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Expert Answers On Spine Rotation

Q | My trainer is picky about how I rotate my spine during strength training. Does it really matter?

A | Yes. You naturally rotate your spine during everyday activities and sports, so it makes sense to include spine-rotational movements during exercise. But anytime you twist with a loaded spine (meaning your spine is supporting forces greater than your own body weight), you run the risk of injury, says Charlie Weingroff, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist and trainer in New York City.

Both for safety and form, it’s important that you’re rotating the appropriate part of your spine.

Only your thoracic spine (which consists of the 12 vertebrae in your upper and middle back) is designed to rotate significantly — about 40 degrees in each direction, according to Weingroff — when under compression. The lumbar spine (lower back) should rotate no more than about 12 degrees.

“If you’re doing an exercise such as a woodchop, you want the movement to come from your hips and thoracic spine,” says Weingroff. “But many people compensate and move from their lower back.”

If you’re not sure where you’re moving from, notice where you feel sore after a rotational exercise. If it’s your lower back, adjust your form, lighten the load, or avoid the exercise, Weingroff says. (See below for a simple thoracic-mobility test, or consult your trainer for more guidance.)

Finally, avoid performing loaded rotational exercises while in a seated position, advises Weingroff.

As soon as you sit, you add more weight through your spine. “If you try to rotate, your entire body is compressed,” he says. “This can lead to injury, such as disc issues, and to lower-back pain.”

Thoracic-Spine Test

Start in the child’s pose: Kneel on the floor with your feet at about hip width and your toes touching. Sit back onto your heels and fold forward, resting your torso between your thighs.

Place your left forearm on the ground. Lift your right arm and place your right hand behind your head.

Rotate to your right, allowing your right elbow to point upward. Your right shoulder should create a 45-degree angle to the ground.

If the angle formed by your right shoulder is less than 45 degrees, you may lack mobility in your thoracic spine, making it likely that you will compensate during exercise by twisting from your lumbar spine. (For more on correcting thoracic immobility, see “Back in Trouble”.

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