Is Your Spine Holding Back Your Performance? Use These 4 Assessments to Find Out

Strength and conditioning coaches should make their clients aware of their limitations so they can consciously improve breathing, positions and fitness.

Assessment is a key part of training.

As trainers, we need to know our client's body so we don't overwork muscles due to imbalances, compensations, injuries, etc. For example, if your client can't squat with their feet together, there will be a slew of compensations throughout the body.

With assessments, particularly in group training session environments where we aren't afforded the luxury of much one-on-one time with each client, our primary objective is to fix the biggest red flag. Which one range of motion or stability issue can you improve that will give the client the biggest return on their time and energy?

Yes, you may have someone who doesn't possess complete range of motion at every joint and movement pattern, but your clients came to you to move and improve their fitness. Let's be honest, there's a limited amount of clients who want to come in and do corrective work for the entirety of a session.

We know most people should train the seven basic human movements regardless of what goal they have. We should all be able to squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, rotate and gait. And the common denominator within all these movements is the need for stability at the lumbar spine.

We care about the position of the spine first because it is a limiting factor to our central nervous system. Thus, it should be the first thing every coach looks at. The trunk is the chassis for the hip and shoulder. If you round or arch at the spine, you cannot be stable and you lose your capacity to breathe effectively.

If an individual has limited breathing, this will further perpetuate the cycle. They won't be able to utilize their diaphragm on inhalation and will lose out on lumbar stability. By utilizing the diaphragm on the inhalation, we create more stability at the lumbar spine (which is needed in kinetic chain theory), and enables the thoracic spine and hips to be the joints where more movement is initiated.

So before you get a client to squat, run, walk, plank or work out to failure, analyze their breathing. You'll help them create more tidal volume with every breath, create more stability and create a foundation for which everything else can be placed upon.

Here are four assessments you can use to assess help to make this happen.

Assessment 1: Breathing at Rest

Most of us sit in bad, hunched positions all day, encouraging the inefficiency of our breathing. This unfortunately creates loss of force, a lack of control in the engine that is the human body, and an environment where we simply cannot breathe as intended.

More specifically, common breathing issues include:

  • Missing the bottom end or top end of breath
  • Stiffness, having to work hard to get a deep breath
  • Increased fatigue and lactic acid build-up due to inability to breathe correctly, reducing athletic performance
  • A motor pattern fault that sees them breathe early in the chest

By assessing our clients' breathing at rest, we can identify if they are taking in deep efficient breaths while utilizing the diaphragm.

So what's the correct breathing sequence?

  • Stomach comes out on an inhale
  • Stomach go in on an exhale
  • Look to see if the chest or accessory muscles around the neck are moving excessively

At rest, most of the action of breathing should be driven by the diaphragm in this order:

  1. Belly
  2. Ribs
  3. Chest
  4. Low back

The breath should be as big as possible through the belly then off like a light switch. We want to see that mechanical recoil with a huge breath through the belly, then ribs, chest, low back, then off like a light switch. This breath at rest is your peak volume and you can't breathe like that when you are standing, squatting or under tension.

To encourage more efficient breathing, we can get the client performing 10 deep diaphragmatic breaths upon waking and before going to bed. This will be a great tool to help them sleep, as it will shift them into their parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the "rest and digest" system).

The harder you are bracing, the harder it is to breathe. The more you fully relax and breathe, the harder it will be to make tension. We should be able to breathe 80-90% when stabilized. Speaking of stabilization, that leads us to our next assessment.

Assessment 2: Breathing During Exercise

If someone can't breathe properly at rest, they will be breathing even less efficiently during movement. Most people can't breathe when they are stiff from the tightness of their muscles during exercise. But the best athletes can still breathe when stressed.

If you cannot breathe in a Plank or a Squat or standing with your butt squeezed in a neutral spine, you don't truly own that position. This will create compensations. If you don't have the position, you shouldn't practice in that poor position, as it will create additional compensations over time. And this has nothing to do with strength, it's about consistency. It needs to be practiced!

Enter the high plank test. Can you hold a High Plank with perfect technique, elbow pits forward with shoulder in external rotation, your butt squeezed feet together, shoulder blades protracted while moving as much air as possible in the appropriate sequence as above?

The stomach expands on the inhale and collapses on the exhale, letting the sponginess of the ribs and diaphragm perform the breathing for you with no breath holding at the top or bottom. Because if it is too hard for you, or you don't own that position just yet, you'll want to hold your breath.

Functional breathing equals improved functional movement.

Assessment 3: Lumbar Spine at Rest

Analyze the client's posture. Are they in a neutral spine? Are they overextended? If they are not neutral at the lumbar spine, their ribs will be out of position. If you change the rib position, you change the hip position, which changes hamstring attachment. If someone is overextended in the lumbar spine, the body will guard and create tight hamstrings (as the body is in fight or flight mode). This is just one example of the ripple effect that can be caused throughout the body when the lumbar spine is not in an optimal position.

If someone needs to work on lumbar spine position, here are a few fixes that should lead to improvement:

  • Teach them proper breathing (deep diaphragm breathing puts you into rest and digest and you will get better hamstring mobility.)
  • Gut smash (shown below). This loosens up hip flexor attachment to the lumbar spine.
  • Couch stretch (shown below). This stretches out the hip flexors and anterior fascial line, and everything is connected! If there is a limitation in their fascia and their plantar flexors, this will restrict the body!

Assessment 4: Lumbar Spine During Exercise

Once you start putting an individual through movement, such as having them put their arms overhead or having them squat, it will be pretty obvious if a person does not own a neutral position. Even with great focus and mind-body connection, it may still be a struggle for them, and they'll most likely default to holding their breath.

It's up to fitness professionals to juggle the balance between proficiency of the client's movement and progressively challenging them so that they can experience their desired training effect.

A coach can never go wrong with encouraging their client to limit time spent sitting and adding in physical practice of these positions of challenge. By making your client aware of their limitations, they can consciously go about improving breathing, positions, and their fitness under your guidance. Awareness precedes change, but an assessment creates the awareness that precedes change.

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