This is not a “don’t do this”…“do this” article to fear monger movement patterns.
This post is about questioning why we are given the cues we are given.
“Flatten your back” seems to be a widely accepted and taught cue.
For the record, I don’t believe any movement is bad. If we can get into a position, it’s because we were designed to be able to get into that position.
Problems tend to show up when we can no longer get out of positions anymore.
As I’ve said before, the only ‘bad’ posture, is the one you can’t get out of.
So back to the main topic, why are so many of us being taught to flatten our back for ‘core’ work?
When I’ve asked instructors this question after class, yes I’m that guy sometimes, why they only cue flat back and never the opposite, the answer is usually, “for stability”.
The most stable structures aren’t rigid, the most stable structures have give and play to them allowing them to bend and flex when force is applied.
Some go as far as saying, “to protect our back”.
Protect our back from what? Movement?
The surface edges of our back bones are not parallel. Some vertebra in our lower back and neck have a wedge shape. Just as wedge-shaped stones allow architects to construct arch-shaped structures like bridges, our spine has wedge shaped vertebrae that give us the curves in our spine necessary for walking upright.
Heavily cueing against that shape on the surface might “stabilize” things, on the surface it might “protect” movement, but then what?
That person needs to move after that workout, right?
Does the flat back “protected stability”, holding the hips, pelvis, and spine, in flexion, and repetitively training that pattern really transfer over to helping us move?
Does it help us walk when those joints are asked to extend and rotate together?
I’ve have found the answer to be…not really.
One of the main cues in my program when it comes any “core” work is to allow the spine extend with the hips – because that’s what should happen when you move after your exercises in the real world.
Bringing the narrative full circle, at the beginning of this article I said that this isn’t to make you fearful of flexing or flattening the back.
Again, your back can flex because it’s designed to flex.
It’s the staying flexed and rigid that deserve serious consideration.
There are many examples of people with excessive arches in their lower back needing to tame the extra extension to find more of a middle ground resting position for the spine.
The answer is really somewhere in the middle when it comes to repetitive core work. If you have your favorite exercises that flatten your back and take the lumbar curve out completely, great – I’m happy that you found some amazing movement that help you feel strong, fit, and help you take a closer step towards a healthy body.
I want to encourage you to find a balance with that though.
Find the exercises that also teach the opposite – how the core can work with an arch as well.
Remember, there is no bad position, only the position we can’t get out of.
Flex your back.
Extend your back.
Twist and rotate.
Do everything your muscles were designed to help you do, which is to help you move… just do it with balance so you don’t become so specialized and adapted for only moving one way. One of the main reasons why I don’t teach an “active” flat back position is because I’ve learned that whatever hip work I teach people, their back will move to the position it needs to so it can provide any extra, support, stability, or movement.
Consciously changing and altering that lower back position and manually manipulating it tends to create contraindications with movement.
For example, when doing a basic bridge hip thrusting movement, I’ve come across a lot of people who will actively flatten their back first, then lift theirs hips/pelvis off of the ground. When bridging, the pelvis, hips, AND spine, should all being working and moving into an extended position together. At the top position of a bridge, the hips should be extending, the pelvis should be extended, and the lower back should be arched.
Bracing the back, and consciously flattening the lower back creates a contradicting motion that immensely changes how all of the extension muscles work together because now 1/3 of your joints that should be extending, are now flexing.
And this is trained over and over. Again and again… and then people wonder why they have hip, pelvis, lower back back movement-related problems…because they are literally training those problems to exist.
The only time I ask the back to go flat in our online program is when it is ready to go flat on it’s own. There are neutral positions in which in the main goal is to relax the muscular around the spine and gently flatten the back…but the work doesn’t stop there. Once the lower back muscles are relaxed and released, it’s time to teach them how to extend with the hips and pelvis again.
If you’ve done any Rebalancing Movement Sequence in my online program, you’ll notice a lot of settling and relaxing lower back muscles, then getting the hips to move, then getting the hips, pelvis, and spine to move together again. Nearly every sequence I teach people has the goal and intention…they are just all taught in slightly different ways with different stimulus levels.
Comment below if you have any questions on this. I think this article is incomplete as it should be 5-10x longer to really dive deeper into this concept. I will have to write a part 2 and on with cited sources to help link more of where this information is coming from.
If you want to look at more research behind spine position and function, check out the “Research” article!