#PTonICE Daily Show – Tuesday, March 26th, 2024 – Multi-planar approach to loading the lumbar spine

In today’s episode of the PT on ICE Daily Show, Spine Division lead faculty member Brian Melrose discusses loading the lumbar spine in all planes as part of a judicious rehab plan, including anti-flexion, anti-rotation, and anti-sidebending exercises. Brian shares a progression sequence beginning with plank-based loading that advances to using external resistance, and culminates in intentionally loading the spine in suboptimal positions.

Take a listen or check out our full show notes on our blog at www.ptonice.com/blog.

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All right. Good morning, PT on Ice Daily Show. My name is Brian Melrose. I’m one of the lead faculty in the spine division, teaching both cervical and lumbar courses. I’m really stoked to be back here on a clinical Tuesday to talk about loading the lumbar spine in multiple planes. And where that really comes from is I was back in Windsor, Colorado. I was at the extremity management course. And I was listening to Lindsey Hughey talk about loading the rotator cuff. She was kind of discussing the idea of loading in different positions, loading in different speeds, and varying loads. And as I’m sitting there and I’m kind of marinating on the idea of loading in different planes and speeds, I thought to myself, why would the lumbar spine be any different? And what if we approached kind of loading the spine through that lens?

And so when you begin to think about how to make a comprehensive exercise program for individuals where you’re building resiliency in the spine, we have to consider that multi-planar approach. So something that would stress the spine into flexion, something that would stress the spine into extension, something for side bend, and then something for rotation. And so a full comprehensive exercise program would look like at least four exercises. And after that course, that’s really when I started messing with this concept in the clinic. And it’s been really helpful for a couple different populations. Number one is individuals that have had more chronic pain and you’re just trying to introduce exercise overall. I think jumping to things like, you know, the deadlift or a squat with a barbell can be a bit much for them. And so it’s a great way to start with some exercises and kind of progress them towards using weights and resistance. The other place where this is helpful, though, is when irritability is high. If you’ve been to any of our courses, we talk about how your interventions need to mirror the patient’s irritability. When the irritability is high, it may not be appropriate to have them using external resistance. It may not be appropriate for them to be loading at heavier loads. And so usually I like to start things, again, in a multi-planar sense with body weight and then move more towards dynamic movements. And the last population, where I think this concept helps a lot, is for individuals that are higher-end athletes, or folks that are already kind of squatting or deadlifting multiple times a week. I know for me, that’s a big issue with my powerlifting patient population and other skilled Olympic lifters and crossfitters. When they come into the clinic with back pain and I want to offer them some exercises that make their spine more resilient, they’re already loading the spine with the deadlift and with the squat a couple of times a week, my window of opportunity really begins to shrink just in terms of the type of exercises I can do with them. And so really, I think that’s where we have to identify kind of like a smaller lane in which we’re going to intervene and bring some new stress to the spine. And so for a lot of my power lifters, I like them to begin to consider loading into planes of side bend, like so frontal plane, transverse plane, looking at side bend and looking at rotatory movements. And so if we can kind of extrapolate this idea, then I want to kind of shift towards talking about what those exercises actually look like. And so I really like to begin, folks, in this space with doing a series of planks. And so I’m going to talk through a lot of different exercises in the next couple of minutes here, 12 in total, four, four, and four, and kind of describe how and when each of those are advantageous. But if you’re looking for what those exercises look like together, go ahead and head out to just our Instagram page and there’s a nice reel on there where you’ll see all these exercises kind of grouped together. So where do we start? Well, you know, if you’ve been to an ice course, you know that we want to eventually get to loading a little bit. It doesn’t have to be a barbell, but something with some resistance.

And so usually the first phase of this for me, level one is going to be more plank based. And so I’m thinking of getting the athlete or the patient in a position that’s pretty optimal for them in terms of it being a neutral spine, them just being able to maintain that position and not have heavy loads on board. And so level one typically starts for anti-flexion. I like doing a Chinese plank. And so typically you’re just going to elevate your heels and your shoulders on boxes or chairs of equal height to be benches in the gym. You can even place a dumbbell over the hips, which is going to introduce a little bit more of a flexion stress. as gravity kind of pulls the athlete down. They can do a longer hold here. It’s a little bit like an isometric. Again, if irritability is high, this is a great place to start if they can’t hinge over and grab a kettlebell or grab a barbell for a deadlift. So anti-flexion, the Chinese plank. For anti-extension, what we like here is getting a pull-up assistance band looped over the J-hooks of typically the squat rack. And I have the athlete kind of slide underneath that band and place it right over the lumbar spine. In a normal plank position, that’s then gonna pull the lumbar spine down towards the floor into an extended position. And so they’re gonna resist that. And so we get a nice anti-extension exercise. For side bend, all you’re gonna have that person do is just flip over to their side, still underneath the band, and they’re just gonna scoot it down from the lumbar spine down to the iliac crest. In this position, again, now the band is pulling the hips down towards the floor and they’re resisting that, so it’s an anti-side bend stress. The athlete or patient would have to get both sides there. Last is anti-rotation and I love defaulting to the nice old classic payloft press. I like loading this up pretty heavy with those bigger pull-up assistance bands. Loop it around the rig, get your feet nice and narrow and it’s a great way to just start to kind of get an athlete or again a patient that isn’t doing a ton of loading in the spine familiar with some of the muscles and some of the stabilization positions that they’ll be seeing later on in the plan of care. And so again, as rudimentary as it is, I love the payoff to partner with some of these plank exercises. And again, neutral spine location, a little bit of body weight, a little bit of band stress. This is a great way to kind of initiate things for a lot of our folks in the clinic.

Level two is really where I like to kind of again, take it up a notch. We’re now going to keep the spine in an optimal position, still hanging out again in a neutral brace spine, but we’re going to add some external resistance. And I think this is a big step for a lot of our folks. Again, we can’t leave them at bands and body weight. We have to progress them to getting their tissues stronger. And the only way we’re going to force that adaptation is if we begin to load. And so again, I think this is a good step. Even when irritability starts coming down, we can begin to load in this area. So our first anti-flexion exercise in this level two is gonna be just a kettlebell deadlift. And so for our individuals that are a little bit, you know, getting more inexperienced in the weight room, it’s a great way to get their hands on some weights, get them comfortable with some movement patterns, and again, stress the spine into a more flexed position. For higher-end athletes, they may not be able to tolerate the barbell at this stage as they kind of rehab an injury. And so the kettlebell allows them to get in the gym, do a little bit of work in a familiar sport-specific spot, and get the job done. So love the kettlebell deadlift for our anti-flexion exercise. For anti-extension, I want to kind of get a little bit more vertical. And so for my Olympic weightlifting athletes, I want to start working and challenging the spine for overhead positions. And so anti-extension for level two is going to be a tall kneeling overhead press with the band where the band is kind of fixed behind the athlete. And so as they come up all the way overhead, the band will pull them into extension and they’re going to have to stay nice and braced. So again, we got flexion, we got extension. For side bend level two, we’re going to go with a heavy kettlebell suitcase carry or march. And this is the one where I think we kind of underdose and don’t load up nearly enough. And so for this exercise, I have them get a big kettlebell, stand as tall as they can. We don’t want to lean. We don’t want it to look like we’re holding a heavy weight. And that may be enough of a stimulus for those athletes. They can feel the opposite side, again, stabilize. If they can progress towards doing a standing march or even a step up, a suitcase walk, those are all great ways to, again, challenge the spine in that side bend position. Last is rotation. And again, if you’ve been to an ice course, you know that we love the bird dog row. I think people underestimate how difficult this exercise is. And so again, if you’re looking to see what that one looks like, head over to the Instagram post, but you’re going to assume a bird dog position on top of the bench. The bottom hand is going to reach down and hold the weight. Usually start folks somewhere around 20 to 35 pounds, and then progress them all the way up to a good 40, 50 pounds here. If the athlete is in that position, as they lower, that’s gonna put a lot of rotatory force through the spine, and so we begin to, again, stabilize in an anti-rotation position. If your athletes are looking pretty good with this one, the only add-on I got here is do a faster drop. If you try that, you get this big rotatory moment, and the athlete is gonna have to really work on stabilizing the low back. And so level two looks just that way. Kettlebell deadlift, tall kneeling extension overhead with a band, we got the bird dog row, and then last we have that kettlebell march is typically what it ends up at. For a lot of our folks, this may be enough of a stimulus to get them again loading their spine and moving in optimal planes, but the job is not done yet.

The last piece is I think we have to begin to load the spine in suboptimal positions. So maybe we reduce load for that consideration, but when people tend to agitate or irritate their back, it’s sometimes doing lifting, but a lot of times it’s doing those everyday things. It’s reaching underneath the hood of the car, reaching into the back seat. bending to put your child in the car seat. Whatever it is, you’re probably not in a perfect neutral spine position most of the time. And when we work with our patients on getting them confident and comfortable loading the spine, I don’t want to create this idea of fragility outside of neutral. And so I think if we’re going to get our folks all the way to the finish line on this one, our last piece has to be a challenging level three, four group of exercises to challenge in all planes, but have folks start moving through a range of motion with load on board. That’s how we get full resiliency. And so the last group of four exercises here, is going to be starting with an anti flexion movement. But this time, there’s going to be a little bit of flexion on board. So the spine stays straight with a kettlebell swing, but we’re hinging at the hips quite a bit. And every time that heavier kettlebell comes down, there’s a pretty good flexion moment. And so I love to integrate this for a lot of my athletes that deadlift and even squat regularly, but aren’t doing more of a dynamic, volumized stress to the back. A lot of my powerlifters, you give them a kettlebell and they get smoked in about 10 reps. So females go heavy, 53. Males, 70 if that’s appropriate. If not, we’ll drop those down to 35 and 53. But a good kettlebell swing can really challenge the spine in that flexion position. For extension, I love the Reverse Hyper. Jordan did a great reel a couple weeks ago, kind of breaking down the value of the Reverse Hyper, as well as different ways to modify it for different athletes. We have one of those Westside Barbell Reverse Hypers in the clinic. And again, this is my go-to for loading the spine into a more extended position. It pendulums down, but then as the athlete kicks up, we’re not just going to neutral, we’re going all the way into extension and really challenging the tissues in a new position. So we got flexion, we got extension. What about rotation in this group? Well, I like the barbell rotation. So typically it’s going to be set up kind of more like a landmine position with the athlete standing tall. You can put a plate on there. I usually like starting folks anywhere from 10 to 25 pounds and work them up to 45 and they’re just going to rotate from hip Again, if you haven’t seen that one before, check out the Instagram post. There’s a good demo of that. And this can really begin to challenge the back in some different spots, right? We’re rotating up and down. You’re getting a little bit of hip shifting. The obliques are starting to work. This is a very challenging exercise for a lot of our athletes. The last thing would be doing side bend. And I don’t have a good name for this exercise, so I just call it kettlebell smiles. But you’re going to have the athlete get back in that suitcase hold position, and they’re just going to dip from one side all the way to the other with load on board. If you haven’t tried this one before, again, it’s going to feel a bit funky, but it really challenges the lumbar spine throughout the range of motion of side bend. And so typically, if you’ve got an athlete, again, towards level three, you’ve really given them that gift of fitness that we always talk about. At that point, I think they have a good, robust program where they have a group of exercises that challenges the lumbar spine in all planes. If things get irritable, they can always default back to level one. They can have a nice steady training stimulus once a week with level two in terms of some resistance on board, but staying in an optimal position. And then once a week, maybe they dance up and begin to load the spine in some of these ranges of motion. And I think if we can give all of our patients that have lumbar spine pain and are looking to get a stronger back, these kind of group of exercises, they tend to just progress much, much better than someone that’s only doing deadlifting. The deadlift will always be king in terms of exercise, but our patients that get these groups of exercises, we give them that window that they’re missing and we can get a lot more resiliency in the spine. So check out that Instagram post for more details. Um, hopefully this was helpful. Um, I’m going to keep piggybacking on this concept and do probably another podcast in a couple of weeks here. I’m talking about considerations for loading everything from volume and dosage to working at different speeds and even considering fatigue. Cause I think that’s where I want most of our patients that have had either chronic or ongoing back symptoms to be resilient is when they’re gassed. Because that’s when things get a little bit sloppy. So we’ll be getting those topics in the future. I hope you guys all have a wonderful Tuesday morning. Thanks for joining us. We got a couple courses coming up in the next couple weeks here. We got cervical out in Carson City, Nevada. Zach Morgan will be out in Hendersonville at his home turf. So check those things out. And again, I hope you have a great morning. Thanks for joining.

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