnastics.

But to me, I am not yet convinced that you should avoid motion in the lumbar at all costs.

I'm not convinced of it either. I believe it's totally fine to move in certain ways that McGill claims people should never do, but I also see people specifically *training* for lower back mobility, which is typically a compensatory movement pattern for immobile hips.

Food for thought. The Myth of Core Function in Running: http://boddickerperformance.com/?p=993 I love Carson!

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Cole Dano

What's the saying- 'its not what you do. it the way that you do it'

You have to look at McGill in context- he works with people with severe back pain, he conclusions are based on that situation.

The athlete's he works with are also ones who need very stable mid-sections.

Gymnasts are amazing in that the core needs to be both stable and mobile. But look at the way the body is actually constructed and the stable/mobile theory. Feet stable / ankles mobile / Knees stable / hips mobile / lumbar stable / t spine mobile

Its based on the premise that most people's bodies are not in balance, so since, for example hips tend to be stiff, people can't squat down to the floor, the knees and low back will have to compensate for the hips to squat (or forward bend for that matter)

In the same way, the supporting muscles of mobile areas are too weak, or un-coordinated to do their job properly. The core doesn't support the spine in a forward bend for example. I see flexible people who just lie on their legs all the time, the spine isn't supported.

The body is meant to be fluid to go from mobile to stable in the correct context. When that ability is lost then the first priority is to restore the balance, bring mobility to the stuck places, and strength to the weak places.

Is obvious that the core is meant to move, or else the ribs would just connect to the hips. The problem is the musculature must be supple, strong yet fluid, in order to do this. Now how many people does this describe now a days?

In Anatomy Trains there is an interesting medieval woodcut of the muscular system where the core muscles run all the way to the top of the chest. Thomas Myers speculates that peoples core were much more developed in those days due to all the stooped over manual work. Of course thats speculation but the body does adapt, not only is muscle grown but connective tissues strengthens, stiffens.

As for the question - how to control the spine? Well you have to learn how, its like asking how to press to handstand? I could write pages, but until you can do it, it won't make sense. Its not magic, just reach your hand back, feel your spine and lengthen in, move and find a way of holding yourself so the bones don't stick way out. This works the proper coordination and the deep core in addition to the superficial core. There will and should be rounding but supported rounding and lengthening straight out of the hips. Think if you had a sunflower and wanted to pull it towards you with out breaking the stem. The spine will curve in the same way, stress evenly spread.

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Neal Winkler

Is obvious that the core is meant to move, or else the ribs would just connect to the hips.

Why do pandas have "thumbs" the way they do?

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Cole Dano

Is obvious that the core is meant to move, or else the ribs would just connect to the hips.

Why do pandas have "thumbs" the way they do?

In either case, the panda's thumb is a contrivance that is an artifact of the history of the panda. It is not an ideal design fitted perfectly for holding bamboo, it is an evolved contraption. The original function of the radial sesamoid was to reduce the chance of tears in the tendon that runs to the thumb from a muscle in the arm (the sesamoid forms where this tendon bends around the edge of the wrist). The radial sesamoid was then co-opted to serve its present role in handling bamboo. Indeed, much of the panda's anatomy speaks of contrivance - it is a bear from a meat eating ancestry that has evolved to eat bamboo. Many details of its anatomy appear to be strange contrivances that reflect this history.

I think this evolutionary argument might go too far when inferring that the mid-section shouldn't move because we weren't designed to stand upright.

We have the bodies we have, not the best design possible for carrying load, but the evolutionary argument would make me think that there should be more powerful mobility in the mid section, after all that's part of how how four legged animals develop thrust, dynamically loading and unloading the spine, flexion and extension.

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Coach Sommer
My trainer told me and even showed me and explain to me a power point presentation that anything with the forward bend stretching is bad for the lower back over time

Your trainer is grossly misinformed.

It is quite literally impossible to perform our mundane daily responsibilities, let alone enage in any athletic activity, while at all times maintaining a neutral spine. Anyone who makes such an assertion needs to spend a little less time behind their desk. Rather than denying the nature of life and striving to adhere to a false perspective on reality, people would be better served, and make much better progress, if they accepted the world for the ballistic environment that it is and prepared themselves accordingly.

Yours in Fitness,

Coach Sommer

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Joshua Naterman

How... in the world... did this conversation get to where it is?

Let's take a second and slow down, and examine the basic structure of the hips and spine. These joints are designed for potentially extreme mobility.

What do we know about mobility? Mobility, especially extreme mobility, without sufficient strength = injury waiting to happen. Strength(especially extreme strength) without sufficient mobility, interestingly enough, is also an injury waiting to happen.

There are almost certainly certain positions where you would not want much of an external load, but with just BW they are not an issue. As an example, plank position on the back of the hands. Done properly this is a great exercise for the wrists for both mobility and strength, as it is the beginning of our wrist push ups. Now, if you start doing this with 300 extra lbs you may be in for quite a nasty surprise. Many times it is ALL about taking an informed and balanced approach to each position.

There is also a lot to be said for HOW you do things. How many people here have tried inlocate/exlocate drills and made their shoulders hurt? I've done that before. Now that I've been to the seminars and been shown how this SHOULD be done, I have no problems and my shoulders are rapidly feeling better than they have in years. This applies directly to pike stretches.

The potential issue with pike stretching is that when you reach the current limit of your glute/ham/lower leg flexibility you can still reach further down your legs by curling your lower back. This does not create any extra stretch in the glutes or hamstrings or lower legs, it simply magnifies the forces acting on the ligaments and discs of the lower back by multiples. If you stretch this way you do not understand what the goal of the stretch is or how to effectively enhance your flexibility. With straight legs, a change in pelvic anterior or posterior tilt relative to the position of the femur is the only thing that is going to lengthen OR shorten your hamstrings or glutes. Curling your back has nothing to do with it.

Ok, so now we have some basic facts about our bodies. Now it is time to make them useful. So far this is all just trivia, fun facts. Now we go beyond that.

The purpose of the pike stretch is to lengthen the glutes, hamstrings, and if necessary the lower leg muscles. To do this, there are two joints we can manipulate: knees and hips. If you bend your knees 90 degrees or so you will notice that you have ABSOLUTELY NO PROBLEM laying your chest right onto your quads with little to no curling of the lower back. Notice where your belly button is. Whenever you work pike, your goal will be to touch THAT spot with your belly button. This can only be done with a straight lower back. If you curl it, the belly button gets pulled up closer to the hips. Try it out as you sit in your chair: you'll see right away. Touch your belly button while you're in that perfect bent-knee pike and then touch the spot on your leg that it is touching. Now curl your lower back. Even a little bit of curling will pull the belly button away from that spot.

One way to work the pike, and this absolutely DOES work, is to start here and start straightening your legs. By always concentrating on keeping your belly button pressed tightly into this spot. wherever it is for you, curling of the lower back will be avoided. Advantages of this method are extreme low risk of you hurting your back and the fact that this is active flexibility you are developing. Disadvantages are that this, like other active flexibility work, will not be comfortable. This will absolutely help your passive flexibility as well. You can do this sitting or standing.

The second way to work pike is to first go as far down as you can into a straight leg pike without curling your lower back. REMEMBER THAT SPOT THE BELLY BUTTON SHOULD BE TOUCHING! Now, bend your knees SLIGHTLY and as you do so you will be able to bring your belly button closer to that spot. Now, concentrate on flexing your quads and hip flexors. This will take practice, but eventually you will be able to just use those muscles to pull down into the stretch, and this will allow the hamstrings to relax into the stretch. As you maintain this contraction, use it to slowly straighten the knees. This may take several minutes, and it will not be super comfortable, but it WILL happen. Don't be afraid. Work slow, don't push too hard, and over time your flexibility will improve without you screwing up your back. Again, this can be done on the ground. Advantages: This is more similar to the actual pike and will allow you to make direct progress in the true pike stretch, as this is an active flexibility method that moves you INTO a deeper pike stretch than you could get into with JUST the straight leg pike stretch alone.

The last method that I will discuss is the hardest: Traditional pike. It takes some muscle control to do this correctly without curling the lower back. I often use the other two techniques for my earlier stretches and use this once I am ready for my deepest stretching, as this method is the one that will build the correct neural patterns for actual pike work. The others just help me train my muscles to lengthen. As I get better at it I can use this technique earlier and earlier into my stretches. Again, you will just use your hip flexors to pull the front of the hips down towards the thighs(anterior tilt) and you will be using your quads to keep the legs straight. Actively try not to engage the glutes, hamstrings, or lower back. This was a challenge for me for quite a while, but I am starting to get very good at it ans as I get better my flexibility gets better too!

You have to remember that a fair amount of flexibility is in the nervous system and not the muscle tissue itself. You have to teach your body how to move, and this can take some time. There absolutely IS a component of tissue restructuring, but a quick search on PUBMED will leave you with page after page of documented physical changes in muscle length due to sarcomere repositioning and/or splitting. As we know, it takes around 6 weeks for muscle tissue to be fully synthesized in humans so don't expect this kind of thing to start happening your first month of stretching. That will still primarily be you teaching your body how to move.

ALL three methods can be done on the ground or standing, alone or with partners, and weighted or unweighted. Don't even think about weighting them until you can do them without curling your back. You will feel the difference between curling your back to try and go deeper and NOT curlig your back as you go deeper. It's pretty easy to tell the difference, because when you curl your back you will start feeling tightness adn stretching in the lumbar area. When you are doing the stretch correctly and using the hip flexors to increase the stretch you will just feel you hamstrings and perhaps your glutes and even lower legs tighten up as you get to their current flexibility limits.

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