Put your back into it!
December 10, 2012 3:28 PM   Subscribe

If it's bad to "lift with your back, not with your legs", then is it bad to do back hyperextensions on a roman chair with weights?

My posture looks like the guy on the left in this figure, and I want to stand like the guy on the right. However, I'm a little confused on how to accomplish this.

I've been working under the wrong impression that doing more push-ups will expand my chest and push my shoulders and back into alignment, and that sit-ups are generally helpful to posture. But this post I was reading says the exact opposite, "trained muscles will be more toned (tight and flexed) than your opposing muscles, thus pulling your frame into an unnatural and harmful posture... Equally, training your abs without training your obliques and back (or the rest of your core musculature) is training your trunk to curl forward, and pulling your vertebrae out of alignment. "

So it would seem that working my back and shoulders would work the other side and pull me back into a proper posture. My immediate thought is to do those roman chair exercises, basically the opposite of a sit up, and to hold some dumbbells while doing it.

Then I remembered that you're supposed to lift with your legs, not your back--in situations almost exactly like this. Is that information just wrong? Or will I hurt my back if I do these exercises?

P.S. I realize the blog is specifically telling me to do balanced, whole body workouts, and that is indeed my long term goal. However, I think I am already out of balance and need to do a little unbalanced training to get 'centered' again. That's not crazy, right?
posted by brenton to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My experience on weight training and posture has been that consistent, well-rounded workouts will improve your posture whether you have that as a goal or not. It just sort of happens. So if you've found a reasonable, safe program that you like, my suggestion would be for you to stick with it -- you'll probably get the results you want without having to tweak it a lot.
posted by asperity at 3:34 PM on December 10, 2012

Response by poster: Some day, I will have a consistent, well-rounded workout. Am I doomed to poor posture until that dream becomes a reality?
posted by brenton at 3:38 PM on December 10, 2012

Then I remembered that you're supposed to lift with your legs, not your back--in situations almost exactly like this. Is that information just wrong? Or will I hurt my back if I do these exercises?

That advice is for picking up stuff off the floor, and it's because your legs are stronger than your lower back. If you know how to maintain good form and you know how much weight you can manage, you can totally pick stuff up with your back without hurting yourself, but if it's something unknown/bulky/unwieldy, it's risky. Basically, that advice has nothing to do with weight training at all.

Balance is the key, in weights as it is everywhere. Your abs and your lower back should both get work - and hyperextensions are a totally reasonable partner with situps - and your chest and your middle back should both get work, which would involve rows of some sort to pair with whatever pushing work you're doing. (So, yes, doing pushups will not do what you want them to.)

It really sounds like you're flailing in a lot of directions at once, and could use some coherent training protocols. If you have the time/money for a good trainer, that's one option, but otherwise find a full-body workout and stick to it without any modifications for three to six months minimum. Don't try to make this stuff up when you have no grounding in the basic principles - it won't help, and it might hurt.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:43 PM on December 10, 2012

I believe that adage applies to lifting heavy objects off the ground, where it is advisable to lift most of the weight with your legs. If you do back extensions properly and with a reasonable amount of weight, you should not hurt your back.
posted by A Bad Catholic at 3:45 PM on December 10, 2012

Go to a climbing gym one day and see the rounded shoulders and hunched backs of those who use their backs much more than their chest, and you will see the answer as to whether focussing on one group of muscles pulls or pushes. (Here's an article about it)

As for your stated question - the reason we're told to lift with our legs and not our backs is that it's uncontrolled, and you can over-exert yourself. Doing back exercises in a safe, controlled manner, with the right amount of weight should be safe.

I have poor posture too, and pushups, lots of stretching and core workouts have been helpful. Good luck.
posted by sauril at 3:45 PM on December 10, 2012

However, I think I am already out of balance and need to do a little unbalanced training to get 'centered' again. That's not crazy, right?

And to address this specifically, a well-rounded workout will fix a balance problem to some extent, because the weaker muscles will gain faster than the stronger ones. Down the road a ways you may need to do some tweaking, but at this point a balanced, consistent workout is all you need.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:46 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to posture, but there are several schools of thought on vertebral flexion and extension. The latest conventional wisdom is that any significant flexion and extension of the vertebra exposes your vertebral discs to potentially unacceptable wear, and that the core muscles (including the abdominal muscles and the central/back muscles involved in the posterior chain) are largely stabilizing muscles anyway. This has lead to the thinking that it is safer and more appropriate to approach your core muscles with isometric exercises. For example, a lot of people really love planks and variations on them these days over crunches. With respect to back extension on a roman chair, again the recommendation if you are going to do this is to keep your spine in a neutral position throughout the movement rather than cranking between flexion and hyperextension -- to limit the range of motion to the hip. This will still work your ham strings and lower back. The same teaching applies to the other more "big gun" exercises of the posterior chain, deadlifts and low-bar squats. Conventional wisdom is to maintain neutral back position throughout the movement with these if you don't want to wreck your back.

While I subscribe to this line of thinking, I don't have data to back it up, not all experts believe it, and there are lots of people still doing crunches without necessarily sustaining injuries. I really can't speak to how your best to approach that sort of posture either. Just looking at it makes me think that if it's related to relative muscle imbalance, if anything it's the abs that might be the weak link there. The guy on the left (you) isn't curled forward, he's dragged into hyperextension at the lumbar spine. The counter muscles there aren't the shoulders or pecs, but the abs and hip flexors.
posted by drpynchon at 4:03 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

PaulBGoode and I were just discussing Roman chair back exercises in MeMail after this AskMe brought it up - if you're leaning forward toward your toes and down and then coming back up straight, it's fine (what I do). If you're either coming back up and leaning back too much or if you're not even going forward/down at all and are starting straight and leaning back, not good.
posted by vegartanipla at 4:22 PM on December 10, 2012

Response by poster: @sauril, it looks like that article blames the climbing hunch on using front muscles more. (Actually, this makes sense since I've always been naturally good at climbing walls and it's one of the most frequent exercises I get.)
posted by brenton at 4:36 PM on December 10, 2012

The image you linked is a case of anterior pelvic tilt, also known as lower crossed syndrome. It is the default posture for everyone who spends a lot of time sitting and doesn't pull heavy things on a regular basis.

If this is you, then your hip flexors and lumbar muscles are overtight, and your glutes and abdominals are weak. As in the image, there are likely other interrelated issues higher up your body which have come about to compensate for the pelvic tilt and keep you balanced, usually thoracic kyphosis, forward head posture and protracted scapulae: the body being one piece, all these misalignments tend to resolve at the same rate as your pelvic posture, and a good program of basic, progressive compound lifts will fix everything up relatively quickly.

Roman chair hyperextensions will do not specifically address these imbalances: while you're likely not doing any harm, there is a chance you're compounding the hypertonicity of your lumbar extensors, which you don't need, so you might want to lay off them for a while and just focus on movements that will directly address your misalignment issues: mainly squats, deadlifts and rows, and frequent stretching of the hip flexors and pectorals.

Write-up on APT.
T-Nipple: Neanderthal No More

Feel free to PM for any postural assessment info.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 5:30 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

The person in the picture you linked appears to have anterior pelvic tilt, which is a popular subject in the training community these days. You can use that as a search term, but this writeup (from the r/fitness FAQ) is very thorough. The basic approach to treating APT is to stretch the hip flexors and strengthen the glutes and abdominals, so weighted back extensions would not be the way to go.

And "lift with the legs, not the back" is basically a misstatement that gets repeated and leads to more confusion than it alleviates. A better statement might be "lift with the hips, not with the back," although the distinction might not be clear to everyone.

Bending at the waist to pick something up from the floor means using flexion/extension of the lumbar spine, which puts the disks at risk. But bending at the hips to pick something up, with a neutral lumbar spine supported by the core muscles, is both safe and efficient. Trying to lift something entirely with the knees in an attempt to keep the torso completely vertical is not, although this is how the aphorism is often interpreted. But that's neither here nor there, really.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:35 PM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Part of the problem with lifting stuff with your back instead of your legs is that you're rarely in proper alignment. People twist to throw the snow off the shovel, turn around as they grab the box of books off the floor, crane themselves into a corner to get at the end of the couch they're about to lift. They also use sudden, forceful, uncontrolled movements in an attempt to heft more weight than they could lift in a controlled manner. These kinds of things are way more likely to injure your back than a slow, controlled, well-aligned movement with a weight load based on your abilities rather than based on what furniture needs to be moved. I don't know whether back extension exercises are safe, but I definitely think they're safer than lifting random household/warehouse stuff using your back muscles.

Incidentally, I was taught long ago to do the back extensions in a roman chair with a small weight plate held to my chest with arms crossed. You don't need much weight to work the muscles, because it's so far out on the lever that is your upper body. I think dumbells dangling in your hands would provide a much different kind of stress, since they'd presumably hang downward at different angles to your body depending on what position you were at in the back extension.
posted by vytae at 5:35 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Esther Gokhale's book 8 steps to a pain free back has some suggestions that go counter to the prevailing "lift with your legs" wisdom. I also found the book very worthwhile in general for thinking about posture.

The book is fascinating in that it takes an anthropological approach, with really helpful photos and explanations that illustrate posture in various cultures (as well as young children.)
posted by spbmp at 7:37 PM on December 10, 2012

Vytae's description of how people hurt themselves matches what I've heard.

To answer your first question, about whether back extensions are safe: The reason employers say "lift with your legs" is that it's more reliable to say that than to transform employees into people with strong backs. People who can deadlift 1.5x their bodyweight with a neutral spine don't worry about "lifting with your back" for medium-weight objects, because their back is strong enough to handle it. If you start light and slowly, progressively increase the weight with which you deadlift (with proper form) or do back extensions (with proper form), you too can be strong enough to lift many things with your back. It's perfectly normal to do so.

However, I'm not sure back extensions will target the upper back as much as the lower back. Both are probably a weak point, but your upper back is a larger component in a hunched slouch, as I understand it.

To answer your broader question about posture: yes, doing a lot of push-ups without an associated pulling motion will probably make your problem worse instead of better. Instead, I recommend pull-ups with a focus on using your lats (as opposed to curling up into a hunched position as you pull yourself up), barbell or dumbbell rows, alongside deadlifts and squats and at least some pressing, such as push-ups, dips, bench press, and overhead press. The most straightforward way to get on this path is to buy a copy of Rippetoe and Kilgore's Starting Strength, read the wiki while it's in transit, get yourself a barbell and start lifting. The book goes into detail on a number of these points, and debunks several myths about the supposed dangers of lifting.

The exercises that keep me looking more like a human than the slouchy figure on the left in your image are squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups, alongside a stand-up desk at work and a 24/7 commitment to keeping good posture.
posted by daveliepmann at 8:29 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing the above advice regarding lower cross syndrome. The above link to Eric Cressey's Neanderthal No More article series is a great resource as well.

My go to regimen for helping people with this posture goes something like this:
  • Determine Pelvic Alignment and help activate glutes. (Can you squeeze your butt muscles? Do you compensate by putting pressure on your lower back?)
  • Use some glute bridges. Sometime restistance band x walks can help with activation. Try deer in the headlights.
  • Teach the hip hinge motion to avoid using lumbar flexion. (Try Dan John)
  • Teach hollow body position to avoid excessive lumbar extension/weight bearing. (Carl Paoli)
  • Work on various glute activation exercises.
  • Stretch out hip flexors. (3D Hipstretch, possible couach stretch, pigeon pose, frog pose, bird dogs, dirty dogs/fire hydrants.)
  • Do some ab work, mainly reverse crunches or wide leg raises. (Try to eliminate hip flexor recruitment.) (If hip flexors are an issue work with plank, stir the pot, hollow rockers.)
  • Work on thoracic mobility/shoulder mobility. (Can you raise your arms above your head without putting pressure on your lumbar spine?)
  • Shoulders: Wall Slides, No Money Exercise, Kettlebell Halos, Band Pull Aparts, Shoulder Pass Throughs.
  • Program in tons of facepulls, some rows, a bit of pull ups.
  • Work on strengthening the glutes, possibly hamstrings through the following exercises:
  • Dead Lifts, Romanian Dead Lifts, Trap Bar Dead Lits, Hip Thrusters, Russian Hard Style Kettlebell Swings.
Most of these should yield good results on google. Names you'll want to look for:
Eric Cressey
Gray Cook
Mike Robertson
Vladimir Janda
Mike Boyle
Kelly Starrett
Stuart McGill
Shirley Sahrman

Short Answer:
Stop sitting all the time. Use the computer less. Horizontal pulls. Deadlift variations. (Squats can be fine, but some people are too quad dominant.)

Good luck.
posted by Telf at 7:39 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older 5 doughnuts later, I'm ready to admit that I've...   |   HDD replacement macbook walk-thru Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.