Science of Performance: Lumbar Illusions Part II

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, June 8. After reading part I, you’re probably thinking to yourself “Man, everything I’ve been doing for low back pain is wrong!” Well, it’s better to learn earlier than later when it comes to back pain. Enough small talk … let’s get into more lumbar illusions.

1. Low Back Strength Improves Back Pain – This common myth surrounds swimming pools and rehabilitation specialist. Unfortunately, many injured swimmers suffer from over activity of the low back muscles, leading to spasms, and pain. Why would you want to increase the low back tightness with activating these muscles? Instead, it is essential to improve the muscle tissue quality with soft tissue mobilizations. Improving soft tissue of the quadratus lumborum, tensor fascia latae, piriformis, iliotibial band, and psoas major are essential for core health. Lay off the back extensions, improve the tissue quality instead. Checkout Dryland Tip: tennis ball TFL and Dryland Tip: tennis ball Quadratus Lumborum.

2. Kicking with a Board is good for your back – Many coaches default to kicking with a board during any injury. Unfortunately, kicking with a board isn’t just bad for your shoulder (Science of Performance: Return from shoulder injury part III), but it is bad for the low back. Many swimmers hop on a board and hold their back in stagnant extension. This extension increases activity of the low back and increases the stress at the low back. Also, fins are not good for low back pain. Fin kicking increases the hyperextension torque, requiring the demand on the core.

Unfortunately, those with low back pain often have poor core stability and the hyperextension torque is not matched with core strength, increasing low back stress. If you have low back pain, ditch the board and learn how to stabilize your body without the board. Kicking without a board is just as beneficial as with a board, potentially more as it works your stability and body position.

3. Pulling is good for your back – While we’re on things in the pool, pulling with a pull-buoy also increases low back stress by forcing the swimmer in a static extension position. The pull-buoy elevates the hips as a flotation device, causing the hips to rise above the butt and extending the low back. Once again, this arches the low back and causes extra strain at the spot of injury. DON’T INCREASE THE STRESS ON THE LOW BACK!

4. Swimming is good for the back – Swimming is commonly prescribed for those with low back pain. Luckily, this statement is partially true as swimming has low compressive forces, but poor swimming technique increases low back shear stress, as seen in those with wiggly hips. Shear stress is any twisting or side-to-side rubbing of the low back. Studies suggest the low back buckles under approximately 1/10 the force as compressive loads. Therefore, the cumulative forces of repeated shear stress from poor long axis strokes greatly increase the strain on the low back. I find it entertaining that many coaches are afraid to perform weights with their swimmers, but in the pool they are wiggling and shaking their hips down the pool, causing more strain than a 300 pound squat! Shear stress is our enemy, so make sure your athletes have proper rotation in the pool!

5. Unstable surfaces improve core strength – Unstable surfaces are a big hit among swimmers. The thought is “swimming occurs in water which is unstable; therefore, we must train our core in an unstable position”. This thought is down the right line, but unfortunately many swimmers are unable to handle the difficulty of unstable surface training and their low back muscles become over-active once again. Unfortunately, it is believed unstable surface training increases the risk of low back demand and spine stress. Moreover, the carryover of performing squats on a Bosu ball to swimming is scarce and is an injury-risk. Remember, the number one goal of dryland is to keep swimmers healthy for pool training.

Lumbar illusions happen everywhere in weight rooms and around the pool deck. Unfortunately, they increase our risk of low back pain. The next installment will provide a few lumbar answers for these illusions!

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.