This post is inspired by an Olympic lifter that I work with. She has been experiencing chronic lower back pain which did not begin until she began intensely training. We have been working on a great deal of things to address the cause of the “pinching” she gets in her left lower back which has been successful in eliminating her pain.
I recently was speaking with her regarding how to prevent her pain from re-occurring in the future and the topic of movement variability came up. Many sports require and consist of a great deal of lower back extension which compresses the lumbar spine and can lead to lower back pathology/pain.
My advice was not to avoid lumbar extension when in the gym as this is necessary for specific phases of her lifts but instead to ensure that she is not getting stuck in this pattern. Total lower quarter extension (lumbar, hip, knee and ankle extension) is required to perform the acceleration phases of her lifts however must be capable of flexing (ie. Doing the opposite) in other situations.
This is essentially the premise behind movement variability. The ability to move in many different ways is an extremely valuable quality. If we can extend, then we also need to be able to flex. If we can rotate left then we should be able to rotate just as easily to the right.
Our nervous system perceives repetitive movements and postures as stress. As a result neuromuscular tone will often be increased causing people to feel tight or uncomfortable. These repetitive movements will consistently stress the body in the same way, breaking down tissue over time. Just imagine a paperclip continuously being bent in the same direction.
The Olympic lifter I work with must be able to turn the extension “switch” on for maximal power development however must then be able to flip the switch off as she leaves the weight room. If she is unable to do this then she will be consistently stressing the same areas of her body, regardless of her setting and injury will eventually result.
Clinicians will often recommend simply avoiding an activity to prevent pain however this rarely works when this activity is an individual’s passion. Many times this is also unnecessary. Simply having many different options for movement when outside of the individual’s sport/activity will allow for stress to be spread throughout the body, rather than be centered in one area. This will prevent individuals that are at a high risk of overuse injuries, such as Olympic lifters to have successful careers.