Master the Hip Hinge To Protect and Strengthen Your Lower Back
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Learning how to hinge from the hips is the difference between putting lifting stresses in your lower body and your lower back.
The lower trunk contains some of the largest and most powerful muscles of the body. It is designed to handle large loads. The problem is that we don't typically leverage these strong muscles properly and we end up kicking into our lower back muscles instead which are much smaller and less powerful by comparison. (Not to mention that it leads to pain and injury).
So if you can learn to hinge at the hips and control your glutes properly, you not only minimize your lower back injury risk but you strengthen your lumbar spine and make it more durable in the long run.
Priority #1 - Learn how to create a neutral spine
Having a neutral spine simply means that you're maintaining a position that goes along with the spine's natural curves.
The cervical and lumbar spines are naturally lordotic (arched) while the thoracic spine is naturally kyphotic (rounded).
Here are three drills you can use to practice holding and bracing from a neutral spine position.
Dowel hip hinge
Having a dowel for feedback allows you to tell whether you're actually maintaining a neutral spine when it otherwise might be hard to tell.
It can be done in a kneeling (easier) or standing (harder) position based on your skill level.
To understand what a neutral spine is you need to explore your spine's range of motion. This pose, originating from yoga, puts your spine through flexion and extension. A neutral spine is the in-between of flexion and extension and learning what these ranges feel like makes it easier to lock into that correct position. Make sure you know what each motion feels like.
Priority #2 - Learn how to use your glutes
As I mentioned before, leveraging your large powerful leg muscles is key to protecting your lower back. And your glutes are the largest most powerful muscle in your body.
A few of my favourite glute activation exercises (in order of progression) are:
Hip extensions (can be progressed with banded resistance)
Glute bridges (can be progressed with weights or single leg variations)
Box Squats (can be progressed with load and box height)
Kettlebell Swings (can be progressed with load, speed, or single-arm variations)
A couple of key cues I like to use for these exercises are:
- push the floor away with your legs
- drive your hips forward at the top
- drive from your heel/mid-foot
Priority #3 - Don't forget about your core
Your core muscles are responsible for bracing and holding your spine in position. Even when you follow the above priorities there is going to be some force (the weight of an object) that is going to try to pull you out a neutral position and get you to deactivate your glutes. Your core helps you maintain correct positioning in order to leverage the appropriate muscles.
There are three main ways you want to challenge your core in order to train it to resist forces from different angles. This way, you cover your bases to best protect your back.
Plank - anti-extension (can be regressed to the knees)
This core exercise is excellent for learning how to brace with your abdominals in order to maintain that neutral spine, a key skill when you progress to hingeing with an increased load.
Side plank - anti-lateral flexion (can be regressed to the knees)
This exercise trains resistance to lateral forces that attempt to flex your spine to the side. Your obliques will be activated more so than your main front-facing abdominal muscles.
Pallof press - anti-rotation (can be done with bands or cables)
Learning how to avoid twisting stresses is the key point of this exercise. If rotation does happen when lifting, you want it to happen in your hips and not in your lumbar spine.
Putting it all together - the deadlift
The deadlift as an exercise best represents what we want to happen when we pick things up. A nice neutral spine and flat back, a tight and engaged core, and a main driving force from the lower body.
It is the quintessential hip hinge movement.
If you know how to deadlift properly, then you know how to protect your back inside and outside of the gym. Even if you're not able to perform it with heavy load on a barbell, it can be done with a variety of tools including dumbbells, kettlebells, and household objects.
Proper progression and coaching are necessary in order to perform the movement correctly and following the above priorities act as progressive steps for you to reach this point.
The bottom line is that if you learn how to hip hinge properly, you will strengthen your lower back and glutes while making your lower back and spine more durable and injury-resistant.
If you want expert coaching to learn how to move and perform optimally both inside and outside of the gym, reach out and book a free consultation to review your goals and create a tailored program to reach them.
To your good health,
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