To Flex Or Not To Flex: Keeping Your Spine Healthy

Will rounding your back kill you?

Posture and form for everyday movements and during exercise got a lot of attention over the last years. Depending on whom you listen, you get a wide array of statements. From “it doesn’t matter” to “don’t do this, you will die” you will find someone from each camp defending his beliefs almost religiously. I want to give you a quick and easy understandable summary of what science has to say about the controversial topic of flexing your lumbar spine.

What is lumbar flexion?

Lumbar flexion is the technical terminus used for rounding your lower back. This is one of many movements our lumbar spine is perfectly able to do. In fact it is needed to provide enough freedom for our upper body to produce a wide variety of movements like tying your shoes.

It seems weird that a perfectly normal movement like rounding your lower back is thought of being dangerous. Why are many fitness professionals so adamant about keeping your spine “neutral”?

Neutral for safety

A neutral spine means that your spine is in the middle position between being completely arched and  completely flexed. As you can imagine, this is in practice more of a range than one exact position. A range of positions which slowly transitions to “flexed” or “arched”, in which the spine is considered neutral.

Note that research shows it is practically impossible to keep a perfectly neutral spine from rounding during exercise. Even if cued by the best in their field, participants show a 40° flexion during the squat.

But why do we even bother with this? The theory behind it is that a neutral spine allows the forces that are applied to different structures of your spine to be (ideally) completely absorbed, protecting from any injuries, letting us train without ever getting bugged by back pain.

Fear of flexion

A decent body of evidence suggests that flexing your spine is problematic and increases the chances of injury to happen. Case closed, we have a solution, right? Well, it’s never so easy.

Keeping your spine neutral doesn’t offer complete protection against injury, and you  can get the same types of injury no matter what your spine did at that moment. The term “injury” might also have to be defined differently in this context, as injuries or pathologies per se are not always related to pain. And pain does not always mean that there is an injury.

Also research might be flawed as it is conduced on dead animals (mostly pigs), which raises the question of “is this even applicable for humans”? Even if studies are done on humans, it is of course … well, dead people! It is not difficult to imagine that dead tissue is quite different from a living person.

Does it even matter?

As always: it depends! For exercise you might still stick to the safer side of the neutral spine as there isn’t a study that shows a disadvantage for it. This isn’t the magic positional cue that will protect you from every injury imaginable, but it is still a good practice to minimize the risks.

As everyday movements or very low loads are concerned, you probably don’t have to worry about your position too much. In fact it might be outright harmful to constantly think about your back, how you move and what bad things could happen, as pain has a strong psychological component. If you find yourself worrying about the alignment of your spine while you pick up a pencil from the floor, you’re probably not doing yourself a favour.

I experienced it by myself: I’ve had a long history of back pain and in the beginning I was constantly worrying about my back. What to do, what to stretch, what not to do, what to strengthen, what movements I could do, what gave me problems, etc. Only after I relaxed and stopped obsessing about everything related to my back, I started to see improvements.

So chill the f*** out during your everyday movements, get a good exercise regime and stick to good form for your training!

This blog post is based on an extensive article by Sam Spinelly at Stronger by Science. If you are interested in this topic, give it a read. Just be prepared for A LOT of science 😉 ! Because of this, I didn’t link any research papers to my blog post as you can find everything in Sams post.

What is your experience with back pain and exercise? Let me know in the comment! If you did enjoy the article, please like and share: it makes me happy and I love to help people with a bit of my beary wisdom 😉 And if you still feel unsure about exercise selection and execution, let me know how I can help you!

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