In praise of pulling power!

Back pain is becoming ever more prevalent as a problem of modern life. Desk workers, sitting with heads tilted toward a computer screen, or anyone spending a significant amount of time staring down at a tablet or mobile phone, may be at risk of a growing problem: spinal kyphosis. This is the excessive outward curvature of the thoracic spine (upper back) – or essentially a ‘hunched back’. This can lead to decreased mobility and flexibility of the upper back, but more alarmingly to potential spinal complications and back pain.

What causes spinal kyphosis?

If the head is in an excessively ‘forward’ position – a typical pose when working in front of a computer screen or scanning a tablet or mobile phone – you are putting increased stress on your spine, forcing more curvature in your thoracic spine. With the average head weighing around 4-5kgs, every inch you move your neck forward or down you place an extra 4-5kgs of pressure on your spine; no wonder this forces it to curve excessively! Worryingly, this is also observable among kids.

How to fix it

Become mindful of posture. Learn how to ‘switch on’ your upper back muscles by bringing your shoulders back and keeping yourself upright. Squeezing your shoulder blades slightly together is vital and switching on your rhomboids (the muscles between the shoulder blades) to maintain an upright back.

It’s likely in the first instance that your chest will feel tight and you will struggle to switch on your back muscles. The answer is horizontal pulling exercises.

Explaining the pull/row

Whether using a barbell, dumbbell or cable, the pull/row movement should be consistent, measured and smooth. The most important aspect is to make sure you are engaging your back muscles. Too often these muscles, especially the lats, are neglected or not properly engaged in the movement, with many individuals yanking the weight with their arms instead.

Focus on:
  • The first part of the row is to retract your shoulder blades back and squeeze them together, so your traps, rhomboids and lats are engaged
  • Then pull through your shoulder and elbow, maintaining all the tension through your back muscles. The aim is to bring the elbow as far back as you can, while maintaining tension on the upper back

The primary aim is not to try to bring the bar or dumbbell as close to your body as possible. If this is the focus most people end up yanking the weight and lose all tension in their back muscles, missing the purpose of the exercise. Focus on the muscles the exercise is designed to work. Your aim must be to pull through your traps, rhomboids and lats, with your arms acting as a secondary draw

On the return, make sure your shoulder blades remain tight together, extending the arm out first before then disengaging the shoulder blades to achieve a full stretch

Creating as much tension in your back muscles as possible is the aim, so theses muscles must do the heavy lifting; and make sure you achieve a full stretch to a full contraction of the back muscles.

If initially you don’t have a very wide range of movement, look to improve on this before trying to add weight. To help perfect and improve technique, focus on how you pull in your daily life. For example, when opening a door, engage your back muscles first rather than just yanking with your arm or shoulder. Resetting your body’s default movement pattern for all pulling will both accelerate improvement in training as well as reduce the chance of a shoulder injury. The reward will be better posture, which will not just reduce the risk of back pain, but help your other ‘pulling powers’ too, when it comes to attracting a partner….

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Alex is a registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with Level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes. He is also a strength specialist and a Ni Dan in Shotokan Karate.

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