You’ve seen them at the gym – the colorful foam blocks primarily used in yoga and Pilates. A foam block can help less flexible clients avoid unsupported forward flexion.
What is unsupported forward flexion? It’s hanging like a rag doll, bent over at the waist. Loose as a goose, the lumbar spine is flexing, arms dangling.
Controversial high risk exercise. Look in any personal training textbook or study guide – personal trainers are instructed to avoid putting clients in unsupported forward flexion of the lumbar spine. Whether stretching the low back or working the midback muscles the message is clear – do not let clients hang at the waist.
Danger to the spine. Unsupported lateral flexion over stretches the long ligaments of the spine. Spinal stability decreases and risk of injury sky rockets. The same is true of unsupported spinal flexion with rotation. Other controversial moves that put the spine at risk of injury are unsupported lateral flexion and extreme lumbar hyperextension. Talk to your clients about proper body mechanics for every day activities but overestimate the strength and flexibility of a client’s spine and you risk more than just a muscle strain.
Use a block. Instead of bending over and dangling, rest the hands on a yoga block. Easy solution! With your hands on a block you’re now supported. The block protects the spine from over stretching and helps the hamstrings to relax. Try it with your clients and bring them into a deeper stretch.
Other ways to modify the forward bend. When having a client stretch the low back, they need support. When putting a client in a bent over position to perform a particular exercise, that client needs the back strength and flexibility to hold themselves at a flat back for the duration of the exercise. Avoid putting any spine at risk of injury with these personal trainer back safety tips.
- Teach clients to hinge correctly at the hips to maintain a flat back - keep them from falling into a rounded back or rag doll position!
- Throughout the exercise remind and encourage clients to keep their spine in neutral.
- Have clients place one or both hands on the thighs or shins for support when an exercise allows – think reverse flys and tricep kickbacks.
- Avoid having clients hold weights in a bent over position and stick to bands or machines to get the resistance in the direction you want it.
- Whenever possible, forward flexion should be avoided or modified, especially for clients with pre-existing conditions (like history of low back pain).
Message to Beginner Trainers. Personal fitness trainers should be aware of moves that pose a higher risk for the low back and if you and your client are new to each other or your client is new to working out – avoid any and all exercise hazards for the low back. Avoid asking beginner clients to perform the following exercises and try one of the exercises I recommend instead:
- Instead of bilateral bent over rows, try unilateral bent over rows with one hand on a bench or thigh. Some clients will still complain of low back discomfort on this one so I go after the low-row machine whenever I can with them, or I’ll set clients up with a resistance band for low rows.
- Avoid bilateral bent over reverse flys - proper form is too hard for most to get right anyway. Try performing the reverse fly face down on a stability ball or set your client up for a high row with an exercise band.
- Instead of bilateral tricep kickbacks, try an overhead tricep press or skull crusher to target the triceps.
- Replace Romanian dead lifts with a different hamstring exercise, like hamstring bridges or leg curls.
- No trainer would even think of setting a beginner up with the good-morning exercise (very taxing on the low back) but any similarly challenging or potentially harmful exercise for the hamstrings or low back could be replaced with a variation of the hamstring bridge.