The Subtle Art of Spinal Rotation

A great way to approach core stability and coordination is to look at how the body works during gait.

We often think about core stability when we consider exercises to prevent low back pain, specifically things like planks, bridges, bird-dogs. The cueing used is usually something along the lines of “keep your back flat,” or “don’t let your pelvis tip.”

We often think about core stability when we consider exercises to prevent low back pain, specifically things like planks, bridges, bird-dogs. The cueing used is usually something along the lines of “keep your back flat,” or “don’t let your pelvis tip.”

The benefits of these exercises and the cues generally used with them is they increase awareness of where the back is located in space, also known as proprioception. Proprioception is believed to be important for coordinated movement and coordinated movement gives us more options when we are performing athletic endeavors.

However, another way to approach core stability and coordination is by looking at how the body works during gait and applying some of those principles to exercise programming.

Understand Your Proprioception

When our right foot swings forward, the left arm swings forward. For the right foot to swing, there needs to be a little bit of rotation through the pelvis to the left. For the left arm to swing forward, the thoracic spine and shoulder rotate to the right. It’s this lovely, undulating motion that happens naturally with each step.

There is a transition with every step when the back leg pushes off (in this case, the left leg), and the left pelvis begins to move forward while the right pelvis moves back. The same thing happens in the rib cage as the right arm transitions to swing forward and the left arm moves back.

That’s a lot of left and rights, but the main point is this: our arms and legs work together to deal with the momentum that makes moving forward feel easy. The spine and pelvis rotate, allowing force from the ground to move up the skeleton and support the movements of the arms and the legs.

That is a lot happening when we walk, and the crazy thing is when you watch someone walk that walks efficiently, you don’t see a lot of movement. It would be inefficient for every step to result in an obvious rotation. Rather, it looks like we are walking in a straight line, with little side to side movement.

What does this have to do with core stability?

If the job of our core (and when I write core, I am simply referring to the torso) is to deal with rotational forces while we walk, what happens if cueing were changed to reflect this occasionally? And what happens if we included movements in our programs that emphasized the connection between rotation?

The Role of Core Exercises

Core exercises typically fall into one of two categories: they are either designed to resist movement in the spine or encourage movement in the spine.

For instance, a plank is an anti-extension exercise. The goal is to resist the downward pull of gravity and not let your back sag. The deadlift is an anti-flexion exercise, because flexing the spine under load will cause the world to end and your spine to explode. Okay, not quite, but it’s not a recommended practice for efficiently moving heavy weight.

On the other end of the spectrum are hollow body holds, which require total body tension while the spine is flexed, or any form of somersaulting or rolling, which also require a flexed spine. The emphasis is on movement in the back rather than keeping the back still and moving the joints around it.

The spine is designed to move and resist movement, but not just in a forwards/backwards way. It’s just as important for the vertebrae of the spine to be able to rotate and resist rotation because this is what lets us move forward in space.

One way to think of the connection that allows the spine to rotate is to imagine there is an x on the front of your torso. Half of the x begins at your right shoulder and ends at your left ASIS, the part of your pelvis that is often referred to as the hip bone. The other half of the x runs from the left shoulder to the right ASIS.

If you were to close your eyes and envision that connection right now, how clear would the image be in your mind’s eye?

You can use the image of the x while trying to understand the connection between the opposite arm and leg in a variety of exercises. Let’s explore some options.

Supine Cross Patterning

The exercise below has me pressing my right hand into my left knee and my left knee into my right hand. My breast bone turns a little bit to my left to allow this to happen, and the ribs on the right side rotate a small amount to the left, while the left ribs move towards my pelvis a little bit. As I breathe, I am letting my exhale be a little bit longer than my inhale to emphasize the movement in the ribs. Again, lots of lefts and rights, but if you can begin to feel some of these connections, it makes it a lot easier when the movement becomes more dynamic to feel what you are doing.

When you can feel what you are doing, it allows you to make choices about how to change the movement to be more or less efficient or to simply play with different ways to do the exercise. When you play with options, your brain eventually figures out which one is most efficient and that becomes more of a default pattern.

Notice as I perform the exercise, my pelvis looks relatively level. I am not counteracting the rotation of the ribs by performing excessive movement in the pelvis area. If when you lift the left leg, your pelvis rolls to the right, feel the weight in the right foot and how that supports you. Usually, the grounding of the foot will create a stable platform for the rest of the right side.

Breathe for four breaths in the position and switch sides. Which side feels more connected? Can you feel the ribs move equally on one side, or does one side feel more clear than the other?

Quadruped Cross Patterning

Now that you understand the sense of the ribs moving, let’s flip it over onto hands and knees. This is a position many of us are quite familiar with, and we know certain things, like don’t let the low back sag and try not to rotate the ribs. When we move the arms and legs to perform crawling movements, we know we aren’t “supposed” to let certain things move, but it can be really hard to feel what’s happening, especially since we can’t exactly see what’s going on in our back while we are in this position.

However, what if instead of focusing on what not to do, you focused instead on the subtle movements that occur in the front and back of your body when you reach different parts into the floor?

The exercise variations below start with a basic crawling pattern with one arm. Before you decide that’s too simple, try it with the cues below:

  1. Set up on your hands and knees. Orient yourself so your ribs are parallel with the floor and your knees are under your hips, your hands under your shoulders. Your gaze will be slightly forward, towards the front of the mat.
  2. Press the right hand firmly into the floor while your press the left knee firmly into the floor. What way do your ribs turn?
  3. Make sure you are breathing. Keep pressing the right hand and the left knee into the floor while you step the left hand forward. Could you maintain pressure on the right hand and the left knee when the left hand lifted and moved?
  4. Remember the x. In this instance, you are maintaining the connection between the left ASIS and the right shoulder. It’s as though the left side of the pelvis and the right side of the shoulder are moving towards the floor to create rotational stability. (If that’s not a thing, it should be).
  5. Do three or four and switch sides. Can you feel different aspects of your abdominals working? Can you feel the subtle movement through the breast bone and ribs when you really reach the hand into the floor?

The principle of pressing the grounded hand and the opposite foot into the ground remains the same. As the lever gets longer, you have to figure out how to keep the connection and actively press into the ground. I will give you a hint—if you focus on what the ribs and pelvis are doing, it will help. For instance, when you press the right hand into the floor, the ribs rotate to the left and the ribs on the left move slightly towards the pelvis. When you press the left foot into the floor, the left side of the pelvis rotates to the right, giving the pelvis the appearance of being level. The rotations and counter-rotations in the torso are what make the spine look even.

Dynamic Movements

Once you are comfortable with the concept of the x patterning in positions where there is a lot of ground support, you can begin experimenting with dynamic movements. Let’s look at the sequence below.

You will notice I use a lot of subtle rotational movements and more overt rotational movements to make my way from the floor to a standing position. My ability to perform and link these skills together is predicated upon my ability to rotate through the ribs and pelvis. Even when I go from a seated to a standing position, if I lacked the x connection I discussed earlier, instead of coming up in what appears to be a forward manner, I would shift to the side; what prevents me from shifting is the subtle rotation of the ribs and the pelvis.

Love Your T-Spine

Our ability to walk is more complex than one leg swinging forward followed by the next leg. The nuances of rotation in the ribs and pelvis create an illusion of a linear path when actually, it is rotational. If you begin to incorporate a sense of the cross body connections during stability and body weight exercises, specifically the nuanced movements of the ribs and pelvis, you will find a higher level of awareness and coordination during more complex movements.

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