Build A Resilient Spine: Challenge Your System

Matthew Ibrahim

Coach

Medford, Massachusetts, United States

Strength Training, Mobility & Recovery

You can’t build a strong, stable spine by moving in just one plane of motion. More importantly, you can’t build a resilient spine without providing a challenging stimulus for it to respond to.

 

Core-strengthening exercises.

Use these challenging core-training exercises to force your body to adapt and build strength.

 

 

Challenge Your Body to Work as a System

Designing an intelligent program that covers all aspects of core stability and strength is truly the game-changer in terms of efficient movement and performance. To make sure to cover all your bases when it comes to training your core the right way, you need all of the following:

 

  • Anti-extension
  • Anti-rotation
  • Anti-lateral flexion (side-bend)
  • Anti-flexion (more on this in the next article, when I cover the one-arm farmer’s carry)

 

We covered specific core exercises in my previous article. Now it’s time to step it up a notch and discuss progressions in these exercises to provide an increased challenge.

 

These four exercises will provide a challenging stimulus for your body to respond to:

 

  1. Long Lever Mountain Climber
  2. McGill Side Bridge
  3. Dead Bug With Breathing
  4. Tall Kneeling Pallof Press

 

Long Lever Mountain Climber (Anti-Extension)

We’ve all seen it: “One minute on the clock. Give me as many mountain climbers as you can. Go.” This makes me want to cry myself to sleep. I’d rather watch molasses attempt to travel uphill. It kills me that much.

 

Why? Tell me the last time you saw someone who could lock down their core stability like their life depended on it, all the while alternating one knee to their chest at a time, in a slow and controlled manner - let alone an individual who could maintain a lower back position that could house a tall glass of water filled to the brim without spilling it. I’ve never seen this before.

 

You need to own core stability (i.e., think lumbar spinal stiffness) and hip mobility at the same time. They need to work together for optimal function and performance to occur.

 

The long lever mountain climber is a pretty damn awesome exercise when performed with pristine execution and form. It might get overlooked in your typical fitness facility due to the fact that most athletes use it as a conditioning tool, while letting their hip stability fall out the window. That’s not the case here, though. Balance that tall glass of water like you’re out in the desert and it’s the last one you have access to.

 

 

Do This:

  1. Flex your right knee up toward your chest. Pause. Return your right leg back to the starting position.
  2. Repeat with the left leg. That equals 1 rep per side.
  3. Complete 12 reps per side for 1 set.
  4. Perform 3 sets.

 

 

McGill Side Bridge (Anti-Lateral Flexion and Anti-Extension)

Dr. Stuart McGill is the leading expert on spine biomechanics. Basically, if you want to know anything spine-related, chances are he and his team have already run thousands of tests and produced an insurmountable amount of data on it. Plus, he has a flawless mustache. Seriously, it’s so money.

 

The McGill side bridge is one of those exercises that looks easy initially, but becomes challenging once you give it a shot. Why? Try to maintain a stiff spine while using your hip mobility in a hip hinge pattern to explode from the back to the front. And don’t forget to lock down those abs and keep a stable spine to avoid excessive lumbar extension. It's not as easy as you think.

 

The beauty of this exercise is that it’s simple. It’s so simple that it becomes complex for some people, because too many of us out there want to overcomplicate things.

 

Let’s break it down:

 

  • Can you hip hinge correctly? Meaning, can you hinge at your hips just like a door opens and closes?
  • Next, can you activate your glute muscles to assist in the necessary hip hinge pattern?
  • Lastly, can you finish the hip hinge with a stable spine, while avoiding excessive lumbar extension?

 

If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” watch the tutorial video below to check your form and receive a handful of technique fixes to ensure proper execution.

 

Do This:

  1. Start on your left side with your hips flexed back.
  2. Drive your hips forward and squeeze your glutes at the end to lock out into a neutral spine (avoid hyperextension in the lumbar spine).
  3. Bring your hips back to the starting position. That's 1 rep.
  4. Complete 12 reps on your left side side for 1 set.
  5. Switch sides and repeat.
  6. Perform a total of 3 sets per side.

 

 

Dead Bug With Breathing (Anti-Extension)

There’s nothing I love more than the dead bug exercise. Not only can it be used in training, but it can also be utilized as an assessment tool. Due to its versatility, we see this exercise in a lot of training programs across a wide spectrum of skill levels and training abilities.

 

Unfortunately, that popularity often leaves a wide-open door for poor form and technique. The key is to lock down your core stability and begin by moving one limb at a time. Once you’ve mastered that, it’s time to perform the dead bug exercise by alternating limb movements simultaneously.

 

Your ability to hone in on the breathing component is what increases difficulty. Slow everything down, almost as if to put it all in slow motion, and add your inhales and exhales to each specific movement of the dead bug exercise. Not only does breathing provide more control, it also directs more awareness to where your breath is going. We want air to fill up the lower abdomen and lower back. Check out this video of the 90/90 wall breathing.

 

 

Once you have that down, take the 90/90 wall breathing concept with you when you perform the dead bug with breathing exercise.

 

Do This:

  1. Lay on your back with your arms straight above your shoulders and your knees bent 90 degrees directly above your hips. Dorsiflex your ankles with your toes pointing up toward your hands.
  2. Inhale through your nose for 3 seconds while filling up your entire abdomen and lower back (full 360 degrees of expansion).
  3. Simultaneously extend your right arm and left leg while you exhale through your mouth for 6 seconds like you're trying to blow out a candle 3 feet in front of your face.
  4. Inhale through your nose for 3 seconds to bring your right arm and left leg back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat the same sequence with your other contralateral extremities. That's 1 rep per side.
  6. Complete 12 reps per side for 1 set.
  7. Perform a total of 3 sets per side.

 

 

Tall Kneeling Pallof Press (Anti-Rotation)

There are much easier ways to perform this exercise, but this variation puts you in a position where you truly need to feel something. That "something" is your glutes. More specifically, your glutes activating and firing together to keep your spine above it locked down. Essentially, your hips and spine need to stabilize together as a team.

 

That’s pretty damn tough for some people. A lot of movement education and pattern recognition is needed to reach that point. However, once you’ve mastered that aspect, it’s time to add it in to the tall kneeling Pallof press exercise below to truly challenge the core in an anti-rotation manner.

 

Set your knees hip-width apart on the ground. Drive your toes forward. Squeeze your glutes. Drive your rib cage down slightly with a mini-ab crunch, and finally, press the band away. You’re locked in.

 

Do This:

  1. Kneel on the ground with your knees under your hips roughly hip-width apart. Dorsiflex your ankles and have the band anchored to your left.
  2. Engage your core with your ribs down (think: mini-ab crunch) and squeeze your glutes to protect your spine.
  3. Interlock your figers around the handle and use both arms to press the band out in front of your abdomen. That's 1 rep on your left side.
  4. Complete 12 reps on each side. That's 1 set.
  5. Perform 3 sets per side.

 

 

Accept the Challenge

You need to challenge your body to work as a system. It’s impossible to build a resilient spine with optimal function and performance if you don’t provide the right stimulus.

 

The right stimulus is created by placing the demands of motion on the spine, all while asking it to stabilize and remain still. By performing exercises that have movement in the upper or lower extremities and stabilization in the core, you place an increased demand on your body - otherwise known as a challenge.

 

More Ways to Keep Your Back Healthy:

 

Headline photo courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.

Photo collage courtesy of Matthew Ibrahim.

 

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