One of the most worrisome injuries to a lifter, athlete, or hard charging trainee is a spinal disc injury. For years I’ve gotten questions about management, rehab, and easing back into lifting from this particular injury. This post doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, but will give a brief overview on why these injuries occur. Understanding the “why” will help prevent and rehabilitate them.
There are three things that contribute to a disc injury and any of them alone is enough to cause a problem. They are: body mechanics, lifting mechanics, and mobility.
Body mechanics merely means how a person moves (or doesn’t move) throughout the day, including posture and gait. We can throw around terms like “kinesthetic awareness”, “motor control”, and even “neuromuscular efficiency”, but it all boils down to what kind of positions the body is in. Usually we pay attention to our body position in training, especially our preferred modality of training, but neglect it throughout the day.
Body mechanics include what you do on a regular basis. Do you work at a desk and then commute a couple of hours? Lots of sitting. Do you slouch to one side to lean your elbow on your chair to use your mouse? These habitual positions can contribute to tightness or muscle dysfunction. Instead of dissecting every possible incorrect position, you need to learn what “right” is and try and do that most of the time.
Lifting mechanics is what it sounds like; the technique you use when loaded. Increased loading on the body is great for building strength, but if your technique is consistently sloppy, you can get chronic inefficient loading that can contribute to a more serious problem or injury. Quality is more important than quantity, regardless if we’re talking about lifting or CrossFit. Optimal mechanics will prevent misloading the wrong soft tissue structures.
Mobility in this case refers to your ability to properly achieve full range of motion in the major joints to properly and safely execute movements in every day life, training, or competition. Even if your lifting mechanics are perfect, crappy mobility can contribute to soft tissue irritation.
For example, if a lifter has general tightness in the hips and lower back, and they cannot properly load the muscles of the thighs and hips in a squat or deadlift, the force will dissipate to other structures that should not be loaded, like the lumbar spine. Doing this a lot over time can cause disc irritation, especially when combined with poor body and lifting mechanics.
If you know you have a deficiency in one of the above factors, educate yourself on how to improve it and incorporate it into your schedule. If you can’t help sitting down a lot during the day, then you know you’ll have to increase your mobility effort to make up for it. Add in a couple of mobility exercises to target your problem areas on a regular basis. Don’t make it complicated; simple mobility exercises will suffice. Find a way to improve your lifting mechanics, whether it be video form checks or hiring a coach. Learn how to avoid bad posture throughout the day. Focus on the three areas of body mechanics, lifting mechanics, and mobility to avoid disc related injuries. If you already have a disc injury, then it’s imperative you improve all three.