When we’re training people in a one-on-one or small group setting, opportunities to discuss the why behind the decision to include certain exercises in the program or how they relate to life and/or circus come up all the time. These weekly lessons are intended to provide those key pieces of information and explanation that make the training plan make sense.
The distinction I would like to make is that what we are doing here is training—not just working out. There’s method to the madness and these weekly lessons are intended to show just that.

So here it is: your spine is both designed to flex and extend (Yay! say the circus artists!) and at the same time, it doesn’t hold up well to repeated flexion and extension…under load (Huh? Say the contortionists and back-benders.)

Yes, it’s true: repeated loaded spinal flexion or extension (and we’re not even getting into end-range rotation right now) tends to eventually break down the intervertebral discs…which leads to disc herniations or bulges or degeneration.

Bad news.

We should clarify a bit: what exactly is loaded spinal flexion or extension?

Basically, it’s any time that you flex or extend your spine while under load.

Easy examples include any situation where you are holding or carrying a weight and your spine is not in ‘neutral’.

Movements like crunches, leg raises and just plain picking a weight up off the floor also amount to loading the spine while in flexion.

If we pause to think about it, circus arts ask us to do a fair number of things that load the spine while in flexion or extension.

Physics!

As a basic starting point, it’s important to appreciate that for just about any movement, force is going to be transmitted through the spine. In general, the ‘neutral’ curve of your spine is the ideal one for your spine to absorb and transmit force…

The thing is, of course, if your spine doesn’t maintain that ‘neutral’ shape, then it becomes a bit less than ideal for this. In practice, what this means is that the reason core strength is so important is because it’s your core musculature that stabilizes your spine.

The portion of your spine that most needs to be stable is your lumbar spine (your lower back).

If your core holds your spine relatively still, force is transmitted through your body efficiently and it means you get more movement relative to the amount of effort you put into it.

When your core doesn’t hold your spine in place very well, it results in energy leaks (which you will experience as less effective movement and seemingly, less strength than you want to have).

Fun fact: if your core isn’t holding your spine in a stable position, your nervous system perceives the extra movement between individual vertebrae as a threat to your spinal cord. The response of your nervous system is to reduce the amount of force you can generate and transmit through your shoulders and hips (because less force equals less of a threat).

Spinal health, core strength and all the bending and flexing that happens in circus

For the general fitness population, the training goal is to build core strength and control (because what good is strength if you don’t know how to use it?) with a view to minimizing just how much the lumbar spine flexes and bends (and rotates)  in any given movement.

This is just as important for circus folk.

Learning the rules…so that you know how to break them properly

However, circus also involves a lot of flexing and bending of the spine.

I am not going to tell you to stop it. (Because that would be silly). We are going to work on building your core strength—and most especially, control—so that your core is protecting and stabilizing your spine in whatever position you put it in.

So, here’s where this all gets real: monitoring your rib position

Conveniently, last week we focused on your breathing. In particular, we focused on how your (forceful) exhale triggers all of your core musculature (especially—ideally—your deep core musculature), which shifts your ribs down and in.

Kind of like your ribs are acting like a corset, cinching down into place.

If you stand up, put your feet together and squeeze your glutes as you exhale forcefully, your core should feel braced and strong.

And your ribs should drive down.

The trick, of course, is that any time (every time) you raise your arms above your head and try to generate some force, your ribs are going to want to flare upwards.

Don’t let them.

Think of your core as a canister. A canister of power.

The top of this canister is your diaphragm muscle.

The sides of the canister are made up of your transverse abdominis (which pretty much wraps all the way around you)…

And the bottom of the canister is your pelvic floor.

Perhaps a bit like a can of Coke (or some other beverage), you might be aware of how they can take quite a bit of compressive (straight down) force…unless there’s a dent in the side. Then the can crumples.

We can extend this particular metaphor to your core:

If you brace your core using the sequence described above, you will have created a strong position for your body.

If you were to reach overhead—say for a half-kneeling pulldown—and allow your ribs to flare…you would be breaking your ‘canister of power’ and allowing for an energy leak. (Not to mention creating a shear force between the vertebrae nearest to the ribs that are flaring. This isn’t such a good thing for the discs in between those vertebrae).

In your workout, the key now is to make sure that when you’re setting up for any given exercise, you make sure to brace your core and lock your ribs down. Be mindful of any subsequent movement that challenges your ability to keep your ribs down.

And then there’s circus…

As I mentioned above, circus involves many, many movements and positions that will require you to move out of a neutral spinal position. The challenge now will be to perform these movements while maintaining a degree of core engagement.

Think about this while you train this week and we’ll discuss this rather important concept more next week.