Is Your Exercise Helping or Hindering Your Unwind?

Dr. Richard Martin

August 09, 2016

It’s a tricky question. The answer for most of us is probably a bit of both. But that’s not a ‘get out of jail free card’ (an excuse to do nothing). Two things I know for sure:

  1. Exercise is critical to a healthy body and mind.
  2. Stronger bodies unwind much smoother. Unwinding has been discussed in previous posts but in 44 words or less (and with no concern for punctuation) I’m referring to: ‘the layer by layer correction of musculoskeletal tangle created by bony misalignments that the body doesn’t have muscles pulling in the right direction to self-correct and the resultant compensatory twists and leans to keep those misalignments from creating instability or unmanageable tension or compression’.

The virtues of exercise have also been discussed elsewhere (and almost everywhere) so we won’t put that up for discussion here either.

So the questions are: What should I do? And how do I mitigate the negatives?

As far as what to do, my answer is simple: Do what you enjoy (and can make the time for). My twenties and thirties were largely inactive despite a string of stop-start attempts to get fit. Then I started CrossFit and have hardly missed a week in 3.5 years. I found something that’s kept me interested and involved. I’m improving. It may not be perfect but it keeps me in the game. That’s surely the most important thing, being consistent. Like most CrossFitters I have goals relating to those activities but really my most important one is quite long term: I want to better at 50 than I was at 40, so I’m happy to take it slow. When I turned 40 last year, I was pleased to be fitter, stronger and more mobile at 40 than I had been at 30. I wonder how long I can keep up that trend? I know unwinding is a key part of that but so too is consistency of exercise.

So, what’s your thing? We have runners, swimmers, gymmers, Crossfitters, F45ers, Pilates-ers and many more enjoying very functional unwinds. All of these things done well will help strengthen the all important mid-section (or core) among a myriad of other wonderful benefits. Pilates may be the best at following the below rules and unfortunately Yoga, deliberately left off the above list is the trickiest to manage (talk to your chiropractor for some specific help with making Yoga more workable). Whatever you choose, a couple of key tips for not re-setting the corrections we’ve achieved or are working on:

Avoid unchecked or excessive spinal flexion.

Flexion is forward bending or rounding of your spine. It’s a healthy, normal movement but one fraught with vulnerability. Under unconditioned loading, spinal flexion postures are very vulnerable to injury – anyone who’s ever had a trainer at the gym will have heard ‘don’t let your back round’. But even take the load out of the equation and spinal flexion manoeuvres are still vulnerable to the your best progress with your unwind. The spinal adjustments we make at your appointments are levering bones that are off of balance in a flexed or forward direction, back again. Hanging just our body weight into spinal flexion can often be enough to exaggerate these forward vertebrae in vulnerable or unstable parts of our unwind. The problem is these forward or recently corrected forward vertebrae present as buckle points over which locked up sections of the spine hang heavily and encourage further or returned movement in this problematic direction. So any weight that requires a flexed posture in set-up or execution is a definite no-no but I’d even suggest deep stretches in this direction are out too. Try instead controlled range of motion movements where you’re not really pulling into your end range but instead working within your easy to moderate range with activity on the front and back muscles of the body to help with stability (ask us to demo this if you can’t follow). Having said that, probably better to just avoid rounded spine stretches without good knowledge and careful progressions. Broadly speaking, when stretching, more is not always better – that extra flexibility may be at the cost of structural deficits rather than healthier muscles.

Avoid unchecked or excessive spinal extension.

Probably even more of a problem. Extension is when you arch your spine backward. It again is a healthy, normal movement but one fraught with vulnerability. It is mostly a concern in the lumbar spine (low back) but also through the thoracic spine (or mid back). These movements can cause issues with the facet joints (joints at the back of your vertebrae designed to help smooth movement tracking and keep the joint in check, not to bear significant weight) but will also create leverage that will push a spinal bones alignment forward which as stated above is the enemy to your unwind. If you can imagine, the bone at the deepest point in the arch gets pushed forward. These movements fall into two categories: unintentional poor form and vulnerable stretches. Stretches that hyperextend the spine like ‘cobra’ or ‘upward dog’ type poses will make stabilising your low back very difficult – again I propose lighter efforts with some counter-balance between back and front muscles (or just leave this one out!). From a poor form perspective, it’s over-extending (too much arch) in the low back at the top of a Deadlift or poorly balanced Olympic lift that could get you in trouble – guard with engaged abs and only go as heavy as you can avoid this. Similarly whether it be bench press or any overhead press or swing work (eg. kettle bells) the vulnerable way to cheat is to arch your mid-low back to engage the wrong muscle groups – you may get more weight up but its going to cause trouble. If you feel or see your rib cage lifting (getting further from your pelvic bone) you need technique work, not weight. Again, abdominals locking the rib cage into a fixed relationship with the pelvis is key.

A lot of this may need clarification and personalisation – please ask, we look forward to discussing this with you. We’ll cover some abdominal progressions to achieve these goals in a future addition.

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