The #1 Lifting Error Seen in Every Crossfit/Lifting Gym
The counter intuitive movement that is causing most back injuries
Set up and clean up are where the most glaring lifting faults happen
Can light weight with broken form cause injury?
How we lift heavy things is how we should lift everything Despite my general dislike for the lift in the title graphic, this post isn't going to attack the sumo deadlift high pull. In fact, it's not going to address the deadlift, snatch, clean, squat, or any of primary movements in Crossfit. I am a firm believer that almost every exercise has an appropriate time and place when it is performed well and programmed appropriately. Despite the bad rap that Crossfit has gotten for poor instruction, most Crossfit coaches and long time Crossfit enthusiasts actually understand the general mechanics and teaching of the primary movements. My beef in this post has to do with what happens BEFORE and AFTER workouts.
Set-Up and Clean-Up: Where Good Form Becomes Trash So let's talk about what happens for the average Crossfitter when they're about to perform a heavy lift off the ground. Imagine the times in your life where you are lifting something for 90%+ of your 1-rep max:
You approach the weight straight-on to optimize the direction of force.
You hinge from the hips to grab the weight.
You create a straight lumbar and thoracic spine making sure you reduce your back curvatures as much as possible.
You breathe in and brace your abdominals.
You lift and generate a powerful upward force through your hips Whether you nailed the lift or missed it, you complete the attempt satisfied that you at least had decent form and that you'll be back to lift another day. Time for clean-up:
You reach down to the bar lumbar and thoracic spine fully curved
You pick up the bar slightly with at an odd angle with no abdominal brace whatsoever
You pull the 45 lb plate off the bar with a relaxed hunch back and load all of the lumbar soft tissue
You reach down and grab the 45 lb plate flat off the ground again with a curved back, lifting almost entirely from the lumbar spine.
Repeat until all of your weight is gone
"Dr. Chung, those weights are light. They can't hurt me." For the coaches and experienced lifters who are reading this: you know you would never let someone get away with a slouched posture when you are teaching them to deadlift. It doesn't matter what fitness level that person is in, you know that lifting with a rounded spine is mechanically flawed, so you will always give them cues to change their pattern, even if it was an unloaded barbell. There's an interesting thing that happens to a trained lifter as you add more weight to a barbell. Instinctively, you know that if you don't brace your abdomen and bring your spine close to neutral, you will be unable to get the weight off the ground. Plus, you know your back will become more exposed to danger. There are couple of things that happen when you lift with an unbraced spine: 1. You exponentially increase the amount of shear force going into the lumbar spine. Shear is when you have part of your back moving one way, and another part moving in the opposite direction. In of itself it's not bad, but when you add compression by picking up a weight or applying load, it's like rubbing sand paper against each other....except the sand paper will be your discs and ligaments. Just as an example, the deadlift on the image on the above left may place about 2000 N of shear force into the lifter's back, while a braced spine can reduce that force down to 200 N. When you keep your back close to neutral, you activate your extensor muscles which help to reduce that shearing force to the disc and ligaments. Rule of thumb: muscles like to be loaded, but ligaments and discs are sort of like a "break in case of emergency" system, you want to load them lightly, and not terribly often. 2. Repeated rounding of the back (flexion) peels away layers of your spinal discs. This is why sit ups are generally an exercise that is associated with back pain because the repeated flexion has the ability to peel away layers from the discs like an onion. This creates a weakening of the disc tissue which can increase the liklihood of herniation. The muscles of your trunk are designed to prevent the veretebrae from moving too much. The muscles of the trunk are best utilized to create stiffness and to resist bending under load. Approaching weights with a braced, neutral spine is the body's defense to load. Doing static trunk holds like a plank instead of repeated bending motions (sit ups, toes to bar) can save these layers in your discs. When you are lifting heavy objects, you are doing it for less repetitions, and your'e also more likely to lift with a braced spine. When are lifting light objects, or just going through the motions of clean up, you are lifting for a higher number of reps with a spine that's less likely to be protected. In a way, you may be placing MORE shear forces into your spine lifting a 45 lb plate off the ground unprotected, than lifting a 135 lb bar off the ground with a braced spine. You're also picking up that 45 lb plate off the ground with broken mechanics day after day. Remember that it's USUALLY the slow and gradual wear and tear that ends up hurting people. You may not hurt yourself while cleaning up equipment, but you are creating an environment that can make a back injury increasingly likely. I have patients that tell me all the time:
"I went down to pick up a pillow, and then my back just seized on me" It's really unlikely that the pillow itself caused the back to go out. The truth is that the discs and tissues of the back were degenerating for a long time before that incident.