Spinal Twisting: Is It Safe?

Ok, so I know this title probably has people all riled up, which means I have caught your attention. This is good, because I want to talk about a few positions I see people performing in their warm-ups and/or cool-downs that are not necessarily a good idea for their backs. 

I try to share the info when I can in person, but I can’t reach everyone.

Or sometimes, I just don’t have the time, for an array of reasons or the correct words for that person in that moment to say, “Um, excuse me, person I know or maybe I don’t know, could I offer you an alternative because what you’re doing is putting stress on your spine that will probably make it sad later–as in later today or 20 years from now?”

Sometimes people aren’t ready for that info in that moment–especially when it contradicts “conventional wisdom”. So I hope to spread the knowledge here and that it will continue to spread from one another so everyone can be in the know.

What’s the deal with twisting?

There is no straightforward answer to my question. It really is: it depends. It depends on where in the spine the twist is happening and if the twist is under load.

I should probably explain what I mean by “under load”. It’s not just whether you have a weight on your back or something like that. Twisting stretches, for example, place a load on parts of your spine simply by virtue of the positioning of your body. Your limbs–usually your legs–create a torque (twisting force) on parts of the vertebrae in your spine and that torque is a load.

Sadly many of people’s favorite stretches or exercises create rotation in their low backs. The lumbar spine’s (low back) main functions are flexion and extension–at 60º and 25º respectively–not rotation, which is only about 12-13º. Rotation through the lumbar spine is more dangerous than beneficial and places a lot of shear force on the facet joints of the lumbar spine. Additionally, the shear force and injury risk become significantly higher when we add rotation and extension of the lumbar spine into the mix1.

Which brings me to the first two movements I want to discuss with you: 

The Scorpion and the Seated/Lying Spinal Twist. 

In these two stretches, most of the rotation is happening in the lumbar spine, putting a lot of strain on our spines as discussed above. The thoracic spine (t-spine) is the section of the spine designed to rotate–about 40º in each direction–and is where we should focus our efforts for improving rotation.

Below I will provide some exercises for improving t-spine rotation, but first let’s talk about the above stretches and why you may have been doing them and what can substituted in their place to keep your backs healthy and happy.

Seated or Lying Spinal Twist

I am sure you felt the stretch somewhere in your shoulder or back, maybe even in your glutes. I know I did. 

Yes, I used to do this stretch, I even have used it in my group classes and my yoga classes. Now I have learned why I shouldn’t be doing this stretch and no longer use it personally, with clients or in my group classes. You live, you read the research and you learn. Then you hope you can help others.

Suggested Replacement for a shoulder and upper/mid back stretch: Eagle Arms (from yoga)

  • To perform Eagle Arms, bring one arm over the other and work towards getting the fingers of the bottom hand to touch the palm of your other hand. (Not everyone can do this based on arm length or forearm rotation, or sometimes this causes pain in the front of the shoulder. If that is you, do not perform this stretch.)
  • Once arms are intertwined, lift elbows up a little and protract your scapula, creating a stretch in your mid-back. Hold for 5-8 breaths, then switch which arms is on top.

Additional Suggested Replacement for upper back: Foam Rolling

Suggested Replacement for Glute Stretch

  • During the Figure 4 Glute Stretch, remember to flex the foot that is on the knee (to keep the ligaments in your knee happy) and to pull your knees to your chest with your bicep strength (and not by shrugging your shoulders to your ears).

Scorpion

Here’s another move that I used to do. Why? Mostly because it was taught to me as something good to do to stretch many things (as I am sure has been the experience for many of you).

I never really questioned it, until professionals whose work I respect gave me good reasons to question it.

Yes: I also have used this stretch in a group setting. I cringe now at the thought of it. But it happened and now, never again.

We already know this is not a good choice due to the lumbar spine being rotated and extended at the same time, putting the low back at a much higher risk of injury. Additional reasons that the scorpion is also not a good choice is it also places tremendous stress on the anterior capsule of the glenohumeral joint (shoulder socket), causing over-stretching of the joint capsule and ligaments of the anterior shoulder. This over-stretching of the joint capsule and ligaments over time could mean you’re creating a loose and unstable shoulder. Those are two things you don’t want in circus.

In this scorpion position, you may have felt a stretch in your pec and anterior shoulder, probably your hip flexor and maybe your abs.

Hopefully I have helped you see that this stretch, is not a good idea. Let’s look at some replacements.

Suggested Replacement: Pec stretch at a wall/door frame

Suggested Replacement: The True Hip Flexor Stretch.

This is my favorite hip flexor stretch, because it really targets the hip flexors and not your joint capsule or ligaments. I’ve talked about that in this blog post.

Where, oh, Where to Rotate?

The lumbar spine does rotate, but it’s the thoracic spine where the most spinal rotation happens. Your t-spine may not feel like it rotates that much and it actually may not rotate that much currently, but let’s work on that.

First, if you have limited t-spine rotation, there are some domino-type issues that tend to pop up. The lumbar spine tends to become a prime mover of rotation, which can cause pain in the low back, but aches and pains can pop up in the shoulder and neck as well because of the limited t-spine rotation. 

Lack of sufficient t-spine rotation can also limit overhead range of motion (ROM) of your arms–a phrase no circus artist or athlete wants to hear. When we don’t have full overhead ROM, we will then compensate with spinal extension to get our arms completely over head–this goes for whether you are hanging on a bar or doing a handstand. This extension of the spine can then become a host of other back issues. All the more reason to work on your thoracic spine rotation.

Add These T-Spine Rotation Exercises to Your Warm-up

I would suggest adding at least one exercise from each video, especially if you have limited overhead ROM. On the flip side if you can easily rotate your t-spine 45 degrees or more than you have good t-spine rotation and probably can skip these mobility drills.

You can make sure you are not rotating through your lumbar spine by making sure that your hips are flexed as shown in each exercise. For the kneeling t-spine rotations, sit back onto your heels as much as you comfortably can. For the side-lying exercises, make sure the leg on top of the foam roller has the hip flexed to at least 90 degrees.

There are other exercises and stretches that also aren’t the best for your backs that I will examine in future posts. So be on the look out for those in the coming months.

As always, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to leave a comment. If you want more personalized mobility training please contact me with the form below; I offer online and in-person training.

Be Well,

~Theresa

CPT, PN1, 200 RYT, FMS II, CFSC, FRCms, FRAs, Kinstretch



Reference 1: Shirley Sahrmann’s book “Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes” explains in greater detail how many degrees of rotation occur in the lumbar spine, pages 61-62 and why rotating the upper body in one direction and the lower body in opposite direction are very problematic, pages 71-72.

JOIN THE NEWSLETTER
I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )
Join the mailing list to join the community. Be the first to know when the latest fitness blogs or videos are posted. Receive info about upcoming circus and fitness workshops or where you can join any scheduled events!
No Spam Guaranteed.