Back Pain, Lumbar Spine Injuries, and Dr. Stuart McGill
The CDC reports that, yearly, 30% of American adults suffer from back pain. As prevalent as pain, disk herniations, sciatica, and other back injuries are, there really is no guaranteed fix. Many therapies and modalities offer a “cure”, but, so far none have actually been seen to actually remedy the cause of the injury and rehabilitate people’s spines back to health.
In the Summer of 2012, I experienced lower back pain for the first time ever. I officially became a statistic! I was down in the dumps and couldn’t do much physically as the pain was fairly moderate, so I did some reading online. I was on T-Nation and Eric Cressey’s blog, because the articles on both websites are simply brilliant. I had found a trend when reading back-pain-related articles on both websites – the name “Stuart McGill” was mentioned frequently.
I found out Dr. Stuart McGill is a spine biomechanics researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada. This man has dedicated his career to understand how the spines functions mechanically and why certain back problems occur. He’s released two different books on the matter, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance and Low Back Disorders, and both go into exceptional detail regarding the spine and different ailments. It didn’t take me long to go out and buy Ultimate Back Fitness. (I chose this book instead because Low Back Disorders is intended for medical professionals).
My Review of Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance
Stuart McGill must have written Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance with the intention of it being a one-stop resource for fixing and preventing back pain. Athough it is somewhat technical in its language, the book is meant for athletes and coaches alike, not for the medical professional. That means, with patience, anyone can fully understand the content in this book in a manner that will enable them to manage and prevent back injuries.
I read Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance from cover to cover, and understood everything it it. With this new information, I’ve increased my own level of strength and fitness and decreased my back pain to almost nothing. Really, the only time I have an ache in my lower back is if I sit down for too long or try to pick something up that I know is way too heavy for me. So, for 99% of the time, this book really did wonders for me.
Here’s what I learned from Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance:
- Most of the current approaches to curing back pain are incorrect or flawed.
- Core endurance is incredibly important for low-back health.
- Certain “core exercises” are actually very damaging to the back.
- The spine is least likely to be injured when it is in its optimal posture.
- Each person’s body has a tolerance for load – go over the tolerance, and the back gets hurt.
- Back injuries are rarely “death sentences”, or life-long ailments.
- Careful evaluation and programming for an athlete can injury-proof the lower-back.
Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance is over 300 pages long and is completely jam-packed with content. It debunks low-back myths, reviews useful anatomy and research on the spine, provides useful information that one must know before programming for an athlete, and, finally, provides guidelines for strength and conditioning programs with the lower-back in mind.
I could keep going, but let me tell you what I did for my own back after learning all of the information from this book. This what the application of Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance looks like…
What I Did To Fix My Back Pain
- I mobilized and stretched the various muscles, tendons, and tissues that have gone tight and overactive. For example, I stretched and foam rolled my hip flexors. Tight hip flexors cause excessive anterior pelvic tilt, which causes an over-arched back (AKA hyperlordosis). This places extra strain on the spine, whether I am exercising or just hanging out.
- I strengthened muscles that have become under-active and lax. For example, the lower abdominals and glutes help prevent anterior pelvic tilt by pushing the pelvis posteriorly. Just as I said, anterior pelvic tilt is bad for the back.
- I made sure to maintain a stiff core and neutral spine whenever exercising or carrying heavy objects. When the spine is under load, it is less damaged when it is in a neutral posture – when the vertebrae are lined up in a natural position. This means using my knees and hips to pick something up, and contracting my abs and straightening my back when doing so.
- I improved the endurance, THEN strength, of my core muscles. Low endurance leads to fatigue. Fatigue leads to weakened muscles. When your core muscles are fatigued, you can’t keep a straight back, thus your spine is more likely to become injured when put under stress. Being able to hold a plank for a long time with good posture is an example of what I do now.
- I recognized my limits and didn’t abuse my body. Stress your body enough, and it will grow and adapt. Stress it beyond that, and it will become injured and sick. The same principle applies to your spine. Neither perform work that is too heavy or extreme, nor perform too much work. You need to do just enough so that you can recover properly and become stronger.
- I walked more and sat less. Sitting seems to place additional strain on the spine. Sit less, and your back will thank you. Walking also seems to be beneficial in the fact that it acts as very gentle exercise for your spine. Whenever my lower back would act up, I’d just go for a 2-mile walk and feel great after.
If you’re interested in the stuff I learned, check out McGill’s book Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. I think it was an amazing investment.
Stuart McGill’s other book, Low Back Disorders, is also great, but is directed towards health professionals and doctors. McGill seemed to have written Ultimate Back Fitness with athletes, coaches, and strength coaches as the audience in mind. If you’re up to a challenge, Low Back Disorders would be rewarding if you can digest all of the information.
Let me know what you think of the book!