Science of Performance: Lumbar Illusions Part I

By G. John Mullen of Swimming Science and Center of Optimal Restoration, Creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System, Monthly Swimming Research Review Swimming World correspondent

SANTA CLARA, California, May 29. “JOHN, I remember when I was able to do fly, but now my back hurts.” – Anonymous 40-year old Masters swimmer

“Dr. J, I used to do fly all day, but now my back hurts.” – Melodramatic 13-year old swimmer

“GJohn, you may still do fly, but you’ll have to stop when you get older and it hurts.” – 200-pound swim coach

Despite all the name variety, these are only a few conversations I’ve had with swimmers ranging in age on the pool deck about their low back pain. After great feedback on the two styles of fly article, I want to discuss common misconceptions about low back pain. These lumbar illusions typically keep swimmers out of the pool, preventing them from swimming their favorite stroke, fly.

Low back pain is not specific to swimming as it affects nearly everyone throughout their lifetime, making the likelihood of you having low back pain in your life nearly certain. However, low back trepidation isn’t necessary because many lies and illusions are likely causing or feeding into your low back pain.

I know many successful flyers that have pushed through the pain, when a few simple adjustments at the onset of pain would allow them to do the stroke they love. So, quit rubbing your low back, cursing your coach, and fix these lumbar illusions for optimal back performance and chronic fly success.

Lumbar Illusions
1. Lumbar Flexibility is Good – This common flaw plagues many swim programs as they excessively stretch the low back and spine. As, I walk on various pool decks I cringe during the poor stretches performed by swimmers guided by uninformed coaches!

Not much is known about low back pain, but low back pain flexibility puts you at a higher risk for injury! Therefore, make sure you are not directly stretching the lumbar spine! The muscles of the core must allow the transfer of power, therefore the low back must be stable!

Dr. Prins of the University of Hawaii has done a lot of research on stability of the core in and out of the water and if you want to generate force it is essential to have a stable low back!

Many think the low back needs excessive movement to create a sinusoidal wave during butterfly. This large range of motion is a misconception, as the mid-back (thoracic spine) and hips allow a chest driven flyer to transmit force from their finger tips to their toes.

Don’t get me wrong, the low back moves, but the more range of motion an athlete has, the more core stability they need through the whole range of motion. If you attempt to create excessive range of motion through the low back, then you are going to overact your low back muscles, a prerequisite for low back pain!

2. Core Strength is Everything – Core stability is essential, but minimal research shows pure core strength prevents low back pain. Instead, core endurance and muscle timing are indicative of low back pain.

Make sure during your dryland programs you address these issues with minimal stress on the lumbar spine. Too often coaches do not do enough core stability exercises or give exercises where swimmers easily cheat and compensate with other muscles. Make sure the core is being stressed during core exercises!

An athlete is programmed to finish the exercise, but as Bill Sweetenham commonly says “skill perfection before skill acquisition”. As for muscle timing, in those with injured spines a lot of research shows alterations in muscle activation compared to those without low back pain. Therefore, teaching athletes to utilize simultaneous core and hip/or mid-back range of motion teaches joint differentiation.

3. Draw-in your Belly for maximal core activation! While we’re on the topic of strength, if you are teaching your athletes to draw-in their belly for maximal contraction they will never develop core strength or endurance! This fallacy was thought to improve transverse abdominus strength, but is highly flawed as it minimally contracts the core muscles.

Moreover, the draw-in method is too abstract. Athletes (especially age-group) need feedback to understand topics. Drawing-in the abs only leaves swimmers light-headed and disconnected. Instead, swimmers must brace their abdominals for maximal contraction, ensuring core stability for maximal strength and endurance gains.

At COR, we are advocates of teaching core bracing with flexion-bias exercises. This is different from many strength coaches and rehabilitative specialist’s view, but this forces a maximal contraction of the abdominals, allows the lumbar extensors to relax (via reciprocal inhibition), and puts the spine in a straight-line, all essential for swimming. Plus, this position gives swimmers tactile feedback during the beginner exercises accelerating learning and core activation.

4. Sit-ups are good – The old sit-up debate is an old fight among everyone who stepped into a gym. Many coaches have swimmers do sit-ups until their blue in the face. I admit, I even prescribe certain forms of sit-ups with our athletes, but it is important to reiterate point #2, make sure your swimmers are not cheating. Poor movement patterns and hinging at the low back and increasing lumbar instability, potentially leading to point #1.

If you are having your athletes do the sit-up make sure they are, 1) not moving from their low back, 2) lifting towards the ceiling, not towards the knees to prevent lumbar flexion, 3) relaxing the shoulders and neck.

If these items are present, then sit-ups aren’t evil, but by no means should be the only form of core strengthening in your dryland program!

5. Imaging=Symptoms – It has been estimated 85 percent of low back pain has no definitive diagnosis. Our society promotes the quick easy solution. This is a societal issue stemmed from instance gratification and the ease of information.

Unfortunately, there are not many answers surrounding low back pain and the thought that imaging provides the answer is incorrect. If you image any one older than 20 years of age, you are going to find disc herniations! This may disturb some of you, but herniations occur to everyone as the spine is only able to maintain so much stress.

If you are an athlete, you are more likely to have a herniation, because you put your low back through much more stress than an everyday person. If you’re a butterflyer, think of all the lumbar movement you’ve had in your career! However, not every flyer has low back pain, therefore having herinations and stressing your back is not the cause of all low back pain. This uncertainty is confusing, but important.

Next week, I’ll discuss more lumbar illusions plaguing pool decks and forcing swimmers away from the graceful butterfly.

If you have back pain and live in the Bay Area, get advice from someone who knows swimming and drop by COR today!

G. John Mullen is the owner of the COR and creator of Swimming Science. He received his doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal.