Spinal Loading

This article is going to be focused on educating on the topic of load placed on the spine. I refer to this as “spinal loading.”

The reason I decided to write an article based on spinal loading is actually because of a conversation I had with a guy at the gym the other day. As I was working through a superset of Front Squats paired with rear-foot elevated split squats, a man came up to me and asked me for some advice on lower-body training. This guy seemed to be in above-average shape, in his mid-twenties, and told me he has had 6 disc injuries in his back (SIX!!!!). He went on to explain how he just can’t seem to get comfortable in any type of squat anymore, neither back nor front squats. So I asked him what I think is one of the most important questions that most seem to ignore when deciding what or how they will train: “What are you training for?”

I need the reader to ask this question. What are you training for? Are you training for a powerlifting meet? To look good when you take your shirt off on vacation? To tear it up in your sport this season? Why are you training? This question must be asked. The answer to this question should be the basis of everything you do when you enter the gym.

“Purposeful living requires intentional living.” Believe that! You must walk with intention in every facet of life if you intend to align yourself with your purpose.

As I was saying, the man answered the question with relation to the vacation scenario. So, I offered my opinion, and his surprised reaction was like most when I said it. “Stop Barbell squatting.” If you have no upcoming lifting meet or season to prepare for, you are adding an unnecessary, unhealthy load to your already injured spine. A load that could easily be decreased by eliminating barbell squats.

Notice I said stop BARBELL squatting. This is where controversy from the “muscle-head” strength guy comes because barbell squatting is the sacred-cow of lower body training. There are more ways to train the quads than barbell squats. Squatting is a movement pattern. I aim to expand your knowledge on more ways to execute this pattern. Before doing so, let's dig into what barbell squatting does to the spine.

World renowned strength-coach, Michael Boyle, who I thoroughly follow and study, refers to a barbell on your neck as a “torque-generator” that adds direct compression to your spine. Adding heavy load to the barbell, only increases the compression placed on the spine, not to mention the amount of shear and torque forces placed on the discs, the vertebrae, and the entire spinal column.

Over time, if you continually barbell squat and compress, as well as torque on your spine, the greater the increase placed on the lower-back joints, which increases the chance of an overuse injury in the small structures of the lower back such as the discs. This doesn’t become a matter of if, but when.

When you start getting to heavy loading, the injury area is always the low-back. Your number one job as an athlete, as a strength-coach, as a trainer, etc., is to stay healthy. If we know the lower-back is the common area of injury with the squat, why wouldn’t we do all we can to protect that area? The spine is a very unforgiving body part. It has specific functions, and duties. We must learn to AT LEAST decrease the load, shear, compression, and torque placed on the spine to protect it.

Finally, I am NOT saying for everyone to completely stop barbell squatting. As you heard from my conversation with the man, I was hitting barbell front squats. I’m simply writing this to educate the reader on the topic, and suggest to barbell squat LESS. For me, I currently barbell squat every other week, if that often. In other words, if you don’t have a direct reason to barbell squat, take this information into consideration when designing your training schedule. Become “spine conscious” in your training and protect the health of your spine.

Protect your long-term health by decreasing the amount of time your spine is placed under heavy load.

There are many ways to deload the spine and expand your squat pattern training. Check out my next article for specific exercises that deload your spine, and in my opinion, specifically make your quads STRONGER than a barbell squat can.