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Stop the Barbell Back Squat!

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Do you ever ask yourself why back pain is so prominent? 8/10 Americans will suffer back pain at some time in their lives. That is a staggering number of people. Is there something about the design of the spine and the way it is used in modern society that makes it susceptible to degeneration? This author says yes, and the answer may be found in the spinal evolutionary mismatch.

Reviewing the anatomy of the spine makes clear that modern humans retain certain structure that is more adapted to quadrupedal motion.  The anterior longitudinal ligament of the spine is wider than the posterior longitudinal ligament. This design helped support a spine that was under tension caused by gravitational forces on the center of gravity that was positioned between the front and back legs. We have evolved to require more protection from the posterior longitudinal ligament. However, its smaller size does not provide the needed protection from the posterior spinal stresses associated with modern culture. Modern culture has created an environment in which we sit too much, exercise too little, are overweight, live longer and move improperly. This places more tension on the posterior part of the spine and stresses the spine in ways it has not evolved to be stressed.

The center part of the disc called the nucleus is positioned more center/posterior to compensate for the forces in the disc that would attempt to move the nucleus anterior when we were quadruped. Modern culture has created an environment in which we sit too much and bend forward at the spine to lift objects from the ground. Sitting and bending at the spine increase the compression forces anteriorly on the nucleus. This increased anterior force will cause the nucleus to move posteriorly over time. Without appropriate posterior longitudinal ligament restraint, the nervous tissue is vulnerable to impingement by the bulging nucleus.

The movable spine is made of 24 separate movable segments giving it great mobility. The muscle structure of the spine is designed to connect motion between the front and hind limbs during a time when we moved about the planet on all fours. The muscle structure is not designed to support significant mass or to be the prime lifter of heavy loads. As bipedal animals we require stability of our spines and it should be held in a straight and stable position when squatting. The tiny joints and muscles associated with the spinal column are not designed to lift heavy loads. Continuously using the spine to assist in lifting loads from the ground wears out the small joints of the spine. Over time these joints become arthritic and the associated degeneration can cause spinal stenosis.

Why is it common when learning to squat we attempt to perfect the hip hinge and lean forward at the torso? This very motion increases anterior disc pressure and it engages the erector spinae musculature as a prime lifter. The very things the spine is not evolved to tolerate. Think this is not true? Ask yourself, why can I back squat more than I can front squat? The forward position of the torso is a result of functional lower extremity muscle weakness, lack of hip joint awareness and poor lower extremity joint control. This muscle weakness and poor joint control make it much easier to bend the spine forward in an attempt to lower the center of mass within the base of support rather than to bend the hips and knees appropriately.


To prevent spinal problems avoid unsupported sitting for long periods of time, maintain a normal body mass index, maintain appropriate strength/body weight ratios, exercise with less spinal load, and learn to squat without “sticking your butt out”. Future blog articles will teach you to improve your core stability strength and how to squat properly.


David Luedeka DPT, CSCS, a practicing physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist, is the founder and creator of CKC Fitness System.


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Guest Sunday, 17 December 2017

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