I have debated writing this article for a while. Should I do it? Should I not do it? I’m doing it. I feel like it will allow people to have informed consent about what they do in a gym. Sure, maybe less people will “like” my page, but that doesn’t matter to me as much as presenting the best information that is out there and helping people live life to the fullest (aka not hurting).
People will take this information in one of two ways: As a personal attack and get pissed and argue about it OR as a learning opportunity. I ate a big piece of humble pie when I learned it… had a serious come to Jesus moment.
I have lived personally what I am about to tell you guys. I have been doing crossfit since 2007 almost exclusively. I like crossfit. I think crossfit is about taking the best components of many different areas of exercise/movement/lifting and putting them into one program. If a movement isn’t beneficial/has unnecessary risk of injury, it doesn’t mean I dislike CROSSFIT because of it, it means I don’t like that particular exercise/movement and crossfit as a methodology would be better without it. I hope that makes sense.
This article is about your low back and repetitive low back rounding exercises. Sit-ups, GHD sit-ups, toes to bar, and knees to elbow.
GENERAL LUMBAR ANATOMY
If you read my article on kipping HSPU, you know some basic spinal anatomy. The lumbar spine is more or less the same in structure. There are 5 vertebrae called L1, L2, L3, L4, L5. There is a disc between each pair of vertebrae. There are nerves that come out between each pair of vertebrae. And there is a stocking of connective tissue around the whole thing and then layer upon layer of muscle on top of that. We could name all those structures but, for our purposes, it doesn’t matter. The concepts matter.
GENERAL DISC ANATOMY
A very interesting thing to note in the anatomy of the disc is that ONLY the outer 1/3 of the disc can feel pain! So you could potentially damage just shy of 2/3 of it without feeling pain. “My back doesn’t hurt when I do that”…yet. When someone “throws out their back” from bending forward and picking up a pencil, that crap was brewing for awhile. Misusing the lumbar spine over an extended period of time is the most common reason people injure it. It isn’t from one wrong move.
What are the things we do to train our core? GHD sit ups? Toes to bar? Sit ups? Knees to elbows?
The muscles of the lumbar spine are best suited to stop motion, not create it.
Training the low back to move would be the same as trying to improve your squat by training your hips to NOT move!
Why do we do repetitive spine rounding exercises? What are we trying to train? Honestly ask yourself this question. If toes to bar weren’t in competitions, would you train them? They aren’t making your deadlift and squat better. They are training your brain how to be really good at rounding your low back. You are spending time training your low back to do exactly what you don’t want it to do.
What Stuart McGill’s research tells us is that exercises that require high repetitions of lumbar spine flexion and extension (low back rounding to fully extended) have the greatest potential tear that outer circular annulus layer of your disc, cause disc herniations, and can damage spinal ligaments. I can tell you from first-hand experience, both because I had these issues and I treat people who have these issues, that those things SUCK. It definitely didn’t make me fitter…
In the lab, when using spinal specimens, McGill’s research showed that
the most reliable way to herniate a disc in the low back was to basically put it through lots of reps of situps.
If you want to make your “core” stronger, train it to do what you functionally want it to do, which is transfer power, not create it.
Invariably I get asked this question: Well what if I can do toes to bars and NOT go to full end range (not fully round)? I say: great! I don’t have a problem with touching your toes to a bar. I have a problem with exercises that go through a full spinal range of motion. If people can do it without going to full end range, then that’s fine. I just don’t think most people can.
Invariably I also get asked this question: Well wtf do we do instead of toes to bar? My answer: You are asking the wrong question. The real question is do you even need to replace it? To me that’s like saying, “If I take donuts out of my paleo diet, what should I replace them with to lose weight?” Maybe you don’t need to add anything at all, you just need to take the junk out.
I expect some backlash and criticism because of this article and that is fine. You should definitely challenge what you read. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean its true! So let me just end with a few things.
- Why do most people do crossfit? Why do people exercise? To feel better, to get stronger, etc. Injuring low backs does not help to achieve that goal.
- The military has been taught to not have their people do sit-ups anymore because so many people’s backs are getting jacked up. It is unfortunate this hasn’t been fully implemented yet.
- I am not criticizing crossfit methodology with this article. I want to encourage the implementation of it, which has ALWAYS been to get rid of the garbage and keep the good stuff. It is time to follow the methodology of constant refinement.
- I see crossfit patients all day long that are suffering from low back pain and all I do is take out the repetitive low back rounding exercises and they get better. Proof is in the pudding. “GHDs make my back hurt”. Ever heard that?
- If you want to help the longevity of crossfit, the awesomeness of crossfit, the improvement of crossfit, please join me in not programming these movements and not putting them in competitions.
- If you are a competitor, it’s inevitable that there will be competitions with these movements in them. This goes back to the idea of training versus competing. If you want to be decent at the movements, you will have to train them to a degree. The goal would be to do as few as possible to make sure you can perform them competently in a competition.